Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How NOT to win friends and Influence Black People

A few of my white readers have expressed to me the fact that they want to have conversations about race in America and they want to have them with African Americans. The problem, they say, is that they don’t know how to begin and they are afraid of unintentionally offending people. We all know that discussions about race can become quite passionate, and some people can be intimidated or discouraged by that passion. It is with these readers in mind that today’s entry was written. I offer you a list of things (besides the n-word) white people ought not to say to black people when trying to have a logical and sane conversation:

• “You speak so well,” “You speak so well for a black person” or “You’re really articulate.”

This may, in fact seem like a compliment, but trust me—it is not one. Expressing surprise or finding novelty in the fact that a black person speaks properly implies that it is not the norm and that you actually expect that all or most black people sound like the cast of Flavor of Love or some really bad movie that panders to black audiences, such as Soul Plane. It’s like a black person assuming that all white people sound like Larry the Cable Guy or Roseanne Barr. The key difference here is that there are countless television shows and movies that depict articulate and intelligent white people. Upstanding, educated and well-spoken black people depicted—not so much. Watch this clip from the acclaimed film Hollywood Shuffle to learn more.

• “You are really good looking/pretty for a black guy/gal” or “You’re cute for a dark-skinned guy/gal.”

I shouldn’t even have to address this, but alas, I do. Would you tell a white woman she is “pretty for an Italian girl” or a white guy that he is “cute for a Jewish guy?” No, you would not (and if you would you have “no home training” as we say). Would you eat dinner at someone’s house and say “this is really good for vomit?” It’s akin to saying, “You are really smart for a retard!” It implies a lowered expectation or standard for ethnic beauty and surprise or recalcitrance at the idea of a black person being attractive or beautiful.

• “Are you from the projects?” or “When did you move out of the ‘hood?”

Let’s face it, most of the black people with whom you interact are people you know from church, school, work or some sort of social or professional group. So why is it so hard to believe that their lifestyle is quite similar to yours? Do you assume all white people come from trailer parks? Yes, some black people live or have lived in low-income housing—but so have and do plenty of white people. The same goes for receiving food stamps and welfare checks too. Here is a little something on "The Black Middle Class" for your reading enjoyment. And just so you know: Rapper Lupe Fiasco's mother is a gourmet chef, his dad, an engineer; Rapper/Actor Will Smith's mother was a school teacher, dad was an engineer; Kanye West's mother was Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University and his father was a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And those are just a few black middle class rappers. Dr. Mary Patillo is an authority on the Black Middle Class. Watch this clip (or get one of her books) if you'd like more information.

• “I bet you’re a really good dancer!” or “You must be a good rapper!”

Ok, so the stereotype is that black people are good dancers and I’ll admit that many of us live up to that stereotype. However, not all of us do (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and LaToya Jackson come to mind). Wow, think about that for a minute…Michael Jackson’s sister LaToya can’t dance! As much talent as that family has—and she sings like a wounded hyena and dances like a drunken skunk. I couldn't resist sharing this gem with you...

Yes, there are many incredible black entertainers who can or could cut a rug—MJ, James Brown, Janet Jackson, Usher, Sammy Davis, Jr., etc. There are or were plenty of impressive black rappers such as Biggie, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Tupac, etc. Please keep in mind though, that for every Jay-Z there are millions of this guy:

The entertainment business was built on the backs of great black entertainers. Ok—but the porno industry was built on the backs of plenty of skinny, freaky white women; so according to this logic, should I assume that all white women like depraved and deviant sex? Should I approach them and remark, “You must be really good at oral sex?” Probably not.

There are more no-no’s, but we’ll cover those some other time. I want to give you some time to let the first lesson sink in and marinate so as not to discourage or overload you. Have you ever thought or said any of these things? If you did say them, I’d be interested to know how you survived the beatdown to tell of it. Just kidding!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

DON'T Do It for the Children

Mmkay, so a Louisiana justice of the peace refuses to marry interracial couples in 2009 because he "says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long." Interesting... I was unaware that the 50% divorce rate in America was due to the 7% of marriages that are classified as interracial.

Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish,told the Daily Star of Hammond that he was not a racist. "I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house," Bardwell said. "My main concern is for the children."

Is he concerned for the potential children of two white drug addicts or two black ex-convicts who ask to be married? If the couple signed an affidavit stating that they did not plan to reproduce, would he then marry them? If my senior citizen mother wanted to marry a white man, would that be okay? Oh, wait! Mother stays away from Louisiana—lest they revoke her Negro card.

I wonder how he determines the race of the couple? Many members of my family are what people call "racially ambiguous." If you put us in a room with black folks—we're black; with white folks we're white, Latinos, Mediterraneans, etc. Neither my driver's license nor certified birth certificate lists my race, so would he just guess?

Well, if I go from personal experience I can say this: three of my four grandparents were the products of interracial marriages. The fourth was a quadroon or whatever you want to call it. All of their parents enjoyed domestic bliss (they were not legally allowed to marry) until they were separated from their spouses by death. Perhaps I am biased. but all of my grandparents turned out just fine and on both sides of my family, my grandparents were married for more than 50 years until one of the spouses died.

