As last week's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" post has played out here and on What Tami Said and Racialicious (where it was crossposted), I have been thinking about what it means to represent the black race and how black people act as ambassadors to the mainstream world. There is this tendency, from which I am not immune, to feel embarrassed by and to make excuses for black folks who behave badly, or rather, act in a way contrary to a certain set of values and accepted norms. There is a real reason for this compulsion: Black people and other people of color are often unfairly judged as group by the mainstream. In other words, the actions of one equal the actions of all. And so, many of us, learn from the time we are children to mind ourselves around white folks--to not do anything that brings discredit to black people and, ideally, to live life with the goal of uplifting the race through our actions. Admittedly, this idea of being a proxy for the entire race has been tied to excellence and achivement--both wonderful things. But, ultimately, this way of thinking is a tyranny and a perpetuation of race bias.
Whose standards are these?
I am the middle-class child of two degreed educators. I grew up in the suburbs in a mixed-race neighborhood. I attended Gifted and Talented classes on Saturdays and academic camps in the summer. My family was a member of Jack & Jill. My mother is a Link. Both parents were involved in black Greek organizations. We had all the markers of a middle, upper-middle-class African American family. I grew up in the Midwest, but my father is the son of Mississippi farmers (grew up during Jim Crow) and my mom is the daughter of a steelworker and housewife, who both immigrated to Indiana's rust belt from the South. All of these influences made me who I am today, which is a Midwestern, suburban, secular, progressive, married woman. Of course, there are myriad other things that impact who I am and how I believe I should live my life. And so it is with all human beings--we are all the product of many influences, including race, but also class, gender, sexuality, region, age and on and on. So, who will be the judge of acceptable black behavior? Should we judge by the values of my rural, black friends? My urban ones? My gay friends? My straight ones? My Southern friends? My Northern ones? My conservative friends? My liberal ones? My college-educated friends? My high-school educated ones? My religious friends (and is that Christian, Muslim, B'Hai?)? My secular ones? We are not a monolith. That society judges us as one is an example of race bias--a bias we perpetuate and acquiesce to every time we ask a black person to follow a nebulous set of values for the sake of the race.
Defining myself for myself
Audre Lorde said, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."
Yes. This. This is another problem with the notion of being "a credit to your race." Is it not ultimately better to be a credit to your family, your friends, your self? It that not, at least in part, the definition of freedom? And isn't it freedom that our ancestors fought for?
When I think about defining oneself for the black race, I remember high school, where I was a bit of a smarty pants. And, like all the smart kids in my mostly-black school, I was encouraged to be a doctor, lawyer, corporate executive or engineer. "We need more black doctors (lawyers, etc...)," guidance counselors would say. Nothing wrong with being a doc or an attorney. These careers are just not for me. I wanted to study journalism--to be a writer. But I was told, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that I owed the black race to use my intelligence in a traditional field that immediately calls to mind power, money and success in the mainstream. "Journalists and writers don't make any money."
I majored in journalism. And while several of my friends were completing medical residencies and law school, I was working on the night copy desk at a mid-sized newspaper. Doesn't sounds as fancy. But I loved it. And nearly 20 years later, I am successful in my field and happy, because I honored my talents and desires, rather than choose my life's work to score a point for my race in the eyes of white folks.
This "credit to your race" business is a notion concocted by an oppressive mainstream. What good do we do by yielding to it and stifling the personal freedom of black people?
A different standard
I asked in my post about RHOA whether white people were spending time agonizing over the shameful antics of the Bravo brand's white housewives and their families. I doubt it. I don't think white people feel the burden of the Orange County wives' rude, dull and ambitionless adult children. I don't think they read the shallowness of New York City wives as reflective of white culture. I don't think all white people flinched when one New Jersey protagonist expressed the desire to open a chain of car wash/strip clubs. Nor will white people be judged by other white people based on the behavior of a bunch of reality show stars. Black people, of course, are judged by the actions of other random black folks--from Flavor Flav to Marion Barry to Serena Williams to Barack Obama. Our fortunes can rise and fall depending what black person is in the public eye and what they are doing. This is, of course, wrong and unfair. Why then, do black people join in enforcing this unequal standard?
Look, I am not naive. I am, unfortunately, evaluated by mainstream America not just on my own merits, but by perceptions of other black people whom I cannot control. The same is true for all people of color. But I feel strongly that the way to combat this problem is to aggressively challenge the biases of the mainstream, not to fold to injustice by playing behavior cop with my brothers and sisters.
I can't be a credit to my race. I can only be guided by my values, my upbringing and my beliefs. I am a credit to myself.
What do you say?