Pay Attention to Nuances When Black People Say They “Don’t Understand What Black Means”
I’m always mildly annoyed when I hear Black people speak the negativity (and downright verbal poison) of “I don’t understand what Black means.” What’s even worse is that many of us don’t understand that this is poison. Any statement that is anti-self is poison, and a form of negativity to be excluded from one’s mental diet. Rejecting a component of one’s identity is definitely anti-self. It’s similar to voluntarily hacking off one of your fingers. Yes, you’ll still survive and be able to function (more or less). By why do something like that? Why do anything that would hinder your ability to live at an optimal level? African-Americans have been bombarded for so long with a steady diet of poison, that we don’t always recognize it as poison.
PAY ATTENTION TO NUANCES—DIFFERENT TYPES OF BLACK PEOPLE MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS WHEN SAYING THAT THEY “DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT BLACK MEANS”
Another problem is that most African-Americans are tone-deaf, and can’t hear the nuances in various statements. This is one reason why we end up being subservient to, and run over by, most other types of people that we encounter. Most African-Americans have the childish mental habit of assuming that other people, and especially Blacks from other ethnic groups, see the world the same way we do, and think just like us. They don’t. See this conversation at the previous blog that touches on this issue.
When African-Americans make these “I don’t know what Black means” statements they are publicly advertising their general lack of ethnic and racial self-respect. Most African-Americans have no sense of ethnic identity, and only a vague (and negative) sense of racial identity.
When foreign-origin Blacks make these statements they are, at best, neutral statements reflecting normal human patterns of how people set priorities. It’s normal human nature to take care of folks in this order: self, family, clan, ethnic group. With many people in many countries, “nation” isn’t even on that list. For other people, “race” also is not on that list; their concern only extends as far as their own ethnic group. With most people, outsiders are almost never on the “take care of them” list.
Most African-Americans have the “take care of them” list backwards compared to every other group of people. We put outsiders first and put ourselves last. African-American women put themselves dead last on the “must be taken care of” list. Our misleaders have programmed most African-Americans to look to create over-arching coalitions with anybody and everybody else . . . in the absence of taking care of self, family, clan, and finally, ethnic group.
Our misleaders have also programmed us to fixate on being “fairer than fair” to anybody and everybody except ourselves. This is why so many African-Americans will come to Black blogs to fight with other Black people to champion the interests of NON-Blacks (such as the “don’t you dare call me Black” so-called biracials, other so-called “people of color,” and so on). (Note that these other “people of color” generally only use that term to describe themselves when they want something from African-Americans. Many other “people of color,” such as many Latinos and Arabs, are heavily invested in self-identifying as “White” in every other context.)
All the above confused thinking is upside-down and backwards. And it doesn’t work.
A NOTE FOR NON-AFRICAN-AMERICAN READERS
Yes, there are non-African-American Blacks who do the same thing. I just happen to feel that members of my own ethnic group (African-Americans) routinely take this madness to levels that other Black folks generally don’t go in such large numbers—we’re the most infected with this particular strain of insanity. Nobody else thinks like this to this degree. This is why I’m addressing this issue with a focus on African-Americans for this particular conversation.
A NOTE FOR THOSE AFRICAN-AMERICANS WHO ARE CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT “AFRICAN-AMERICAN” MEANS
I would define “African-American” as being something parallel to the commonly understood (among themselves) definitions of “Italian-American,” “Irish-American,” “Hausa,” or “Jamaican-American.”
In other words, being the descendants of a group of people that are—distinguishable from others—and connected to each other— by a shared set of historical experiences and cultural norms. When I say “African-Americans” I’m referring to those of us who are, distinguishable from others and connected to each other, by our shared historical experiences as descendants of those Africans who were held in slavery in the United States.
Just like every other ethnic group on the planet is—distinguishable from others—and connected to each other—by some shared set of historical experiences and cultural norms. Why is this concept so mysterious only when describing African-Americans? Answer: Because we’ve literally had our ethnic and racial self-respect beaten out of us. As a result, we slavishly look for validation from other people who do have some ethnic and racial self-respect for their own groups. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something will always rush in to fill one. Even if it’s something harmful, such as self-hatred.
Shared historical experiences and shared (general) cultural norms are not the same as the “acting Black” straitjacket. Sometimes an individual’s connections to their heritage, and to others from their group, are loose ones. That’s okay. Sometimes these connections are tighter (as I’ve noticed seems to be the general case among many Greek-Americans and Jewish-Americans). That’s also okay, for those folks who want closer connections with their group.
Many African-Americans say “Black” when they’re actually referring to what they (often mistakenly) believe to be African-American culture and shared historical experience.
