Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

I am Black

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A younger me

There was an argument I had with a Jamaican coworker a couple of months ago as to my self-identity. He took umbrage at my stated mixed heritage when asked by my boss – who brought up the subject primarily as a means of finding common ground. I could not be both black and white, he said. I have to choose. This sparked a debate among the largely Caribbean Black work crew, one that only got louder when I said, “if that’s the case, then by the one-drop rule, I’m Black.”

“But you can’t be Black.” Well then, let’s just strike right at the heart of it, why don’t we?

I am Tsalagi, Irish and Black; my boss was happy with the “Black” part, the field boss used such knowledge with a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek ribaldry – every time I fucked up on the job or kissed up to some high muckety-muck unnecessarily, that must be my “white half,” – but my fair skin, blonde hair and green eyes were too much for this one man to take. I’m white, he argued, because I could never truly have the Black experience.

It’s true, I could never truly have the “Black” experience: When my biological mother would take us on vacation in St Maarten, groundsworkers and clerks assumed she was my nanny. I could, at the age of five, successfully hail cabs in New York better than her. But her side of the family is Black, I am biologically Black, and common knowledge of such is and would have been enough to dictate my trajectory for much of America’s history. In fact, to describe myself would involve literally taking a page from the autobiography of former NAACP leader Walter Francis White:

“I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me. […]

“I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am. Yet I realize acutely that the only characteristic which matters to either the white or the colored race – the appearance of whiteness – is mine. There is magic in a white skin; there is tragedy, loneliness, exile, in a black skin. Why then do I insist that I am a Negro, when nothing compels me to do so but myself?”

White, a man of mixed heritage whose mixed-heritage parents were both born into slavery, could pass as white. Anita Hemmings, first Black graduate of Vassar College, did pass, and so did her husband and children; one of whom indeed had to in order to graduate from Vassar thirty years later. Passing has been a storied part of a color-struck community in a color-struck world – Blacks who could pass infiltrated whites-only vigilante groups and organizations as a means to funnel weaponry for self-defense during the race riots after WWI, were able to report on systemic discrimination more freely throughout the Jim Crow era, or simply hid in order to escape the trials of day-to-day bigotry.

It’s with this point of view, as a white Black man, as somebody who has always “passed” and exploited such at every possible turn, that I view the actions of Spokane NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal to be the height of cultural appropriation. The allegations that have come out – that she as a white woman with no Black heritage represented herself with a self-styled Black and sometimes Native American identity in order to gain scholarships or employment positions, that she lied about her own experiences and upbringing, including having suffered from discrimination, that she then used said image to become an authority on race and from said position make some truly questionable statements – paint the picture of a person whose actions are that of a sociopath and a narcissist.

To speak to just how hurtful it has been to the goals of the NAACP and of the national Black community, I am reminded of a passage by Malcolm X of “sincere white allies:”

“I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are “with us.” But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.

“Aside from that, I mean nothing against any sincere whites when I say that as members of black organizations, generally whites’ very presence subtly renders the black organization automatically less effective. Even the best white members will slow down the Negroes’ discovery of what they need to do, and particularly of what they can do—for themselves, working by themselves, among their own kind, in their own communities.

“I sure don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but in fact I’ll even go so far as to say that I never really trust the kind of white people who are always so anxious to hang around Negroes, or to hang around in Negro communities. I don’t trust the kind of whites who love having Negroes always hanging around them. I don’t know—this feeling may be a throwback to the years when I was hustling in Harlem and all of those red-faced, drunk whites in the after hours clubs were always grabbing hold of some Negroes and talking about ‘I just want you to know you’re just as good as I am—.’ And then they got back in their taxicabs and black limousines and went back downtown to the places where they lived and worked where no blacks except servants had better get caught. But, anyway, I know that every time that whites join a black organization, you watch, pretty soon the blacks will be leaning to the whites to support it, and before you know it a black may be up front with a title, but the whites, because of their money, are the real controllers.”

He’s describing, effectively, cultural tourism. Not for nothing does it feel suspect that this white woman would choose to wear a perm and make judgments about race – including some comments about the Blackness of Afro-Latinos that Latina community organizer Rosa Clemente took issue with, as well as a further allegation that she denied a Latina student the ability to participate in a discussion about race because she didn’t look Latina enough – as it does, apart from being extremely hypocritical, speak to the very issue as to how this can stall progress if not start a regression altogether. The very core of the debate about race – the inability to change who you are and how you are defined by the public – is both dismissed and subverted by her. The topic is now about her: She derailed the national discourse into one about her.

It reads like a scene out of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and a slap in the face of those whose actual heritage is often questioned. I am too white to be Black, too American to be Irish, too urban to be Indian, and yet I am all those things. I am also not what I’m not: My skin isn’t dark, my hair isn’t nappy, my accent indistinct. My experiences are what they are. They don’t match the given narrative very often, and I don’t attempt to make them (A cow don’t make ham). Why would I? I am authentic enough as to what I am as I am. It is hard enough being me without being somebody else.

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