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What Does It Mean To Be Black?

Rachel-Dolezal-New-Black-1What does it mean to be black, or any other race for that matter? This is a question Rachel Dolezal, the woman born white, but who has chosen to self-identify as black, has brought to the forefront of our nation’s attention in recent days. But as a black man who was recently -and not for the first time- called a Milk Dud (black on the outside, white on the inside) by a black student I was teaching in a high-needs school in New Orleans, I can say I’ve put a lot of thought into what it means to be black over the course of my life.

As one of the only black students at a nearly all white high school, I fit in pretty well. I was “well-adjusted” and, as a result, I was often told by classmates and friends that I was” the whitest black guy” they had ever known. The comment, which was sometimes said to me as though I should take it as a compliment, always stung, even before I had the words to articulate why. In fact, it would be years until I was able to come up with a retort that properly put the line of thinking behind such comments in the proper framing, be they from white people or black. “Oh, I’m sorry. Exactly which one of your racial stereotypes am I not living up to?” is now my locked and loaded reply to a question so steeped in narrow racial thinking.

I’m intelligent. I am a very articulate speaker. I don’t take my style tips from hip-hop videos, and I have a good work ethic, but the idea that any of that should cause me to not be viewed as black is out-and-out racist and is often at the heart of these kinds of comments when coming from white people.

When coming from black people, similar issues with the way I speak, the way I dress and some of the music I choose to listen to are often at the heart of the comments. But unlike when they come from white people, I do not consider these comments to be the result of racist thinking when coming from blacks. Instead, I consider them to be the result of racism and the way it has and continues to be imposed on black people to the extent that it causes some to put limits on themselves in terms of who they can be, what they can like and how they can act. That racial stereotypes have been so strictly imposed on some black people to the point of causing some to take on the role of policing other’s supposed blackness only says to me they are victims of racism and these poor souls only serve to highlight one of the countless ways black people have been victimized in this country.

When I found the student who called me Milk Dud at lunch later that day, I asked him if he had ever been to Africa? This poor student hadn’t, of course. I asked him if he knew how people in Africa acted? He didn’t. Then I told him about the year I had lived there. I told him about one of the single biggest epiphanies I’ve ever had in my life. It occurred when I was traveling in a bus full of Botswanas across the Kalahari Desert.  The driver was playing some traditional African music with lots of drums and everyone was singing along and bouncing their heads to the beat. Then the tape ended and driver put in a new one. On came AC/DC’s “She Shook Me All Night Long.” I stopped bobbing along to the music immediately. It wasn’t black enough for me to like, I thought to myself. That was the kind of thinking America’s racism had successfully implanted in me after 18 years on Earth. But I was the only one to stop moving to the music. Everyone else on the bus kept enjoying the music because they found it enjoyable. Yet they were still African; they were still black.

Just like that, a massive weight lifted from me. Just like these Africans, I could be free to think, say, do and like what I wanted and know that it did not affect my blackness. In that moment, I decided that I was black and will always be black because that is the color of my skin.

In the years since my time in Africa, I have traveled and lived overseas in many different countries for many years. In that time, my connection with America has weakened, my connection with “blackness” has too. I do not favor America’s well-being over that of people in other countries, nor do I favor the well-being of blacks over other races. When I am at my very best I sometimes, and I mean this to the core of my being, feel like I have transcended race and nationality.

That said, America’s racism continues to sometimes weigh me down. While I truly feel black should only be an adjective used to describe the color of my skin (though I’d prefer caramel), in America being black means so much more. It is a higher risk of a deadly encounter with the police. It is a lesser chance of getting a bank loan or job. It has a huge impact on the way people see me and the way I see myself and others like me, and it is a predisposition to countless other negatives.

11391181_10207280763880475_6404511274359281946_nIn that regard I can never forget I am black. As I told the school boy at lunch. I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve graduate from a tier one law school, I’ve done OK for myself, but when the cops see me, they do not see any of that. In that regard I cannot stop being black no matter how I feel about it or how I want my society to feel about it. And the fact that I live in a country that will never allow me to take a time out from being black makes that fact – that being black is not a choice – one of the most important aspects of being black and for that reason, I’m sorry Ms. Dolezal, you cannot choose to be black any more than a rich person can choose to be poor because, while you might be able to perfectly replicate all the superficial aspects of it and even feel the burden in your heart and soul, the choosing negates one of the most fundamental aspects of the status.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."
https://www.facebook.com/StrangerInAStrangerLand/

4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be Black?