This “acting Black” mess that many African-Americans speak is rooted in their ignorance of their actual history and cultural inheritance, and various types of dysfunction that they’ve lifted up (such as African-American gang subculture, African-American prison subculture).
In short, the “acting Black” fools have confused their African-American historical and cultural inheritance with African-American gang subculture, African-American prison subculture, and African-American hip-hop subculture (which draws heavily from gang and prison subculture).
Many African-Americans have surrendered the “African-American” and “Black” labels to these nuts. And then many African-Americans run from the African-American and Black labels out of justified revulsion to the gang, prison, and hip-hop-based madness the nuts have defined as “Black.”
I refuse to surrender the African-American and Black labels to the “acting Black” nuts.
But above and beyond the relatively recent decades of “acting Black” madness, there was much preexisting confusion among African-Americans. We often conflate “African-American” with “Black.” This confusion is leavened with large doses of racial and ethnic self-hatred.
WHY TALK ABOUT SPECIFIC AFRICAN-AMERICAN IDENTITY ISSUES?
I talk about these specific African-American ethnic and racial identity issues because I want you to be as comfortable and relaxed with all facets of your identity as other people are with theirs. I want you to be relaxed and self-confident enough to enjoy all this world has to offer. Right now, most African-Americans can’t do this because we have emotionally charged relationships with various aspects of our identity.
I want you to hold your head high as you travel this world. Just like other people take what is good from the wider world without feeling compelled to discard their own identity. There are two unhealthy and extreme positions that insecure African-Americans take regarding their ethnic and racial identity. The first unhealthy position is to try to:
(1) minimize (“I’m 1/8 Cherokee, 1/27th Irish, 1/58th German, and . . . umm, I’m too dark to deny it, so I guess I have to say . . . Black”),
(2) deny (“I don’t know what Black means”), and finally
(3) erase (“I’m Cablanasian, biracial, multicultural, anything-but-Black”) the African-American and Black identities that most of us are deeply ashamed of.
The second, and ironically equally self-hating, position is to outwardly show fanatical levels of fixation on one’s racial and ethnic identity. Perfect examples of this second manifestation of feelings of inferiority are the legions of “Blacker than thou” Black male leaders who chased, sexed or married light, nonblack, and White women. Elijah Muhammad and his light-skinned, often teenaged secretaries. Many if not most of the Black Panthers; see Bobby Seale’s autobiography A Lonely Rage for the details of the Panther leadership’s exploits while chasing nonblack women. Harry Belafonte. Amiri Baraka.
In fact, there’s currently at least one minister in the Nation of Islam who is married to a nonblack woman. I’m referring to one of Elijah Muhammad’s illegitimate children by one his light-skinned secretaries, Minister Ishmael Muhammad, who is married to a Mexican woman. For more examples regarding a number of Black male Pan-Africanist leaders, see this post by Halima, blog host of Black Women’s Interracial Relationship Circle. The list can go on.
I never understood either of these extremes. My parents raised me to have a healthy and most of all, relaxed sense of self-respect for every aspect of my identity.
It’s interesting. Without being “Blacker than thou” fanatics, they managed to raise me so that it never occurred to me to feel “less than” based on being a girl, or being Black, or being “Afro-American.” (That was one of the popular terms for us when I was a small girl.) While growing up, it never occurred to me to try to emphasize the White ancestry that led to the light skin and brown hair that runs through my family.
As a pre-teen, I was not excited to hear about the White family in the Southern town that my grandfather came from that has the same surname as him. I never denied that these particular White folks existed. Or that they were most likely related to us, but I didn’t feel any compulsion to emphasize them when the topic of my ancestry came up. Without knowing the term “reciprocity,” this concept was the basis for my indifference and apathy about these rumored White relatives. Since these particular Whites weren’t trying to track us down and claim us as relatives, why in the world would I want to chase them down or go out of my way to claim them?
At the time, I knew some other African-American 6th, 7th and 8th graders who were extremely frantic (every chance they got) to point out all the distantly related nonblacks in their family tree. I remember thinking how strange it was that they were so focused on people who weren’t equally interested in them. In fact, it sounded like many of these distantly related nonblack folks didn’t claim any kinship to them at all.
I was only interested in hearing about, and later on researching, the history of those ancestors who cared about having a connection to the rest of us.
My parents raised me to have ethnic and racial self-respect without disparaging other people. It’s possible to reject whatever injustice exists without engaging in stereotyping, or painting other people with a broad brush.
