The long-overdue dialogue is finally taking place. Americans seem more willing than ever before to talk about race, racism, prejudice and stereotypes. Not all of the conversations and comments are good ones. I read too many derogatory comments on websites like The Grio and The Root. Senseless comments likening all African Americans to apes or syphilitic animals and referencing crack-addicted babies and absent fathers more than pepper the discussion boards that are otherwise discussing politics, entertainment and general news from a black point of view.
Even ‘Dear Abby’ threw her hat into the ring recently with two days of columns devoted to the meaning of “African American” and a white reader who was wondering why President Obama is called and considered the first black/African American president rather than the first biracial president or half-white president. Abby deferred to her readers to allow them to explain it, and on day two, one letter did touch upon the historical context of ‘blackness’ and who was labeled as black and why. There was also the ever present “Why do black people make everything about race in America?” question. I decided that I’d like to answer that one.
The short answer is: Because white Americans remind us of it constantly. Yes, really. It happens all of the time and I honestly don’t believe that many white people even realize that they are doing it. I’ll give you some of the more subtle and less noxious examples from my own personal experiences:
• At a business dinner a few years ago, a relatively-new VP we’ll call “Bob” leaned over my shoulder to view some pictures that a co-worker (who also happened to be black and had worked there for more than ten years, as had I) was sharing with me. The photo was of the co-worker’s little boy, who had big green eyes, curly hair the color of wheat and olive skin. Bob looked at the photo, then my co-worker and myself then back at the photograph. He then exclaimed, “Oh! Your wife is white! That explains it! Do you know Chris (a white long-time co-worker who was seated across the table)? His wife is black! If he had kids, your kids could play together!”
I kid you not—I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Now, does anyone not see the racist nature of that remark? Bob looked at the photo and saw race, rather than a cute kid. He also felt that there was some sort of novelty in interracial marriage and having biracial children—enough so that he needed to point out the other person’s interracial marriage. And let us not forget the “…your kids could play together” comment. As though biracial children are some sort of lepers who can only play with their own kind.
• A white gentleman with whom I work for about week each month and had known for at least a year at the time, made the following comment to me about a month before last November’s historic presidential election: “Obama is like you and you’re not really black—you don’t have an afro or braids and a big butt and you went to college and don’t speak jive…”
Just wow. Where do I start on this one? So, ‘blackness’ is defined by hair texture, gluteus size and command of the urban lexicon? Well alrighty then! So then Jewish women with kinky hair are black? White women with badonkadonks are black and anyone who uses phrases like “I’m out,” “Word,” “booty call” or “baby mama” is black? People who lack a college education are black? Well, I guess we are no longer a minority and lots of folks must be ‘passing’ and just got called out; and whole bunch of college graduates who thought they were black just found out—they’re not.
• A white twenty-something acquaintance of a friend joined a group of us for a “painting party” to paint the friend’s house in one fell swoop. After a while, I turned on the radio for some background music and a Will Smith song began to play and was met with the following remark: “What station is this—Nigga Jams?”
It was actually a “pop” station, but the fact that a pseudo rap song (I mean, Will Smith is no Method Man or 50 Cent) was playing was enough to merit such an exclamation. So later, when I got out of jail for battery… No, I’m kidding, I didn’t do anything like that! What happened next was rather sad. As everyone else’s mouth dragged the floor I simply asked him, “What do have against black people and black musicians?” He replied, “Nothing.” I inquired further, “So what’s with throwing the ‘N word’ out there?” He said, “That’s just how my dad always referred to them; is there some better way to say it?” I explained that the ‘n word’ was a hateful word, offered him some acceptable terms, and he and I are now friends. But it could’ve gone very differently… What I found so sad was that his father’s prejudices and streotypes had been passed on to him so effortlessly.
• I was attending a business luncheon for about 80-100 people, so I sat down at a table where I recognized the face of an older white man we’ll call “Charlie.” There were several other people at the table, most of them white and one Hispanic woman. Charlie and I hadn’t seen one another for a while as I had been on vacation, so he asked where I had been and what I had done. I explained that my brother had gotten married and that I was out of town for the nuptials. He remarked that I was gone a week, so I described the five-day affair, the hotel, the activities, etc.
A white woman who had been glancing at me from time to time interjected and asked me, “Are you Italian?” I replied, “No” and continued my conversation. I was interrupted several more times with “Are you Greek?” “Are you Middle Eastern?” “Are you Portuguese?” “Polynesian?” And my favorite—“Are you French-Canadian?” I answered “No” to all of them.
Next, she asked me outright: “What are you?” To which I replied, “I am a human being.” She then questioned where I was from and where each of my parents was from, but for some reason, “New Jersey” just didn’t seem to be enough for her. Finally, I asked her, “Are you questioning my ethnicity?” and she replied with an exasperated “Yesssss!” I told her, “I am black.” She replied, “No you’re not,” to my surprise. I reiterated that I was well aware of my heritage, much more so than she. She looked me up and down for a moment and then said: “Your skin is as white as mine. You have green eyes and freckles and curly red hair (yeah, it was a good dye job). If I were you, I wouldn’t tell people I am black because if you didn’t tell them, they wouldn’t know.” I affixed my most saccharine smile and replied, “Well, if I were you—and thank God that I’m not— I wouldn’t open my mouth at all because then people wouldn’t know that you are an ignorant bigot.” Miraculously, there was nary a peep out of her for the duration of the luncheon.
You see, in each of these situations, no black person mentioned race or “played the race card.” We were each just going about our days, living our lives and doing what we do. A white person felt the need to bring race into the various situations, whether the intention was malicious or not. Trust me, we know we’re black—you don’t have to remind us. We know it and we recognize that our blackness is not defined solely by our appearances, but by our shared culture and our experiences. Listening to Soul, Rap or Hip-Hop music doesn’t make us black, nor does our skin tone, our hair texture, speaking slang/Ebonics or eating soul food. It is the history and the stories we share while doing our hair or enjoying that meal. It is the ease and familiarity with which we can address one another as “Gurl,” “Sista,” “Brotha” or “Dogg” compounded by our common experiences, obstacles and triumphs.
We’ll cover what determines who is black and why Obama is the first black president next time. I promise.