  1. Very nice post as usual. I started to comment but it was so rambling and existential that it sounded a bit crazy, muddled and even trite. I’ll just say I think so many people are incredibly sad or afraid. Afraid because they know they are alone, and sad because there is nothing they can do to change it. In the end we can only occupy our own skin. We are our own contained little universe and inside here it’s often very lonely.

  2. Well,TJ, I don’t know what you were planning to say, but what you did say relates well to the empathy I feel towards her after watching one of her interviews. I am of two minds: I don’t think anyone should feel they have to behave a certain way because of their race, but I, personally, would rather see someone breaking traditional racial stereotypes in a freeing way as opposed to wholeheartedly taking on the racial/cultural mannerism of another group. But at the end of the day, I don’t know how she feels on the insid., I don’t know that she’s making any conscious effort to take on so many of the tale-tale signs of “blackness” she showed in her interview. But i will stick by the idea that not being able to choose your race is one of the most important things about being the member of a race because of the value society attributes to skin color and in the case of being black, all the negatives that come with it that no one in their right mind would choose to subject themselves to.

    1. “The driver was playing some traditional African music with lots of drums and everyone was singing along and bouncing their heads to the beat. Then the tape ended and driver put in a new one. On came AC/DC’s “She Shook Me All Night Long.” I stopped bobbing along to the music immediately. It wasn’t black enough for me to like, I thought to myself. That was the kind of thinking America’s racism had successfully implanted in me after 18 years on Earth. But I was the only one to stop moving to the music. Everyone else on the bus kept enjoying the music because they found it enjoyable. Yet they were still African; they were still black.”

      Poignant.

      It’s strange for me to see black characters on TV shows outside of the USA. Their identity is never wrapped around the fact that they are black, but based on their personality and generally character attributes. It’s often the exact opposite in American drama. Some people accuse me of being color blind for preferring this treatment of non-white characters, but I just like it better. People are their own person at the end of the day. While race certainly contributes to part of someone’s identity, it’s never the total sum of who they are. Brian always struck me as a black dude who talked like a lawyer, enjoyed blogging, and liked traveling. I liked that we shared the same interests but I have to admit I never thought for a second that he had to struggle to break norms in America to be himself. It’s certainly something I never had to deal with.

      I like this article and I’m glad it isn’t organized like an essay. Virginia Wolf discovered in the early 20th century that a stream of conciousness style is often better for expressing and examining complex, personal views.

    2. I started out saying that I just wished people wouldn’t try to so hard to “relate” to something other than our own simple humanity. I just wish people didn’t feel the need to “belong” to something or a group so desperately they are willing to kill each other in it’s name. I relate to black people. Not to “blackness” as you put it but I do relate. I have since I was a child. It was something more basic than the trappings of “blackness”. I related to the loneliness. I could tell you the story but it would be rather long. Ever since then, I call it the “awakening of my self awareness”, I haven’t been able to relate to other human beings in any other way. I’m thankful for it. It’s been a curse at times. I’ve been taken advantage of on numerous occasions, maybe even put myself in danger because of it.

      You talk about assuming a mantle of “blackness” and how society assigns these roles to us. That’s true. It’s no small reason that people are seeing a parallel between Rachael Doezal and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Why would a former Olympic Athlete, a father, a white man, a man married to a beautiful woman suddenly decide he doesn’t want to be a man anymore? Can he be a woman? How can you spend 60+ years enjoying all the privileges and accolades of being a man then just decide to throw it all away? Caitlyn wants to keep his penis but be “identified” as a woman. Some people indeed do surgically change their sex but what does that actually mean does it really make them who they think they are? What does it mean to be a woman or a black woman? Is it the hair? Is it the make up and high heels? Can you spend the first half of your life being one thing and decide that isn’t who you really want to be?

      I’d say if we are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then being able to say who and what we are might be just as basic a right. That still doesn’t mean that is what you are. Just like being black isn’t about curly hair or collard greens or even if you need less sunscreen. Just like being a woman isn’t about lipstick and dresses and feeling pretty. There are things about being a woman Caitlyn Jenner is never going to experience, ever. Just like Rachael Doezal is never going to fully know what it’s like to be black. They can come closer than most perhaps. Maybe we should cheer them on for trying. I don’t know the answer because a long time ago I made peace with being me. I don’t look, speak or think like anyone else. I’m my own little universe. I’m in here alone and for the long haul. I choose to “relate” to everyone but it’s a choice that has nothing to do with who I am.

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