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When Is Black “Black” Redux (Unconventional Wisdom)

“One of the ways that I think that the civil rights movement . . . weakened itself was by enforcing a single way of being black — being authentically black,” Obama said.

“And, as a consequence, there were a whole bunch of young black people — and I fell prey to this for a time when I was a teenager — who thought that if you were really ‘down’ you had to be a certain way. And oftentimes that was anti-something. You defined yourself by being against things as opposed to what you were for. And I think now young people realize, you know what, being African American can mean a whole range of things. There’s a whole bunch of possibilities out there for how you want to live your life, what values you want to express, who you choose to interact with.”

— A quote from President Obama from Eugene Robinson’s column (via Richard Prince’s Journalisms)

I once wrote a column called “The Sell-Out” where I used the metaphor of slave liberator Harriet Tubman’s gun being pointed at anyone who dared to get off the trail of the Underground Railroad and risk everyone’s lives and freedom in their cowardice. I wrote that while maintaining a semblance of unity in Black America is no longer a life or death proposition, we still have Harriet’s gun pointed at one another, prepared the shoot the minute someone is perceived to get out of line. That we are pressured to walk a particular route as African Americans and never waver from it.

This is a self-imposed, community-imposed way that is largely superficial now and often does more harm than good. The biggest limitations come in the forms of what are considering things black people can and can’t do which often keep people from advancing or being more well-rounded or just being themselves.

More after the jump.

I stopped listening to the people who had their guns pointed at me, shouting “Conform or die” years ago. But we still put a lot of pressure on each other to get in the race box and get angry when others refuse. Deal-breakers depend on who you’re dealing with (as everyone has their own definition of what is acceptable blackness). For some it’s your political affiliation. For others it’s sexual orientation. We can easily accept those who are “undeniably black” who are accused of horrible things or commit failures (re: R. Kelly, Mike Tyson, etc.), as long as they’ve maintained their blackness, anything seems to be forgiveable by some in the community. But if you have chosen a different path or are perceived as “suspect” in your intentions (re: Soledad O’Brien, John McWhorter), it’s likely that you couldn’t get urinated on if you were emulsified in flames. 

One of the reasons why I empathize with black people who think different than me, even when I don’t agree with them, is because I’ve always lived two steps from being unceremoniously dumped and rejected by great swaths of black people. While never as out-of-the-box as say, Clarence Thomas (who in his mind sincerely believes he’s helping), I have been given the “side-eye” many times on everything from my clothes to who I chose to associate with to the music I listen to. I once got so exhausted from the external pressures of both blacks and whites to conform that I rejected everyone, went to live in the California desert and hung out with nothing but counter-culture types and journalists for nearly five years.

Being told to conform didn’t endear me to blackness as much as I love my people, my community and my culture. Fear would not keep me by their side. Threats didn’t work. Neither did intimidation, accusations and name-calling. It only made me resentful. It only made me want to reject them. Which made me sad. There was a point in my life four years ago where I only had one other African American friend. I’d gone from a life that was undeniably (and nearly exclusively) black, to one where hardly any black people were present at all. I was struggling to relate to the people I did meet.

My mother used to tell me that some black people still don’t realize that they are free. That was often the problem I ran into. I realized I was free to go wherever I wanted, live however I wanted and befriend whomever I wanted. I didn’t see limits. When I entered my mostly white world of the workforce I pushed fears of racism largely out of my head, realizing that if I obsessed over what white people thought of me I would go insane. If people liked me, great. If they didn’t, who cared? That was the attitude I cultivated. No one, nothing was going to keep me from living the life I chose. Unfortunately, a lot of the people I met were still in the box. They were not thinking as free people. They still saw the world in places they could and could not go. I was told I couldn’t trust my best friend because she was white. I was told my love of sushi was abnormal. I was told not to go just about everywhere and I was told to be suspicious of everyone. Why would I read books about ancient Roman history and other “white” things? Why would I actually strike up a conversation with the Vietnamese people at the nail salon? How could I not have a home church? How could I break up with a guy because we had different views on Christianity? That black man was a Christian and liked going to church (five times a week to my once a month). What was MY problem? Why was I smiling at strangers and speaking Spanglish? What was wrong with me?

