Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stuff black folks don't do: Creating our own oppression

I've been thinking about Max Reddick's post, "Oh, the places we could go...," which we crossposted last week on Love Isn't Enough:

A couple of months or so ago at the end of the summer, my wife and I planned a trip with a few other African American couples we know just to have one last bit of fun before summer ended. When we first conceived of the idea, we bandied about several suggestions, but all of them seemed so absolutely done.

Someone suggested a cookout at the beach, but I was beached out, and I don’t particularly find the beach all that fun. Of course, Disney and/or Universal Studios in Orlando were offered, but we go to Orlando several times a year already so that was out. And in that same vein, someone suggested Busch Gardens in Tampa, but that too was voted down.

Then my wife suggested that we go somewhere and do something none of us had ever done, something unlikely. And we finally decided on a destination and an activity. But on the eve of our trip, one by one the couples and families called us to say that they had to cancel, that they would not be going. And each couple and family proffered the same excuse: “We all talked and decided that that’s just something black folk don’t do.”

Evidently, all of the black folk got together, or at least enough to form a quorum, and decided that black folk didn’t do such things. Read more...

I thought about this--what black folk don't do--while driving to and from Washington, D.C. this week. I love a good road trip. Driving allows a glimpse of the country and the way people live in a way that flying over does not. There are so many hidden treasures to be found--kitschy shops, little towns nestled in the mountains, frozen in time. Of course, you also see the bad, not just charming Americana. But the bad--the urban blight and rural poverty--are as much a part of the American story as the good. Perhaps we would be better at governing our country if we took time to stretch our legs in another person's space from time to time--stand on a corner in a city deserted by industry or have lunch in one of those picturesque old-fashioned towns with flags lining mainstreet. It's all America.

When I was a kid, I had this dream of driving cross-country in a really cool convertible. I haven't achieved that dream exactly, but, in our 20s, my girlfriends and I took annual 10-day road trips during the summer. We piled in a rented minivan and did it on the cheap. We slept five or six to a room and ate at inexpensive local places. Our goal was exploration. We'd pick a direction--east, south or west--and plot points along the way where we might want to spend a day or two. If we saw a sign for a little-known historical sight or the world's biggest ball of twine along our route, and seeing it struck our fancy, we'd head off down the trail. On the way to New Orleans, we took a detour to see the campus of Ole Miss, because of its place in civil rights history. On the way to Vegas, we toured the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I count that time touring the country with my girls among the best times in my live. We had a ball, learned a lot and saw amazing things. There was one night, driving through Texas and New Mexico on a desolate, dark road with the moon shining full, tinting everything blue, that I will never forget.

There is another thing I will not soon forget: That nearly everyplace we went, the Grand Canyon; Salem, MA; Tombstone, AZ; the Garden District of New Orleans; we were the only black people there. Not surprising, I guess, because when I talked about my travel plans with black friends and coworkers I received the same message that Max did: "Black folk just don't do that."

I know that I occupy a privileged place in many ways. My family took trips when I was growing up. I am educated and have a career path that allows me to take a couple weeks off to travel. I have the resources to afford travel. I know not every other black person can claim these things. But, the thing is, the people I was talking to could. These were eduated black professionals with knowlege of all the places they could go and the resources to get there. Black people are less prohibited in our ability to move about this country today than we have ever been. So where did the idea come from that even if we have the ability we are not to allowed to explore the country our ancestors built with their sweat and blood?

Where do notions of what black folks do and do not do come from? Have we been so tempered by racism that even when we aren't faced with racial restrictions, we create our own?

Rightfully, a lot of ink and effort is expended on pointing out the lack of equity between black people and the majority culture in education, good housing, safety, opportunity and other resources. But I think we don't talk enough about what happens once those things are achieved, at least in part.

We cannot stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon--one of the seven wonders of the world--because "black folks don't do that." We cannot travel overseas. We can't be marine biologists. We can't listen to rock music.

It's like that grasshopper in the jar story (which could be total BS) that says if you catch a grasshopper and place it in a jar with a lid on it that eventually the grasshopper will eventually tire of smacking against the jar lid and will stop trying to get out. You can eventually remove the lid and rest comfortably knowing that the grasshopper will not escape.

Through most of our history in this country black people have lived within limits imposed by the majority culture. And, I should add, as we discuss often on this blog, we still do live with limits. It worries me to see those limits embraced as "black culture." Take away the limitations and there will still be things we will not allow ourselves to do, even when they are good for us. We will create our own oppression. Every time we say "black folk don't do (fill in the blank)," we become complicit in our own bondage, barriers to our own freedom.

So, why do we do it?


Lauren said...

Great post.

Pamela Lyn said...

Good Lord, were we separated at birth or something? LOL

Hopefully, your post will open a few eyes.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I love your roadtrip description; it sounds amazing.

