Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are you a credit to your race?

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? 

8 comments:

Monica Roberts said...

It becomes more of a problem when you are a marginalized group within the race.

At times I do feel as a African descended transwomen I have to 'represent'.

But ultimately I have to be happy in my own skin.

mixedjewgirl said...

I really love your blog. I've been arguing this point with people for years. In the end, I am a credit to my parents and myself. Let's leave race out of it.

The Enclave... said...

I agree with you. Your blog was very well written and I feel a kinship with your experiences. My only critique is that by being a credit to yourself you ARE a credit to the race. You appear to be about positivity as opposed to negativity and that inherently is a credit to the race. We cannot divest ourselves from our community and the interests of said community. I fear that by narrowing your focus to the individual you could be allowing yourself the freedom to be selfish and I think as Black folk selfishness goes against what is in our soul. We believe in community and that while the individual is good the community is our greatest asset. Just my 2 cents... I thank you again for your writings.

Tami said...

The Enclave,

Thank you for your support. See, I think we can encourage ALL people to be positive, to learn, to live their best lives, to care about the people around them, for myriad other reasons than "white folks may be watching and judging us all." I don't advocate forgetting about ones brothers and sisters and how racism impacts them. But I don't support limiting our individual freedoms in response to the ways that the dominant culture oppresses us.

Monica Roberts said...

mixedjewgirl.
WE can NEVER leave race out of it. It is an ingrained organic part of living in America

Anonymous said...

Have you read "Ghetto Nation" by Cora Daniels? It came to mind as I was reading this post. I would be curious to hear your opinion of it.

Diallo said...

I can't answer as to what anyone else should do, but I like many have tried to be a 'credit to my race'...

I work in financial services where non-Asian people of color are woefully under-represented. I also live in a neighborhood that reflects the demographics of my workplace. I've come to the realization that my ability to influence opinions/perspective/orientation is a bit one sided... Positive attributes are seen as the exception rather than representative, but any negative action I take or negative perception that is created is projected or reinforces negative stereotypes about African-Americans. I've given up on being an emissary, I will not go out of my way to try to create favorable impressions, but on the other side am cognizant that my actions do have consequences beyond myself.

Had I reacted in what I personally feel is the appropriate manner or even just reciprocated, to a director who thought it was appropriate to stand up and yell to get his point across (a tack which I note he has taken w/ no one else), then it may have been years before we had our next black new hire... My ability to help other POC is very limited, but my ability to hurt them is limitless. My experience comes from living and working in a DC suburb, I can only imagine the situation in areas, and industries with even less diversity.

Diallo said...

I can't answer as to what anyone else should do, but I like many have tried to be a 'credit to my race'...

I work in financial services where non-Asian people of color are woefully under-represented. I also live in a neighborhood that reflects the demographics of my workplace. I've come to the realization that my ability to influence opinions/perspective/orientation is a bit one sided... Positive attributes are seen as the exception rather than representative, but any negative action I take or negative perception that is created is projected or reinforces negative stereotypes about African-Americans. I've given up on being an emissary, I will not go out of my way to try to create favorable impressions, but on the other side am cognizant that my actions do have consequences beyond myself.

Had I reacted in what I personally feel is the appropriate manner or even just reciprocated, to a director who thought it was appropriate to stand up and yell to get his point across (a tack which I note he has taken w/ no one else), then it may have been years before we had our next black new hire... My ability to help other POC is very limited, but my ability to hurt them is limitless. My experience comes from living and working in a DC suburb, I can only imagine the situation in areas, and industries with even less diversity.

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