I realized that a lot of this came out of places of protection and fear. Church is safe. The community is safe. Other blacks are supposed to be safe. The outside world, historically, was hostile. But I didn’t grow up in the segregated South. I didn’t know the hostility first hand and even when I encountered racism I was more likely to brush it off and shrug than become obsessed with it. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t see the point in obsessively dwelling on that which I could not control. I am free. I can learn what I want and go where I want, love who I want, experience what I want. Free. More black people need to realize that. Screaming for the outsiders to get back in place doesn’t make them want to come back to blackness. It makes them want run as far from the status quo as possible, cut off all their hair, move to Anywhere But Here, USA, marry the person who reminds them the least of other black people and live their life as Negro non grata. For me, it’s easier to love and accept what makes us different than to reject it. There should be more than one or two kinds of blackness for the millions of black people who live in the United States. Yet somedays, you’d think there was only one way to be black in America.

Agree? Disagree? Give me your opinion below or write your own response and send it to blacksnob@gmail.com and it could run on the site. This story is part of the Unconventional Wisdom series. To read previous stories, click here.

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20 thoughts on “When Is Black “Black” Redux (Unconventional Wisdom)

  1. Robert M says:

    Your Mom is so right AfricanAmericans do not believe they are free. I’ve had that argument w/ AA’s myself. I’d like to look at it as the glass half full or empty but that isn’t enough. It really comes down to the idea of failure and being able to live it. Most people can’t deal w/ the fact that in life you can and do fail. It isn’t a blame issue but a realistic appraisal of what happens. You don’t have the best idea, suggest the best books(is that a showing my age thing?), go to a restaurant where the group or your date enjoys the food. You have to live w/ it because it occurs everyday and realize it not a reflecton of you but the moment.PS when you lived in the Desert did you do the Burning Man festival? I’ve an urge to go but like to talk to someone about it. Mother nature isn’t something to fool w/

  2. Anarchy1 says:

    Great post. I’m going through this right now. I’m getting married next April and I just realized that out of five groomsmen, four of them are white. I’m interested to see how some of my family reacts…they are from rural Georgia where I’m sure that isn’t seen very often. The thing is, I’ve found that many of my black friends weren’t as loyal. As I progressed, they stood pat and we grew apart. Its sad but it happens. Your comment about the "gun pointing" is most profound. I think a major reason for the lack of progress in our community is due to this. I experienced it in my own family with my mom (of all people!). I left for school and had all sorts of new experiences and was greeted with cursory glances and accusations of forgetting where I came from when I would visit home. We even stopped speaking for a year. My little cousin is going through a similar thing as well. Its sad that change/advancement is seen as such a threat by many in our communities. I guess you don’t need chains or "Colored Only" signs to remain in bondage.

  3. Snob,The President’s words never seem to leach into the subsoil to the folk who need to hear it. Maybe that’s always been my problem with this issue. We’ve spent all this time with this 1960s-Black Arts/Black Power -pseudo Afro centric babble about everything we do and say is a form of fierce pride, self determination and expression. Even crime/drugging dealing becomes a counter example of our quelled capitalist skills and self discipline! Well, it ain’t. Its crime and predation. It’s the reason folks gentrifying an area take the next step of tossing "us" out not b/c we bring their prop value down, but b/c we don’t know how to act. And we tolerate nasty Korean plexiglass grubby expensive stores rather than the mini-Whole Foods all clean and sparkly. That’s the perception. And much of the stereotype’s based on the fact that people don’t listen to what Obama says. Being black means X Y Z, or ABC–constructive, positive, personal. But we allow the same folks to define it as DEF or JKLM, b/c thats "down," and cool, and sexy. I’m afraid the time for subtlety’s past. You have to get in folks faces and say look, your way isfucked. You are fucked. Here’s a better way. Let me help you (but I’m not gonna say you’re prince or princess–you have to earn that). And even if you stumble ANY thing is better than the damn status quo. That should be in Black in America 2 You should pimp your site: http://www.blackretort.com/2009/07/preview-of-black-in-america-2-preview.html

  4. leah e. says:

    I’ve seen this same mentality in poor white people too. I called it "project mentality" when I lived in South Boston, an insular community of mostly Irish. Any of their own that went to college, or expanded their horizons in any way were accused of "being better than us" by those left behind. What a nightmare.

  5. d says:

    From Clutch magazine website: Just because we’re Black doesn’t mean: * We can’t enjoy music that plays on non-Black radio stations. * Issues of animal rights or environmental preservation aren’t of paramount interest to us. * We don’t watch shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development and the Colbert Report. * We can’t be outdoorsy types. * One should assume that we are unwed with children. * We don’t engage in extreme or winter weather sports. * We don’t love cats. * Don’t embrace religions other than Islam or Christianity. * Independent films are our favorites. * That we don’t find men from other nationalities sexy. * That we’re not interested in traveling to far away places like Fiji, Vietnam, or Bali. * We are angry, or aggressive, or loose cannons. * We can’t have rare or arbitrary tastes in fashion, art or music. * That we are obligated to adore Beyonce. * We aren’t vegetarians or vegans. * We don’t have an interest in the fields of technology, science or engineering.I have this saved on my computer because 95% of the items on this list apply to me. It’s a little reminder of where I stand regarding the issue of "blackness" and why I won’t allow others to put me in a box.

