This week marks the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. The recent graduate was walking down the street when he encountered former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Three minutes later he was dead. Within hours of his death the first protests formed on the very street he was shot on. The protests have not stopped since.
Nor have the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the state. The last year has seen the largest number of people killed by police, even as the nation has paid more attention to the issue, and the calls for action have been the loudest in decades. For anyone passing through America’s race problems unaware, this year provides an answer to a question that floated gently over America on the night of Obama’s first election–is racism over?–with an emphatic no.
From streets echoing with cries for justice to politricks and cable news echoing with old school racism, this past year has served to shake the sleepy giant of the American masses from their slumber and awaken it from its dream of racial harmony. Americans wake to find some of we the people are suffering the outrageous slings and arrows of white supremacy. They wake to see young leaders of the new civil rights movement taking up the arms of protest against a sea of troubles.
Even as republican presidential candidates bemoan the rise of political correctness, we sail past the tipping point, unlikely to make a full return to times when it is acceptable–and sometime good fun, wink, wink–to disparage blacks openly in the media. Significant because behind the battle over the words we use floats the scepter of power, hanging in the balance as the country moves towards a majority minority population. Make no mistake, this new world we find ourself in is not the promised land, but the wide murky territory between what we used to be and what we ought to be, a land full of deadly mines, traps and open warfare.
Being awake this year has been difficult at some times, soul-crushing others. Bearing witness and speaking truth and two heavy burdens born by the conscious. It does not alway feel good to be awake, but to close your eyes to the reality of the world you pass through isn’t really living. To ignore the oppression of the people of your own nation stands as treason to the dream of a people created equal. So stay up, and pay tribute to the life of Michael Brown with eyes that stay open.
The news cycle giveth–and it taketh away. After days of international hubbub over fake black “trans-racial” Rachel Dolezal claiming that blackness is something one can choose to be, we see the powerful and very real consequences that still lie at the heart of race in America. In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 people were shot by a lone gunman as they attended a prayer circle. Officials and investigators are labeling it a hate crime. No one of those eight lost souls had the chance to stop a bullet and say they identified as white. None of those people had the right to self identify their way out of the hate.
It’s not a weave or a rap or a twerk that makes a person black. Race operates on multiple levels at the same time. We each experience race at the individual level: your own racial identity and your way of thinking and understanding race ; at the interpersonal level: in the interactions and relationships we have with others; at the institutional level: the schools, organizations, and churches we belong to; and at the ideological level: where the ideas that undergird these systems lives. While Dolezal has gotten us to talk about race at the individual level, what the crazy-talk about trans-racial ignores is the very real way that race operates on those other levels.
Before we get into the trans-racial take down, a word about words. Transracial is already a word used to describe an adoption process when members of one race adopt a bona fide member of another race, who remain that other race their whole life. Lots of TRAs are heated about their term being used incorrectly on this rare occasion when it is used in the mainstream media at all. There are tens of thousands of transracial adoptees in the US, many of us proving Dolezal wrong–you can have a white mother of a black adopted child. I know: I have one!
Why call Dolezal’s ask for a pass transracial? She’s trying to skate on the cool response that Caitlyn Jenner got just a couple weeks ago. Cue the meme! (BTW, note that they didn’t have to change Caitlyn’s cover to match Rachel’s face!)
It’s not just an image trade. A very real and complex conversation has popped up to answer the question if transgender is a thing, and race and gender are both constructs, then isn’t transracial a thing? My answer is an emphatic no, with a not now coda.
Race is not biologically assigned, true. Since it’s socially constructed, we could socially reconstruct or deconstruct it. Of course. Race hasn’t always been this way, so it can be something completely different at some point in the future. Yup. And if race is made up by people we can all change our mind and then we can be whatever race we want and tomorrow we’ll be post racial hooray! No, stop right there.
Even though race is socially constructed, it’s not constructed primarily at the individual level (remember those levels). An individual cannot make the decision alone to change the categories–otherwise the census form would be really really long. Like we said in part 1, even if we all wake up tomorrow trans-racial, race as a construct would need to be dismantled in our systems and institutions. We can’t agree on much politically–do you really think a referendum recatagorizing all Americans–including Mexican Americans, I’m looking at you Donald Trump–would stand a chance of passing? Not a Dolezal’s chance in hell.
