By now, most people have heard TV actress Raven-Symone’s declaration that she does not want to be called an African American because she rejects labels. She’s just an American. Well actually Raven if you reject all labels why accept a nationalistic one? Why not just be “human being?” Why not be just “Raven?” Why not just be “individual?” Her rejection of the “label” African American is her right, however her right does not dictate what the rest of the society will call her. Each of us is defined both internally (by ourselves) and externally (by others). That’s called living in a society.
But, the focus of this blog post is less about Raven-Symone than it is about my interactions with Whites who don’t want to be called White. Many years ago I was teaching a course on Cross-Cultural Communication. I was standing in for my colleague who was on leave that year and I had not taught this particular course before. However, my colleague (another Black woman) and I were close friends and she generously shared her previous syllabus with me and I followed it closely. At one point in the course I posed a question she suggested asking students to write about, “What can White people be proud of?” The room (filled with almost all White students and 3-4 Latinas) virtually exploded!
“Why do we have to be White?” asked one young woman. “Why can’t we just be Americans?” I responded with what I am sure was a puzzled look on my face, “What’s wrong with being White? And, if you cannot acknowledge your racial identity, how are you going to teach Black and Brown children you will encounter in the classroom and will look to you for affirmation?” Another student claimed that I was just asking the question to embarrass White people because I wanted them to struggle to find positive things to say about Whites. Again, I responded to the students and said, “But, don’t you find it curious that every February teachers across this nation assign students to write about things that Black people can be proud of? Why is it all right for Blacks to do this but Whites can not?” Finally, in disgust one of the students said, “I know I will write that Whites can be proud that we’re the only people who have been President of this great country (this was in the late 1980s)?” With that she folded her arms across her chest. Others in the classroom sank into their seats because they knew her utterance reflected the systematic and structural racism that existed that to that point had kept all but White MEN out of the nation’s highest office!
If we were living in an ideal world perhaps the notion of colorblindness would make sense. But, the overwhelming statistics on life chances ARE racialized. The proportion of those who are suspended and expelled from school, who drop out from school, who are unemployed and underemployed, who are living at the poverty line, and who sit in prisons is overwhelmingly Black. We cannot deny that being Black means something in this society.
Yes, Ms. Raven-Symone you can call yourself whatever you want. Tiger Woods made up his own name for who he is–“Cablinasian” signifying his Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian heritage–but that did not shield him from racism. O.J. Simpson moved almost exclusively in White circles but he was still subject to racism. Indeed, whenever a Black person of celebrity and stature falls, one of the first indicators that race matters is how the larger society distances itself from them while the Black community will often stand by them as they go through the fire. This is not to say that we absolve them of guilt because of their race, rather it is to say we do not reject their humanity because of their errors.
Declaring that one is Black does not dehumanize. It does not negate your nationality. It does not deny you of a gender identity. It is a declaration that you are heir to a particularly historical legacy. It declares that wrapped up in your humanity is a link to a resilient and long suffering people. Ms. Raven I do not think of my Blackness as a label. It is a blessing! It is a constant reminder that despite all of the odds my people–those whose genetic and cultural makeup I share–are able to overcome life’s most daunting challenges. And, I will answer proudly to Black every single time!
Stay Black & Smart!