  6. LaJane Galt says:

    YES. I also believe fear and a deep inferiority complex is part of it too.****I would also love to do Burning Man.

  7. malted_tea says:

    Errr, I am unwed with children. Only two kids. Same dude. Together for more than a decade. I’m off to Japan next week and would LOVE to catch up with Curb Your Enthusiasm while eating tofu and wondering why I’m supposed to like Beyonce (that one got me confused, d). ANYHOO, the notion of being "free" is important. Obama’s quote at the top made me think that a lot of our current self-segregation might be alleviated if we took the opportunity to travel. We, as a people, are everywhere. If you really must self-segregate at least hang out with Black folks ailleurs (I speak French but am not from the francophonie…there’s another one along the lines of the "Spanglish"). Just that kind of discovery alone could go a long way for us as individuals which would be leveraged to uplift the collective. And no, that collective need not just be Black people since, you know, we’re not alone on the planet.

  8. polticallyincorrect says:

    I admit I voted for Obama on some racial solidarity tip, he was a black person who actually had a chance at winning. Oh well I should have voted on the issues, I should have voted for Cynthia McKinney. Next time I am voting Green!

  9. Daughter says:

    Snob, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the excellent documentary, "Black Is… Black Ain’t." The late filmmaker, Marlon Riggs, looked at just this issue, interviewing numerous black folks. The think I came away with was how prevalent this issue is, when everyone from Angela Davis (because she was a Communist), to Cornell West (because he is an intellectual), to the filmmaker himself (for being gay and having AIDS), has experienced the sting of someone telling them they’re not black enough. Since so many of us do it, and so many of us hate it, why do we continue to do it to one another?Suzanne Malveaux was one of my Harvard classmates, and she spent a semester studying at Howard. One thing she came away with was the realization that students at Howard were more free than those at Harvard to be themselves–to play the violin, or love D&D, etc. No one questions your blackness when you’re already at Howard.

  10. polticallyincorrect says:

    Is this black enough thing actually affecting adult black folks. I truly don’t give a damn anymore, it was just childhood chatter.

  11. ezparz says:

    Great post. I think it’s mostly cultural. I come from a very open, creative, family of artists. But when I started taking an interest in black culture- they weren’t racist about it- they just don’t know how to support it or ask me about it or listen to my music. People are just comfortable with what they know.I take my Puerto Rican teen-mom students to art museums or we give them gourmet food and they think it’s all boring and gross. They’re just used to what they’re used to. Of course, there’s always one student who likes it and wants to know more and experience new things. She’ll break away and leave the others behind.

  12. swiv says:

    ^^^^^ yea. my neighbor’s wife will absolutely not let him visit his cousin because he’s marrying a white woman. it is THAT big of a problem.

  13. This also brings those who aren’t AA but are still black into the mix – where they are seen as snobbish or anti-black for identifying as anything but AA (ppl from Ghana, Nigeria, Bolivia, Jamaica, etc.). It’s seen as an insult rather than a representation of the vast diversity within the African diaspora.

  14. Monica says:

    Just my two cents.No one wants to be a conformist (typical black, typical white, typical Asian).When I attempted to stop conforming to what it means to be black, I just swapped one box for another. I was in the nonconformist pile with people who thought "they don’t fit into a box". And it was crowded. It was so crowded, that I realized that we all conform in some way.I stopped defining myself by what I was not and learned to just be.I’m black and (despite all the typos) I have a PhD. I think most members of the bourgeois are as ignorant and prejudice as individuals who didn’t finish high school. I’m all about the blackness, but I voted for Hillary in the primary and Nader in the general election. R. Kelly should be under a jail. Michael Jackson was the business, but he did fondle those kids. I like most Tyler Perry movies and I think Ma’dea is a hoot. I also like foreign movies (La Vie en rose was better than Ray and Dreamgirls). I like Van Morrison and Steely Dan but they ain’t got NOTHING,NOTHING on Parliament/Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers, James Brown or wait for it….Duran Duran.I would never have a child out of wedlock but you do you. Wouldn’t date a man with child that was born out of wedlock. I don’t date a lot of black men. I don’t have a home church, the mothership is on planet Mars…..And it goes on.

