In some ways, I don’t even have the patience to write this post. We’ll file this one under “people make me tired.”
So, I have read two different articles about actress Raven-Symoné’s appearance on some television program called Where Are They Now, where she told Oprah Winfrey a bunch of things. And I have read about how she upset a whole lot of black people by saying, and I quote: “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American, I’m an American. … I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person. Because we’re all people; I have lots of things running through my veins.”
So why did so many black people lose their minds over this remark? Because (a) apparently, this particular black actress was special to them and they had sentimental and entirely one-sided attachments to her because they had “watched her grow up,” and because (b) somehow this seemed to them to be a case of a high-profile black woman denying her racial identity and turning her back on all her “brothers” and “sisters.”
There are so many ways I could conceivably respond to all this silliness that it’s hard to know where to start.
Yes, you read that right. Silliness.
I mean, what is she saying here, really? She is saying that Americans are mutts. Is anybody seriously going to try to deny the justice of that observation? I mean, come on!
So, okay, let’s get technical. From a biological anthropology point of view, Raven-Symoné shouldn’t be blamed for rebelling against the label “African-American.” It’s a meaningless label. If you choose to look at it this way, everybody in this country is African-American because homo sapiens evolved in Africa. So?
Oh, that’s not what you meant! No, what you meant by the label is that … what? It certainly doesn’t have to do with culture. There is no traceable African cultural lineage in the family traditions of the vast, vast majority of black Americans. Most of us don’t even know where in Africa our ancestors lived before they were dragged here in captivity. People who choose to identify with the bastardized edition of “African culture” (and by the way there is no such thing) that gets waved around in these United States may disagree but there is very little genuine ability to relate to any of the thousands of “cultures” in Africa for most of us.
And then there’s this nonsense about “we believed in you, Raven, we were rooting for you, we watched you grow up!” Hey, here’s a news flash: Raven-Symoné is an actress. She played a part that a lot of people seemed to find heartwarming. But, however much you found her and the rest of the Cosby family delightful, the fact remains that Raven-Symoné — and Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad and Lisa Bonet and the rest of the cast, for that matter — are actors and actresses. When they perform in any medium in which actors perform, they are merely doing their job. When the lights go out and the cameras stop rolling, they owe you nothing.
People, puhleez! Get real!
The part of all this that really got me hot under the collar, though, was this:
The ability to distinguish between being black and African-American, as Symoné did, is a privilege that most people don’t have. People of color in Ferguson, for example, who don’t have celebrity status, are dehumanized by people in power for their race. They are acutely aware of their skin color because their realities are inextricably linked to it, and they do not have the luxury of differentiating labels, like black and African-American.
I beg to differ.
And before you start with me, let me inform you that I am speaking here out of my own personal experience as a black person coming out of a single-parent welfare family living in a housing project in an urban landscape that was as famous at the time for police brutality as Ferguson is today, okay?
Speaking from that position, it is my opinion that what Ms. Symoné said makes perfect sense and I find it unfortunate that there seem to be so many black folks in these United States — and, by the way, I don’t know if there really are that many of them or if there are just a few noisy ones — who can’t or won’t make a distinction between how they think of themselves and how others think of them.
I have been in and lived through all kinds of situations in which I was surrounded by people of one “race” or another who couldn’t seem to forget for a single second that I was black. I, on the other hand, almost never think about it. I don’t need to think about it. I don’t feel like I have to prove my blackness to anybody and there is so much more to me that the amount of melanin in my skin that there seems to me to be no reason to dwell on it.
My point is that I have no control over how other people see and/or choose to label me. But there is no reason on the planet why I have to participate in my own oppression to the extent of allowing them to persuade me to label myself.
I am not prepared to say that racism doesn’t exist. I am not prepared to say that it isn’t an obstacle that can get in the way. What I am prepared to say is that persons of color will not be able to get anywhere in this life if they assume in advance that they can’t based on their “race.”*
People in power may seek to dehumanize me because of my “race” — and at times they have tried. But I will never, ever, ever internalize their opinions of me because I flatly refuse to dehumanize myself. I don’t have to walk around focused on how black I am just because other people do.
And if that means I’m not black enough for ya … well, it sucks to be you, doesn’t it?
* I use the word “race” in quotation marks because, biologically speaking, there is no such thing. “Race” is a socio-political construct and, as such, it is very real. But as a matter of biology, it belongs in the same category as Frodo and unicorns.