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? 

From the vault: Exploring my privilege

[Editor's note, as we get closer to my blogiversary on Sept. 13, I will be pulling out some old, favorite posts "from the vault." This one was originally posted on Feb. 8, 2008.]

No doubt many of you have come across the Privilege Meme that is making its way around the blogosphere. The exercise developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker and Stacy Ploskonka at Indiana State University, explores the markers of privilege as a way to encourage discussion about class and, to some extent, race. (Read more about this exercise here. Also look for a link to a social class quiz on this page.)

Participants are asked to take a step forward--in this case a virtual one--for each statement that is true for them. Below, I have bolded the statements that are true for me.

Take a step:

If your father went to college before you started
If your father finished college before you started
If your mother went to college before you started
If your mother finished college before you started
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home when you were growing up (To be fair, in the 70s and 80s, home computers weren't as ubiquitous)
If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up
If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up
If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up
If were read children's books by a parent when you were growing up
If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen
If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen
If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it before college
If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate
If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
(US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen
(International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes
If all of your clothing has been new
If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house as a child or teen
If you had a phone in your room
If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen
If you had your own room as a child or teen
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (Again, not so much with the fancy technology in the mid 80s)
If you had your own TV as a child or teen
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

What this exercise underscores for me is that I--a black woman in America--have been very privileged, despite sexism and racism. While I certainly can congratulate myself for the good decisions I've made along the course of my life, I should be honest about how my class privilege has given me a leg up. Certainly, my middle-class background has made it easier for me to transcend the stigma of my race and gender. Conversely, a black woman raised in poverty has a steeper mountain to climb. I don't think anyone reading this is unaware of the important role that class plays in this country, but sometimes it is useful to have a quick reminder of where you stand.

Something to note: A number of bloggers have discussed this meme and pointed out the biases inherent in the questions. Racial bias is especially apparent in the social class knowledge quiz (link above) that includes questions about NASCAR and Bill Engvall, two markers of the white working class that mean nothing to a lot of people of color. There is also some age bias to be aware of, given that the exercise was created on a modern college campus. Questions about computers and cell phones are not particularly relevant to me as a Generation Xer and less relevant to Baby Boomers and others.

Check out LaToya's post on Racialicious.

Visit Rachel's" Tavern.

Stop by Education and Class for criticism of bloggers' responses to the Privilege Meme.

Also, stop by the Quaker Class blog that started it all.


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