  15. Bajanlady says:

    @ politicallyincorrect – Yes it was childhood chatter, as I recall my jr high/high school years were filled with it. I call the phenom "training the elephant": Do you know how they train circus elephants not to run off? They chain a big heavy log to their back leg when they are baby elephants. As babies the log outweighes them and they can’t move it. As they grow to adults, having already been conditioned to believe they can’t move the log, they just accept the chain and never attempt to move the log. (Well except for in those occasional extreme runaway-circus-elephant incidents.)We do that to ourselves with our "conform or die" narrow parameters of "blackness" – as if it was some sort of state of being. It’s a shame the amont of time I have wasted unlearning all that conformity….

  16. April says:

    @Kandeezie:I think that some people within those groups are quick to trot out their origins in a specific Caribbean or African country because they do view themselves as superior to descendants of U.S. slaves. That has a lot to do, of course, with how black Americans are viewed and portrayed in this country and how those representations have been exported abroad. This is a whole ‘nother topic outside the scope of the original post, but I don’t think the offense you cite has to do with thinking that black people should conform to certain behaviors. I think how recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa and their children identify themselves raises weighty questions about identity and social standing and that it may be valid to question, for instance, why someone of Caribbean descent but born in the U.S. may be hesitant to identify as "African-American."

  17. Andrea says:

    Danielle, I am so glad that another blog has touched on this topic. It’s always seemed to me that most of the things that are acceptable as being "Black" are counter productive and dispiriting. Anything positive — from seeking an education to keeping your children clean — can be criticized as acting "White." I think it is the very reason that Black people in this country have not come as far as we should have, and could have. And it reminds me of something that happened to me about twelve years ago. I was on a city bus, reading a book — I think one of my college text books or assigned reading, and a Black woman, I had never seen before in my life, said to me, "So, you’re trying to be smarter than the rest of us, huh?"My response: "What?!"I didn’t even know how to respond to this idiocy, because it was new to me. From the time I learned to speak, I was told that I spoke "proper" (NOT White) and everyone noticed that I was one of the few children in the projects who brought home homework, but NO ONE ever told me that this made me "wrong" somehow. No one ever tried to "de-Black" me because of it. And this was when I lived in the PROJECTS! The incident of the bus took place looong after my family moved to the suburbs. The woman in question was wearing a nurse’s uniform and got off at a local hospital where — I imagine, she worked. I have never forgotten the details of this incident because it was just so BIZARRE to me.Over the years I’ve thought about why it happened, and I sincerely believe it has to do with many Black people wanting other Blacks to fail in life so that they can continue to be mediocre and not feel left behind. I know Blacks who are afraid to let other Blacks know that they own a business, for fear of it burning to the ground some night, due to jealousy and spite. And they are probably right. A friend of my Mom’s once told me a joke about a White man and a Black man who both sold ice on the same street. The area’s Black and White residents were only too glad to buy their ice from the White man, and the Black man soon went out of business. When the Black man asked one of his Black neighbors why they didn’t buy his ice, the man responded, "Well, I’ll tell you. That White man’s ice was just colder than yours."As long as enough Black people continue to see themselves as inferior to White’s and view the achievements of other Blacks as a slap in their face, we as an ethnic group will always be socially and economically marginalized in this society.BTW, I’m so happy to see that no one here, thus far, has tried to defend the value of AA sharing some kind of hive mind.

  18. Lisa J says:

    The problem with people being considered "not black enough" is that no matter what you do, if you were born obviously phenotypically black, you are always black and are going to die black and get treated like we are black no matter what. So even though I will tell a joke about Clarence Thomas or Michael Steele needing to have their black card revoked, they are black and they will never stop being black, and though both of them would rather die than mention it, plenty of those white folks around them let them know it, whether or not they do it everyday, you know every so often someone puts them "in their place." When I was a kid I often didn’t feel "black enough" and once had a white kid at school ask me why I cared about getting in trouble b/c I was black after I told him to stop horsing around or he’d get all of us in trouble ( I looked at him like the alien he was). Anyway, lately I have been realy reminding myself that no matter what, no matter how much education I have or get in the future, how "white" I sound, what jobs I’ve had, how middle class I am, how much "white" music I listen to, etc, etc I ain’t never gonna not be black and no one can take your blackness away. That is what happened to Skip Gates, b/c although he is a professor of African-American studies, has a white wife and 3/4 white daugher (I guess) he is still black and that cop wanted to remind him of it. Shoot, I bet if Clarence Thomas is out somewhere in the boonies with no security detail the same thing could happen to him.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post.. you said it all. We ARE free so let’s start acting like it. There is no "black card", no one can take it away from you no matter what music, books, politics, lovers, etc. that you like.

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