But is someone feels–I mean really feels–like they are black, then why not? Hmm, notice there is no one saying that black people also have the right to change it up. In fact, blacks that were caught passing weren’t given a pass–they lost school and work opportunities , social status and in some cases suffered violence. If whites can become black and blacks cannot become white, then trans-racial is just the penultimate expression of white privilege–the privilege to choose black, and be rewarded.
Besides, how white do you have to go to be considered white? Lightened skin, straightened hair and white cultural moves might get you paid, but it doesn’t make you white. The costume of whiteness is all around us–and is a multibillion dollar industry. From 28 inch silky to skin whitening candy (for real) there are any number of products to kick you down Von Luschen’s chromatic scale, but none will give you entrance to whiteness.
The borders between black and white in this country are still strictly enforced. There benefits of whiteness are protected in big and small ways from the ballot box, to massive cultural hegemony in media. The consequences of blackness are enforced with a heavy hand: uneven sentencing laws, banking practices like redlining, not to mention the raw brutality of police killings of black men and women.
And now Charleston. People shot dead because they are black. Not because of a head of fake dreads or a particular shade. The killer didn’t check their black cards before unloading his weapon. He just shot them. Because they are black. And no amount of self-identification will bring them back. They do not have a choice. They didn’t have Dolezal’s choice.
To say that race is a choice indicates that people can choose. And if you are suffering, and you choose not to help yourself, well, then your problems become your fault. Like slaves that didn’t run away. Like blacks that were in the ‘wrong place’. Like Selma marchers. If race is a choice, then your oppression becomes your own doing. Entertaining that race–and all the consequences that come with it are a choice is offensive given the blood, sweat and tear-gas tears that have soaked our cities this year alone. Race is an actively enforced construct at this time in America, so the mutability of race at the individual level is trumped by strict enforcement in our political, economic and cultural spheres.
As long as blacks still suffer injustice and cruelty at the hands of white supremacy, transracial will remain an offense to people who care about the struggle to move past systems of oppression. Someday, will we all be able to trade race like we change hair? Maybe one day, in a lovely dream of a world. But the struggle is too real in the streets right now to entertain that.The theoretical conversation about what transracial could mean ignores the lived realities of race. So no to trans-race. Maybe not ‘no’ forever-f-or evea evea?–but definitely no for now.
Update: I posted this 666 days ago but blue eyed devil Rachael Dolezal is back in the news with her snake oil version of racial identity. She got a book deal and all I have is this blog so I’m reposting this in hopes someone may share it with her and read educate this white woman-Rachel, please have several seats, and be humble.
Busted: Rachel Dolezal, Howard Graduate, Head of the NAACP in Spokane, and outspoken black community activist is white. Outed by a local reporter and mercilessly–and hilariously–taken down on twitter Rachel has sparked lots of chatter about what is race and who can be which one. Passing points to the essential function of race–that it structures power, not color. People who pass are not trying to look different, they are trying to change their status.
Race is not in our DNA, it’s a social construct. That means, despite what your eyes see, there are not different races of people. In fact, there is no gene for race in the human genome. Biologically, humans are all part of one family.
So, if race isn’t real, then we can just say racism is dead, yell, “Black President!” and get on with it right? Wrong. I mean, have you read this blog before? Since the birth of America, race has been used to structure, economic and political relationships. Prior to the 1600’s race really wasn’t a thing. People had and still have different cultures, but not different racial categories. The first time the word race even appears in the English language is 1508, so the Ancient world did not have the concept of different races.
With the conquest of the Americas and a fresh addiction to sugar, European conquerers needs many hands to make the hard work of sugar, tobacco and cotton farming light. But, since the America’s were little more than a handful of rough outposts, they couldn’t attract a voluntary workforce with crazy benefits like being allowed to live free and get paid. Thus begins the transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest events in all of human history.
Race as a social construct was created essentially to protect this labor force. Many laws–not just one–over hundreds of years were used to keep one class of people–black people–enslaved. Politicians traded power for allowing the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, even our conflicted founding father Thomas Jefferson. He wrote all men were created equal, but could not build the country he desired without those free hands to do the work.
