What Does It Mean To Black, White, or Other?

Steve Martin with his black family in The Jerk
Steve Martin with his black family in The Jerk

Thank you Rachel Dolezal for giving me something to write about! Whew! I was going through some serious writer’s block.

I had a bit of fun on Facebook by referencing my potato-salad-making, dance and, basketball skills as bona fide evidence of my blackness. For the record, I make one hell of a potato salad but I can’t dance or play basketball to save my life. Those aren’t the only black stereotypes that I don’t measure up to but I’ll stop there.

The inspiration for the post was not meant to make light of Dolezal’s situation but to poke fun at my near translucent skin tone and the constant questioning of my racial heritage. My friend Melanie (also a very light black American) commented on the post by saying that she was irritated by people tagging her in all of the Dolezal memes in obvious attempts to make fun of her hue. I am neither here to condemn or defend Rachel Dolezal, but to embrace a national intellectual conversation on the matter. I enjoyed the multiple conversations and reports that attempted to understand Dolezal’s position that she “identifies as black.”

Black folks’ struggle with skin tone, and to the same degree hair texture, has been family dirty laundry since slavery. And because of slavery and colonization around the globe, descendants of African people come in all flavors and colors. Just listen to my man Redd Foxx:  

It is difficult these days to define “blackness” by skin tone alone. And if not skin tone, then what?

What it means to be black, and in particular a black American, has been captured by writers, poets, photographers, musicians and others for decades. It’s the pain in a fair-skinned Billie Holiday’s voice on “Strange Fruit”; the fiery speeches of a high-yellow Malcom X; and the crystal clear camera lens of a chocolatey Gordon Parks. They all captured parts of our cultural experience and the suffrage of our ancestors and communities.

I heard Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford and author of “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America”, say on the public radio program The Takeaway that racial identification is indeed cultural. When asked if race was biological or cultural, she, without hesitation, answered “absolutely not biological, absolutely cultural. It’s a complete social construct.” Makes sense to me.

There is real anger out there for Dolezal and her perceived chicanery. Some say it is because she was deceitful; others say she stole a job rightfully belonging to someone more worthy. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about the culture. It’s about her not inheriting the culture. It’s about her not experiencing and inheriting the suffrage. And it’s about her not experiencing and inheriting the joys and pride of great accomplishment in the face of near annihilation.  If Dolezal decided tomorrow that she no longer wished to “identify” as black, she could do so without skipping a beat. And that pisses people off. Her situation opens old wounds of cultural appropriation and, to many, she appears to be every bit the culture bandit. She has the safety net of “white privilege” to catch her, should she teeter, and that’s a privilege that black folk just don’t have. She hasn’t earned her “blackness”.

I am not angry a Dolezal. But I also don’t buy her explanation that she has always identified as black.. She simply lacks the bona fides.  I believe that Navin R. Johnson, the fictional character Steve Martin played in the 1979 film The Jerk, was more black than Dolezal will ever be. He, after all, was raised black and she was not.

Despite my fair skin (damn near white in the deepness of winter), you can’t take away my experience as a black man. My bona fides run too deep both biologically and culturally.

The head of the local NAACP here in Syracuse said, in an interview with one of my reporters, that he was willing to accept Dolezal for who she says she is. “If the girl wanted to be a sister, then she’s a sister.”  Son, you don’t even want to go there. What it means to be a sistuh, a black woman in America, is whole different ball of wax.