I also never understood the second extreme of “Blacker than thou” behavior. This includes the years I spent as a Black Nationalist. I didn’t hate Whites or nonblacks. I wasn’t fixated on outward displays of so-called Black consciousness. I wasn’t a natural hair evangelist who berated and harassed other Black women for wearing relaxed styles. I wore my hair however I felt like wearing it, including relaxed styles.
I was a Black Nationalist because I wanted my own people to have the good things that others have. Things like racial and ethnic self-respect, functioning communities, and so on. When I (briefly) considered joining the Nation of Islam during law school, it wasn’t because they talked about White people. It was because they talked about being a free and independent people like everybody else. It was because they took action in support of providing the “money, good homes, and friendship in all walks of life” that Elijah Muhammad promised for as many Black people as possible. It was because they were the only Black group I saw that had visible, tangible, consistent, long-term achievements in improving the lives of large numbers of African-Americans.
Anyway, both of the above-described extreme positions reflect insecurity and an inner belief that one’s own heritage is inferior. Healthy people don’t have emotionally-charged relationships with the various facets of their identity. They simply appreciate and when relevant, celebrate, their identities and go on with their lives.
AFRICAN-AMERICANS ARE THE ONLY BLACKS THAT REJECT HAVING THEIR OWN SPECIFIC ETHNICITY
African-Americans are the only Black ethnic group on the planet that’s so confused about, and often has an active aversion to, having our own ethnic identity.
I’ve never heard a foreign-origin Black person form their lips to disparage their own ethnic group by saying that they “don’t know what it means to be” Hausa, Jamaican, Panamanian, Dominican, or whatever else they are. African-Americans are the only ones who speak that form of negativity about their own group. You’re the only ones who do that.
FOREIGN BLACKS DON’T NECESSARILY MEAN THE SAME THING AS AFRICAN-AMERICANS WHEN THEY SAY THEY “DON’T KNOW WHAT BLACK MEANS”
Too many African-Americans assume that Black people from other ethnic groups see the world the same way we do. We assume that their circumstances are the same as our circumstances. This leads to the (often mistaken) assumption that these other Black folks mean the same things as we do when they use certain expressions. They don’t. Remember, for some foreign-origin Blacks, their level of concern only extends as far as their own particular ethnic group. They only feel connected to: self, family, clan, and ethnic group. Not nation. And not race.
This means when foreign-origin Blacks throw away the idea of “Black,” almost all of them are still proudly hanging on to their specific ethnic identities as Jamaicans, Hausas and so on. It’s important to note that even the foreign-origin Black folks who say they “don’t know what Black means” still hang on to their particular ethnic identity (such as Hausas, Panamanians, Jamaicans, Dominicans). Even if they aren’t interested in anything “Black,” they never say they’re confused about what it means to be part of their own ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, when you as an African-American throw away the idea of “Black,” you’re throwing away the only smidgen of identity that you have! This is because most of you never took the time to develop any specifically African-American ethnic identity. While you’re busy making yourself . . . nothing . . . but a culture-free, “race is an artificial construct,” human being . . . these other types of Black folks are still proudly identifying with their specific Hausa, Panamanian, Jamaican, Dominican ethnic heritage as well as being “race is an artificial construct” humans.
They still (proudly) keep their ethnic “cards” in their pockets when they make these statements, while you completely empty your pockets when you do the same. Unless you develop any sense of specific ethnic pride, you leave yourself empty-handed when you throw away the racial identity card.
Can you see the difference between these two positions? Can you see that African-Americans are the only ones who are so confused about what it means to be part of their own ethnic group? Can you see that nobody else on this planet is claiming that type of confusion? When you’re the only one doing something, that’s usually a clue that whatever you’re doing is unwise.
These “I don’t know what Black means” statements don’t necessarily have the same effect or meaning when uttered by foreign-origin Blacks. This is because, unlike most African-Americans, foreign-origin Blacks are often making these statements in the context of maintaining their own ethnic self-respect. Their context is different from your context of having nothing but a racial identity (as “Black”-Americans).
Lifestyle optimization requires you to examine ideas from the vantage point of your own particular context and circumstances. It’s impossible to have an optimal lifestyle when you make critical decisions based on other people’s circumstances. Parroting the statements of other people whose circumstances (and often their interests) are out of alignment with yours will throw your life into chaos and ruin.
Another nuance that many African-Americans are too tone-deaf to catch is that when some foreign-origin Blacks denigrate the idea of “Black,” they are actually denigrating African-Americans. Many African-Americans are slow to catch on to this because of their own lack of ethnic pride, and their general naïveté when dealing with Black-skinned outsiders. It’s a mistake to assume that Blacks from other ethnic groups see the world the same way we do, and think just like us. They don’t.