If there is a list of "what black folk don't do" amongst friends and acquaintances I'm guessing it's something that's rarely spoken directly about - just understood. Which makes it hard for friends to help one another stretch, explore a bit more.

I am wondering something about this concept. The behaviors and belief of "I/we don't do that" (self-imposed limitations, whether totally or own or heavily influenced by others in our lives) vs. the knowledge of "I genuinely DON'T WANT to do that" - how can one know the difference? Which is the authentic Self and which is like the grasshopper in the jar?

Thank you for another thought-provoking post. I look forward to your writings!

Tami said...


I think the difference is revealed in whether you can articulate a real reason for not doing something. Usually you can do this if your choice is truly about preference. I can say that I don't, in general, care for heavy metal because I am drawn to melody and nuanced lyrics that I don't find in that genre. I think that is different than saying "black people just don't listen to that type of music."

Akinoluna - a female Marine said...

I remember doing swim re-quals in the military and there being a crowd of black guys at one end of the pool, putting off their turn to swim across. The water was only three feet deep but instead of attempting to swim, they just laughed and joked about being black and not swimming.

And the thing is, they had ALL done it before as it is a requirement to finish boot camp in the first place. A lot of them seemed proud of it, refusing to swim because they were black. I remember being a little confused about the whole thing.

Renee said...

I know that this is not the response you expect, but I have used the "Black folk don't like," to get me out of camping with the unhusband. The thought of sleeping in a sleeping bag, on the cold hard ground, does not illicit even the slightest bit of excitement from me. So sometimes, "Black folk don't" has its uses. Yes, I realize it is wrong, but nothing under God's yellow sun is going to get me to sleep in a tent.

Kjen said...

But I have evoked the "black people don't" when it comes to traveling.
And it isn't generally consciously stated. Its just that when I imagine myself traveling to places I dream or read about I generally don't see brown (e.g. me) faces there. And I use to marvel with how often I seemed to see (in the media at least) white people break out of their circles - from various ethnic neighborhoods, to foreign countries (France to Japan to Africa) it seemed like the message I've absorbed is that white people can go anywhere. Whereas brown people should fear for their persons and always be ready for insults or attacks.
Basically, the physical manifestation of the idea that we don't "belong" there.

Anonymous said...

I think the thing to remember is that you may not see American Blacks at certain places but you will see Africans. That totally surprised me when I lived in Germany. I live way north of where Americans were, so no AA but plenty of Africans. There was even a hair salon. So these people were a permanent fixture.

Also I think that AAs think that nothing in our history connects us to Europe or other countries. But that is just wrong. Much of Eastern Europe worships a Black Madonna. AA soldiers were the first to liberate much of the continent. Buffalo soldiers protected the early National Parks. And the African diaspora is world wide. So if anything we should go to these places because our histroy is there too.

The Original Wombman said...

Well, in my experience, the whole "Black folks don't do that" mantra was really another way to say "Don't act White" which was probably the worst thing you could do. It meant turning your back on your culture, your people in order to emulate the oppressor. And sometimes become the oppressor. So there are the neat categories of what "real Black people" do and don't do and once you step outside of that box, you're labelled as trying to be something else because you don't like what/who you are. I've encountered it so many times when it comes to my parenting choices: breastfeeding, extended nursing, co-sleeping, cloth diapering, homeschooling--you name it. Even though experience, history and research says that these kinds of parenting practices are beneficial because it's not "something Black folks do", I find that I hesitate to share information with your average Black person unless they show some kind of interest/open-mindedness, it really just opens you up to lots of criticism and condescending looks . . . really, as if you're sadly trying to be something you're not.

I can't say for sure why this is the case but I take this lesson from my children: If I say "No" to something and re-direct them enough times, they eventually stop trying to do that thing that's off limits. They learn there's no point as long as I'm there. As long as I'm in that powerful position over them.

Sassy J said...

@Renee-- LOL! Among my friends, I'm the one that is looked at funny when I say "Let's go camping!" Granted, there's an option of having a full cabin...I can only take about one night in a a sleeping bag...on the hard ground...

My ex told me that during the summer, she had stopped in Monterey while driving home from Central/South Bay California. She was at a dock and there was some wind-sailors or some type of activity that was taking place on the water. She walked up to a guy who looked to be an instructor and asked if they give lessons. The guy just looked at her. She asked him again and was getting frustrated when he said "Black people don't do this". It took ALL that was within my ex to not clock him! Rightfully so, she complained to the manager about the service and treatment that she received. If the fool hadn't been so ignorant, I'm sure they would have received a lot of business because she would've organized a trip with her church group or personal network of friends. Not anymore. I definitely sided with her, yet on the other hand, I understood the instructor. Not saying his ass wasn't wrong (and in her eyes borderline racist), but I'm sure that she was the first black person that he'd ever encountered interested in whatever it was he was teaching.

We do it to ourselves. We believe that we are completely monolithic and think and believe the same about everything.