What would get good God fearing people to support the systematic violent oppression of their human brothers and sister? A story, a narrative that normalizes terror as truth. At the center of the narrative was the concept that blacks were not humans, and therefore did not deserve human rights. While the institution of slavery ended 7 generations ago, America still struggles to shake this narrative.
Racism is supported by personal prejudice. Individual beliefs about different groups of people perpetuate the kind of thinking that allows police to kill young people unchecked by the electorate. But even if every person in America woke up tomorrow firmly antiracist in their heart, the laws that structure education, housing, economics, justice and other systems would still have racial bias in them. Like a zombie–we may be the body, but if the zombie brain of racism lives, terror ensues.
Over the centuries, hundreds if not thousands of people have tried to game the system by “passing”–taking on the identity of a race other than their own–mostly white. Whites were able to be free, vote, own land–and slaves–and a host of other privileges that came with whiteness. These privileges–which still exist in different ways today–helped keep people bought in to systems of oppression. Black people willing to give up their culture and their ancestry could take on all the benefits of whiteness as long as they stayed hidden.
Given our history of race and racism, and ignoring the self-hate of abdicating your culture, there were some legal and societal benefits people gained by passing as white–not the least of which was freedom. But what could Rachel Dolezal possibly gain by passing as black? Everything.
In a country where whiteness is too often invisible to white people, Rachel wouldn’t be the first white girl to long to have a (different) culture. No boring suburbia for her, Rachel takes cultural appropriation to a whole new level. No matter how many Mileys and Iggys try to beg ignorance, appropriation is real–and real simple to understand.
Imagine culture is an iceberg. Certain parts of it are visible–food, dance, dress, festivals–while the foundation of what makes a culture are buried deep below the surface–beliefs, values rituals, shared lived realities and ways of being. Millions of people of African decent, shipped abroad during the slave trade or settled here in America carved out a way of surviving , a way of being in the face of unstoppable cruelty, a way of thriving within a system built to destroy them. The soul food, and the blues and the style and hip hop are the visible parts of the legacy of this ongoing struggle, but the deeper elements are essential to making sense of those expressions. Cultural appropriation is when you break off the top of the iceberg and wear it around like a costume. You can dress up, dance, and even bite the rhymes of a culture….
But when you do, you leave behind the larger, more important part of culture: the deeply help beliefs, shared experiences, values, ancestry and destiny-the truth of what it means to be part of that group. This part of the iceberg can’t be pulled out of the water and worn to the VMA’s. They can’t be weaved onto your ends like Hawaiian silky. They can’t belong to you, Rachel, or you either, Iggy.
All of these women cover themselves in a carcass they call blackness made out of stereotypes, stolen hairstyles and narratives that they’ve nicked to make themselves feel cool, beautiful, feel like they are a part of something. At the same time their white privilege gives them entrance into public spheres often denied actual black women, taking their voice and supplanting it with a white fantasy version.
And Rachel was a teacher, someone paid to tell other people how to think about and construct black femininity. This is not how you love a culture–this is how you erase it. Far from helping the community as some–including the NAACP–have suggested, her actions show the worst kind of white privilege–the privilege to define blackness with a white voice.
(Be sure to read upcoming part 2 about the difference between transgender and transracial)
It always starts with the question, first in the eyes, hesitating on the way to the lips but determined to come out: what are you? Every mixed race person say amen. For as long as I can remember, people have puzzled over my features, my hair, my skin color to piece together my race. The question, and the response we arrive at together has more to do with the questioner than you may think. And that interaction tells us more about race in America how far we’ve come and the morass ahead.
At the risk of dating myself, as little background is necessary. I was born in November 1969– a child of the summer of love in Boston, when only a few years later the bus riots would mar forever this city’s already checkered racial history. I was adopted as a baby, but adoption then was a different animal. A closed adoption, like mine, meant that my (now adopted) parents never met or knew anything about my birth parents–other than the fact that one was black.
