Monday, August 11, 2014

"You're Not Really Black, Right?"

I guess it's time to finally write a version of this I can publish and share as needed. I wrote a post on a similar theme years ago in response to a reflexive, lighthearted but racially tinged facebook comment I wrote when my social media presence was essentially some friends, family, and former schoolmates. I write this disclaimer basically to avoid accusations of 'plagiarizing myself' and just basic principles of honesty, since much of what I write here is copied/adapted from what I've said so many times before, though I've only written about it once. -- JPB

Over the course of my life, I've been questioned about my race. These questions have taken various forms--from mildly curious to unintentionally offensive to bizarrely hilarious--but they've been coming since I was about 9 years old.

For those few readers who may not know what I look like:

I'm 'light-skinneded' and then some
My father was black. My mother was white. As I have said often, I could "pass" for white if I so chose. I am aware that some people don't consider me "black" by their standards, but that's them and not my problem.

That said, I take my race and ethnicity very seriously. I grew up with black family and black friends. No more than four familial generations ago--records indicate I'm 4th familial generation born free--my family was owned by white people in Meridian, Mississippi.

I mean, it was 1880 Mississippi. I don't know how "free" they really were.

My father grew up in the Great Depression in Indiana--a state literally run by the Klan at the time. I have heard stories about how my grandfather, James, would grab his gun and go outside to get all the children in the house because the Klan was about to march up the street they lived on--one of the three streets or so blacks were allowed to live on in Fort Wayne at that time. My father and my family had to endure racism most of us today can hardly fathom--and I grew up acutely aware of this. I knew I had opportunities that my father never had, and I have always been grateful for how much he went through and how much he sacrificed so I and my siblings could become successful people.

The 70s were an awful time for fashion--I mean those shoes! Ugh!--but Pooh is eternal

When I was very young, my father told me, (paraphrasing), "Because of who you are, or what you are [read: black]--you may have a harder time than other [read: white] people. Deal with it, and move on." It was the 1980s and my first school district was still trying to implement desegregation plans--and we were still interchangeably called "Negro,""black," or "Afro-American."

Ironically, my father's insistence on voting on that desegregation plan after our family moved a quarter mile from the school district boundary, unbeknownst to us, caused me to leave my accelerated magnet program for a less advanced, increasingly segregated school system.

The students' race used to be listed next to our names on our attendance sheets in this second school system. Race is most certainly a social construct, but it made enough of a difference to mark each of us as such on every printout every teacher, student, and administrator was given.

Jonathan P Blanks| 7(th grade)| M(ale)| B(lack)

America was much less tolerant just 20-25 years ago than it is today. It was weird, even in the closing years of the 20th century, for a white girl's parent to be okay with their daughter dating me, despite my not being visibly black or holding the stereotypical undesirable traits which may lead one to think reasonably justifies such explicit prejudice.

But that's the thing--racism doesn't make any damned sense.

We, as black people, have different experiences that make us who we are. These differences are related to skin tone, hair, what part of the country we grew up in or whether we lived in the country, the city, or the burbs. There is no singular "black" experience--but almost all of us know racism.

How we deal with that is a part of what makes us black. I've been called an 'exception.' I've been called 'not really black.' But I've been told nigger jokes, and I've heard people say "well, not you, but YOU know." I've had perfect strangers talk about 'niggers' in front of me--even since I've moved to DC (by a former police officer, no less!).

I know they're talking about my father. I know they're talking about my siblings. I know they're talking about my cousins. And make no mistake they are talking about me--whether they know it or not.

Somehow, I'm dorkier than the guys in the Purdue and Starbury jerseys. SMDH
I can't explain the range of emotions that hit when that look comes over their face when I tell them I'm black and they start stammering their way into excuses and lies about what they really meant. No one thinks of themselves as "racist," but it takes a special kind of coward to disown the words that just came out of his mouth for not the first or second time.

I digress.

While my parents were among the first generations in living memory to openly 'miscegenate' absent of government obstacles, I'm hardly the first person who could 'pass for white.' Indeed, James Weldon Johnson wrote a moving book entitled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man back in the early part of last century. It's moving and heartbreaking...and you come away understanding why some people would deny their heritage and their families to escape the punishment and terror that was black life for so much of our nation's history.

But the pivotal moment when I realized my situation wasn't new--and what I was feeling wasn't either--was when I read Malcolm X's Autobiography for the first time:
"But I will tell you that, without any question, the most bitter anti-white diatribes that I have ever heard have come from "passing" Negroes, living as whites, among whites, exposed every day to what white people say among themselves regarding Negroes -- things that a recognized Negro never would hear."
Like a thunderclap I realized that this resentment I felt--while not "anti-white" per se--was something untold numbers of Americans have felt for years. That my experience was something genuine too--because my authenticity (black, white, or other) was questioned by seemingly everyone in my adolescence--was a seminal moment of my life. I didn't necessarily self-ID as "black" for a number of years afterwards--indeed, I went through a phase during which I was quite hostile to the concept of a distinct black identity--but that book changed my life.

I knew exactly what those people felt...and realized I wasn't alone. That shared experience is the bond of community that a lot of black people feel toward each other. It took me a bit longer to figure it out, but that is why I feel how I feel and why I identify as "black" and not "white," though I never disavow nor do I feel shame about my mother's family or heritage.

I think I've said enough on this subject for public consumption.

Suffice it to say, however, that if I'd be black enough for Malcolm X, I'm pretty sure I'm black enough for you.

bellum medicamenti delenda est


MollyM said...

Jon, I think your family is beautiful. And considering what I have seen spoken to you and in front of you.... Well spoken, Boo.

Anonymous said...

Really great perspective to share. Thank you, American blackness is so much about the *narrative* of how one has emerged in this society, and is much less about physical appearance.

JohnLloydScharf said...

I think "race" is a social construct, not a genetic fact. If you go far enough, you will detect whatever "race" you are looking for or, for some, the "race" you despise. I am 8 generations away from Ashkenazim and ten generations away from "Black" genetic markers. I have olive complexion to the point of being "Black" in summer and "White" in winter. If pressed, I will identify as ancient alien because I think "race" is a myth like unicorns. I refused to answer the 2010 Census because any answer would be a lie. Lying on the form is a felony, but refusing is, at most, a $500 fine. I dared them to their face to take me to court.

Shereen said...

Loved your article regarding guns. Very well put. I don't even own a gun and know banning guns is foolish and won't stop the killing. Along with your other suggestions on how to "help" with the many issues facing the US, I believe better mental health help would go a long way to preventing these young people who feel so disenfranchised get some help before it is too late and they do something like we are seeing in our schools.