*RANDOM THOUGHT* Okay, so there's this song out called "Wasted" by some down south cats. There's a line that goes "I don't wear tight jeans like the white boys, but I do get wasted like the white boys!" (Don't judge me, I listen to this song to get me hyped for the club...or just to get to work). Now, it's cool to be wasted, not drunk...

Anywho...growing up, most of my friends were white, asian, and hispanic. There families always seemed to do the latest thing, go to the funnest place, or whatever. I kind of lived vicariously through them. As I've gotten older, I'm realizing 'why, not?' 'Who are you living for?' Yeah, I may be the only black face in the room, but it's not like it hasn't happened before.

I will say this though, about the last thing I wrote. I have been in a few situations where I may be 1 of 2, 3, or a handful of black folks...and NO ONE wants to talk to each other. Like we're mad cuz someone else found out about the party! lol Seriously, I don't get that.

N.D. Ellery said...

I love the post. I don't say "black folks don't do." I say "black folks don't do this yet. Maybe i'll be the first."

Anonymous said...

Great topic. It definately can become an excuse out of fear, lack of interest or desire to try new things. I wonder though, are there things that folk from other cultures could say that they do'nt do because they are from 'X' culture or community?

I do think though that a part of that, with Black folk comes from historical limitations we faced, which we have carried into 'the promised land', and it could also be a 'knee-jerk' resistant reaction to 'white culture'.

There is not much that I will limit myself to except for the following: sky dive, off road racing, listen to heavy metal (ugh), listen to country for extended periods. But I do not attribute them to my racial background, just personal dislikes.

I like plenty rock, ie. Nirvana, Peal Jam, Coldplay, like plenty old school [soft] rock, James Taylor, Doobie Bros., Carol King etc., love sushi(actually have an obsession with most Japanese food], love Michael Flatley and the whole Lord of the Dance thing. love it. (Nayo)

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone tell me about stuff lesbians don't do, but I sure as heck hurd a million things girls weren't supposed to do when I was a kid.

It seems a shame that black people limit each other as far as seeing the country and having adventures.
My neighbor sure goes to amazing places, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and I never recalled his other friends getting on his case about what black men can or cannot do.

Maybe it's pushing buttons about traveling to Williamsberg or Salem... very "white" identified historical places? I must admit there are things I avoid as a lesbian, because I don't want to deal with hostile heteros, so maybe it's the same for black folk going to Salem, MA?

Interesting intra-group policing, isn't it?


Diva (in Demand) said...

You really have a point with this post. My husband and I did a summer long road trip that included stops in Atlanta, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and California. Everyone we knew doubted us and thought that we were doing something extremely strange because "that's not what black folks do..."

Great post.

Sassy J said...

@Diva- Isn't that crazy? Like, how do people think black folks used to travel 20, 30, 40 years ago?

My grandparents took me and my brother on road trips for two summers. We took the southern route from California, spent a month in North Carolina, then took the midwestern route back. My aunt would pack a suitcase full of games for him and I. In each state, we would have a specific activity that would teach us about that particular state. It was such a good time! When I moved back to the East Coast, my mom, sister, aunt, and I drove in my cute little Toyota (they better be glad they're breathing...). Though the miles stretch on and on and on, it's a chance to appreciate the US.

blackgirlinmaine said...

As a Black woman who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Maine (whitest state in the US) I had to laugh. I get this a lot..."Black folks don't live in Maine"..Oh really? I live here and I was raised in Chicago of all places.

It's funny because I realized that I internalized so much of the what we don't do themes that it took moving to a place like this to break out of it.

I was over 30 before I ever saw real forests, spent time on real farms, etc.

In Chicago I could not imagine going camping on road trips in small places that were all white. I still haven't gone camping, but have seen amazing little towns in this region and in the US and its mind blowing.

What a great post!

Sassy J said...

Okay, I have another one...what about plastic surgery? Is that only something "others" do and black people shouldn't attempt to do?

So, recently, my aunt told me about this place in DC that specializes in minority skin care dermatology and plastic surgery. I have been battling facial hair for a long time and I really want to do laser. I also have been wanting to do liposuction on my stomach. And as I was critquing myself in the mirror after a shower, I realized my breast could use a am I wrong for this? Is this stuff only white people do? My boss (black woman in her 70s) recently shared with me that she had some facial work done about 10-5 years ago. Is she trying to be eurocentric?

More and more, I'm realizing that it's not about trying to "look white", even though for some, that is their objective. But it's more about being happy with oneself. True, I do believe thatsocietal influence is a factor in altering one's body.

(Tami- if this is too candid, you don't have to post! lol)

Earthseed said...


Greg Gross said...

Great post, and great comments. I've linked it to my own blog, with my own comments there.

You've got something terrific going here. Don't stop!

Greg Gross, editor
"I'm Black and I Travel!"

Juanita's Journal said...

I thank God that my parents - especially my father - doesn't think like that. Or I would have missed out on some amazing experiences while traveling.


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