What 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.
In 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.