Trans racial adoption was uncommon then, and the story is one for another time. Suffice it to say, I grew up in a white family in towns with almost no diversity at the time I was growing up there. Identifying my race was not as simple as hauling out the family album or even looking around at my community. Most of the time, this is how we decide what race we are. We look at Mom and Dad and do the math. Simple.
Except its not so simple. If you look like you might be walking the line between two race you have probably been asked the question on more than one occasion. From the time I was little, people asked. The question itself is an indicator of the times: in the 70’s the question was whispered, or more often sneered by nasty children in the playground. in the 80’s it was asked with curiosity, or occasionally a spark of interest in the days when light skinned was in; in the 90’s when the best berries were blacker it was a test of authenticity. And now in an era when we debate the end of race, being asked my race reminds me that race, and racism, isn’t going anywhere.
For some mixed race people the answer becomes one of complex math–a half this (which half?), a quarter that (leg piece or breast meat?)–where the family tree is examined and loyalties to each side are weighed. Sometimes, back up family and community members are referenced to break any stalemate. For others, embracing all parts of their lineage is the key, living as a testament to the dream of a land where all people live together, integrated fully and culturally complex.
More often than you would image, people argue with the answer you provide. How often have people thrown the white mother card on President Obama? Rarely is it said to spark an honest conversation of how race is constructed. Mostly it’s said in a snarky way, or a weapon to shoot at the authenticity of his blackness.
People squint their eyes and appraise your flesh–how light is white? How much brown equals black? but it doesn’t stop there. They weigh your words–talking white or just educated? they judge your body–are your hips black in nature? they question your knowledge of perceived black culture. In addition to judge they play other roles as well: now fashion blogger, now genealogist, next professor, sometimes confessor.
Free from a pedigree and family tree, I find people more likely to debate my racial identity with me. I think this tells us that race is not just about what we think we are but is also significantly about what society says. The conversation reveals how we divide people into racial categories: do you really think you’re black? but you’re light skinned, so you’re not all black. How did you decide you were black? how do you know that you’re not (insert nation here)? Do you even know what you are? Over the years, I have been called a mulatta (stubborn mule!) a half bread, mixed, light, red, mutt, black bitch, nigger. The names, they also are like a timeline of race in America.
When I was little–maybe 4–I was watching Bugs Bunny with a friend of mine. We were watching the episode where Bugs is being chased by a witch doctor . To escape Bugs put plates in his mouth to make big lips so he can blend in with the African ladies passing by. My friend looked at at the TV and then pointed to me.
“That’s what you are.”
I was shocked. But I wasn’t. I had seen the way my friend looked at me mirrored in the eyes of of other children–and adults. The easy way that my friend made a connection between the fake African stereotypes on the TV and me puzzled me. I had been unaware of my race until then. Later I wondered what everyone could see in me that made them know I was different when I looked so normal to me. My journey from that afternoon watching cartoons to here—not so coincidentally teaching about race and media–has been a complex conversation about race with my environment. Through my teen angst, my reeducation into a wider historical narrative, a hundred conversations that start with the question and not a few momentsyears decades of deep introspection, I can tell you one thing I have never been: white.
You see, race is a social construct, and one that has only been around for a few hundred years. Race, as a marker of identity, was created to structure power relationships–most markedly between whites and enslaved blacks, then later blacks suffering under Jim Crow, and even today blacks struggling with systemic racism in our post Obama age. Beyond black and white, race decided who has to go to the Japanese interment camps, who was forced onto reservations when the slaughter was over. Race decided who could own property, who could marry, who could move into a neighborhood and who could go to school where. Still today with the voting rights act being dismantled race is a factor in who can vote and who has to show their papers, please.
You may have noticed that it didn’t matter how light your skin or your lineage, race is decided in the halls of power. The categories of race do a poor job describing the human and a great job describing the lines of power and privilege. Ask one of the 6.5 million american who are mixed race, 1.8 million alone who identify as black and white–we are a living testament to the fuzzy lines that mark race in America. The math doesn’t make sense. What looks like a solid divide in those check boxes on forms is a wide foggy boundary, a gray area that mixed-race people navigate every time you ask them the question.