I can understand Mr. Bardwell's concern for the children, though. After all, does the world really need more people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Lenny Kravitz, Wentworth Miller, Mariah Carey, Amanda Marshall, Emily King, Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Derek Jeter, W.E.B. DuBois, Fredrick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell, Bob Marley, Walter Mosley, Soledad O'Brien, my BFF Carmen, my dear friend Brooke's girls or Kyle's children or My L'il Sis M's son or any of my family members? Yeah—okay. Lookout Mr. Bardwell... We're coming atcha with all of our interracial love!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why President Obama is the First Black President and NOT the First Biracial President

As promised, this installment is going to talk about who is actually black, and why President Obama is referred to as the first “African American president,” rather than the first “biracial president.” This might be a little bit confusing for some, but I’ll do my best to make it as clear and painless as possible.
So, regarding the president:

• His mother was white
• He was raised by his white grandmother
• He is Ivy League educated
• He can properly conjugate verbs
• He is the leader of the free world
• He is a black man

Okay, so some of you are scratching your heads and trying to figure out how I arrived at that conclusion. There are actually a couple of reasons, the first one being this: If Barack Obama was simply “Barack Obama, electrical engineer,” “Barack Obama, attorney at law” or “Barack Obama, unemployed convicted felon with nine children by seven different women who owes $78,982.11 in back child support”—he would most definitely be considered black. Were he not an internationally known politician, would you pass President Obama on the street and upon seeing him say: “Hey, you’re half white, aren’t you?” No. You wouldn’t. If you are a fellow African American, you might nod and greet him with, “Wassup Bro?” If you’re white, you might say “Hello” or possibly clutch your purse or wallet tightly while trying not to make eye contact as you walk a bit faster in any direction away from where he is (it’s just sarcasm, folks). But he would be treated in the same manner as any other black man.

To be honest with you, aside from being the president and being raised by his white grandmother, Obama sounds quite a bit like my oldest brother. My brother is a black man, he is quite adept at the English language, he also holds a law degree from an Ivy League school and according to my mother’s birth certificate (much to the state’s chagrin) our mother is white. Upon seeing our half-Irish (but still ‘colored’ as they said in her day) grandmother with her milky porcelain skin and fine, straight hair that flowed past her knees holding a baby of the same hue, the registrar classified them both as white. So the only real difference between my brother and Barack Obama is that our grandmother—while a big part of our lives—did not raise him. Oh, and the whole presidential thing too.

It’s also kind of funny to me that people feel that since Obama was raised by a white woman he should be considered white or at least half white. After all, scores and scores of Southern (and some Northern) white children in America were raised by black women—even breast-fed by them. Are those people to be considered black or mulatto? And let me address the word “mulatto.” It is derived from a Spanish word for a little mule. We know that mules are the product of the mating of a donkey and a horse, and that generally, mules cannot reproduce. They are considered a hybrid species and are generally bred to do labor. It is said of mules that they are “more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses (white people), and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys (black people).” I assure you that neither I nor any of my friends or relatives is a hybrid creature or descendant of beasts, so please—DO NOT refer to us as mulattoes.

You see, this classification as “biracial or interracial” and the like is a pretty new thing. Most Americans went by something known as “The One Drop Rule.” It is absolutely real—it was signed into law in eleven states in the early 1900s, with eight more states using the “blood fraction” rule to achieve the same result. It remained law in the United States until the Supreme Court deemed it illegal in 1967. Even in 1985, a Louisiana woman, Susie Phipps, was denied having her case challenging her racial classification as “colored” heard by the federal Office for Dispute Resolution. Phipps was white in appearance, all of her friends and known relatives were white. She had been married twice to white men and she had lived her entire life believing she was white. Upon applying for a passport, she checked “White” on the application and was later told that her birth certificate had been filed as “colored” because the midwife who delivered her said one of her parents was “colored.” I guess my mother should stay out of Louisiana or they might revoke her Negro card!

The purpose of “The One Drop Rule” was to protect slavery and plantation owners. Prior to that, the rule was that if a person had any discernible European (white) blood said person was considered white and free. Later, classification as white was changed to include only those with matrilineal (from the mother’s side) white blood because too many slave masters were producing mixed-race children with their female slaves and those children were considered white and free, thus affecting the financial bottom line. An example would then be this: if a white man and a black woman produce a child who looks white, that child is black. That white-looking child could effectively marry a white person and their children would be black. It could go on for generations and although those ancestors might have no apparent black features or even identify as black, according to U.S. law, if slavery were reinstated tomorrow, they’d be slaves.

So there it is. In all of its shame and glory, that is why President Barrack Obama is America’s first black president. Some might say that times have changed and that he should be considered biracial. I, on the other hand, see him as a black man, and as he explained to David Letterman, “I was black before the election.” Therefore, if the president sees himself as a black man and U.S. law bears that out, why can’t everyone else?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making It about Race

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.