The journey is not over. America is marching slowly but surely to a tipping point where white will no longer be the majority. You can bet that the construct of whiteness will make us pry privilege from it’s cold dead hands. Like all times when race was used as a tool to divide working class and poor whites and black, we see racial rhetoric and racial tension on the rise. We see overt systemic racism in all our systems. We see anger between people in the streets.
We African Americans with light skin, brown skin, mixed race, never-white-enough-skin walk the front lines in these battles. We are the lie of race being a real way to divide people. We are the truth of the race that is human, all of us mixed from our birth in the womb of Africa. We are victimized by systems of privilege that clearly label us non white. We are the witnesses to all the ugliness too scared to confront our darker sisters and brothers. We sit in the rooms when they think we’re not there, forced to confront the casual racism that happens behind closed doors. We are questioned by both sides–papers, please–as we navigate the borderland between the poles of black and white.
We, too, are black.
So for my black brothers and sisters, and others from different mothers in the struggle, don’t forget that racism is a tricky animal that takes more than one shape. Don’t assume that life light-skinned is carefree. We, too experience racism, which can be compounded when the people who understand that pain best won’t acknowledge it might be happening. To dismiss our lived experiences with race is to perpetuate a divisiveness that is part of our painful past, but not bred in our blood. Race is a recent construct, but all people of the African diaspora share deeper, older roots, roots that matter to all of us, no matter where we landed or what shade we bore. We are family, and we need to be…..and you know, it’s never a good look when your charges of racism are summarily dismissed just because of the color of your skin.
To our white allies, respect our right to self identify. Respect our right to be black. Judging my blackness by my shade ignores the long and complex history of race, and my lived realities of which you are wholley unaware. If you want to ask the question, do it with respect and listen with an open mind, not a snap answer.
And to America, race isn’t going anywhere. Seeing systemic racism isn’t enough. We need the political and social will to make fundamental changes to how we treat each other in the halls of power, not just in the Starbucks streets. As long as systemic practices reproduce racism, it will always be with us, no matter how many of us wish it away. Having an uncomfortable conversation isn’t enough; We need to act in ways that dismantle racism at its core.
There are no easy answers, and there isn’t one way. Culture is complex–ask one of us, we know. We definitely do not have all the answers but we stand in challenge to race as usual. We live past the coming tipping point We don’t know what lies ahead to end racism, but those of us in the fog are finding a way to move forward, ever forward.
Richard Sherman is $7875.00 away from putting this week’s scream-obsessed circus behind him. The Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback has taken the week to turn an outpouring of criticism over a live on-camera interview into an opportunity to school us in stereotypes. Now he just needs to pay his league fine and go on to play in the league’s biggest event where he will have the chance to respond on the field. In case you missed it, at the conclusion of the Seahawks Forty-niners playoff game, Erin Andrews stopped Sherman for a little post-game chit chat.
Sherman delivered an earsplitting takedown of his rival on the field. Within hours the Twitterverse lit up with criticism of Sherman’s “outburst”, and TV followed suit with a days worth of attention devoted to Sherman’s interview that used the word thug 625 times, according to Deadspin. It didn’t take long for Sherman, not known for being quiet, to shoot back with some commentary of his own.
Instead of delivering a dose of profanity, Sherman wrangled the criticism and elevated the conversation. While he brushed off any implication that the criticism may destroy him, he did point out that he was bothered by the use of the word thug as a code word for the infamous n-word. He correctly reminded us that in American parlance, when they call him a thug, they don’t mean that he is lurking around with brass knuckles, but that he is one in a long line of totally expected black brutes.
Is he right? Sure. You don’t need a word that starts with N to ring the bell of racism against black men. What other choices do you have? Try thug, brute, street, gangster, threat, hood, ape, pimp, dropout and a host of other names that trace a line decade by decade back through American history. These words come and go like fashion, but the pattern of racism persists.
Richard Sherman, Ivy League graduate has proved that he is not these things. He’s chosen to use this moment to draw our attention to the use of code words in common conversation to link black men who are public figures to long standing racist historical misrepresentations. Sooo excellent. This time it turns out that Sherman was the wrong dude to mess with.
But here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to be the right person to not be treated the wrong way. Whether you are a Stanford graduate or just a guy on the grind, no man deserves to be defined by stereotypes.