Consider that a shared racial identity (“Black”) is the only connection that some foreign-origin Blacks ever claimed to have with you. Aren’t many of them constantly telling you about how different they are from you? And about how differently they do things back on their islands and in their countries? Their cultures are different. And that’s okay. Let me stress that there’s nothing inherently wrong with, or insulting about, recognizing ethnic differences. But too many of you fail to pay attention to the nuances behind various statements.
Sometimes when foreign-origin Blacks make these “I don’t know what Black means” statements they are simple neutral reflections of the normal way of organizing priorities (self, family, clan, ethnic group). However, sometimes when foreign-origin Blacks make these statements, they’re making a point of throwing away the only connection (a racial one) that some of them ever claimed to have to you. They’re not discarding their connections to one another when they say they “don’t know what Black means.” Even when they don’t know anything about “Black,” they still know what Hausa, Jamaican, Panamanian, Dominican, and other identities mean.
When they throw away “Black,” what they’re often discarding is the notion of having any connection to YOU.
Many African-Americans are too clueless to understand this. Just like many African-American men, there are many African-American women who are looking for the nearest exit out of their Black and African-American identities. So they get overjoyed when they hear Black-skinned others make “I don’t know what Black means” statements.
These confused African-Americans mistakenly assume the foreign Black person who makes these statements is joining them in becoming racial AND ethnic blank slates. (Remember, most African-Americans conflate “Black” with “African-American.”) No, when foreign-origin Blacks make these statements they’re not joining African-Americans in making themselves totally blank slates. Unlike the African-American speakers, most foreign Blacks are still holding on to their specific ethnic self-respect when they make these statements. Again, it’s a matter of paying attention to nuances.
These other types of Black people have another way of identifying themselves (as Hausas, Jamaicans, Panamanians, and so on). As confused African-Americans, YOU’RE the only Black ethnic group that doesn’t recognize any identity more specific than “Black” for yourselves. You’re the only ones who call yourselves “Black” only. Sometimes, when foreign-origin Blacks are talking negatively about “Black,” they’re talking singularly about African-Americans. They’re talking about YOU.
I firmly believe that charity begins at home. Every culture on this planet has unhealthy aspects. Having unhealthy aspects is not the same as having nothing of one’s own and being a blank slate. Healthy people recognize that yes, they are part of the overall human race, and that on one level, race is an artificial social construct. However, healthy people also have more specific cultural identities besides simply human.
African-Americans’ previous attempts to become ethnic and racial blank slates is part of why many of our children are still giving the same responses on the “doll test” that African-American children gave in the 1950s. There’s a direct connection between:
(1) The widespread African-American lack of ethnic and racial self-respect.
(2) The resulting desire to be racial AND ethnic blank slates, which nobody else is doing to the same degree. (For examples, Hausas aren’t saying they don’t know if there’s such a thing as being specifically Hausa within the overall context of being Nigerian; and Jamaican-Americans aren’t saying that they don’t know if there’s such a thing as being Jamaican-American.)
And (3) the anti-Black woman colorism that many of us have been talking about.
AFRICAN-AMERICANS CAN LEARN SOME THINGS FROM FOREIGN BLACKS, SUCH AS THE IMPORTANCE OF ETHNIC SELF-RESPECT
We live in a world of other people who, for the most part, have some ethnic self-respect. At minimum, other people tend to have more ethnic self-respect than the “typical” African-American (including the ethnic self-respect that most Africans and West Indians display when they come to the US).
This baseline of ethnic self-respect is why I’ve also never heard a Nigerian (of any Nigerian ethnic group), Jamaican, Panamanian, or any other foreign-origin Black person use terminology like “pro-Hausa,” “pro-Jamaican,” or “pro-Panamanian.” The unquestioned assumption appears to be that they’re going to be for themselves, whoever that is.
These other Black people don’t have any problem with being for themselves. Meanwhile, there are African-Americans who use the terminology “pro-Black” as if it’s a slur, when “Black” is the only tiny bit of identity they know (because they haven’t developed any ethnic identity as an African-American).
Any African-American who wants an optimal lifestyle needs to appreciate the difference between healthy ethnic self-respect and “acting Black” madness. It seems to me that one set of confused African-Americans (sometimes deliberately) misinterpret “expanding one’s horizons” as “oreo.” While another set of confused African-Americans (sometimes deliberately) misinterpret having ethnic and racial self-respect as “militant,” or “acting Black” madness, or being anti-others. Somehow, this confusion only arises in reference to African-Americans. Others, including other types of Black people, are free to have ethnic self-respect without having it mischaracterized as something negative. Other types of Black people are also free to take advantage of whatever the wider world has to offer. I want you to be free to do this as well; while also holding your head high as an African-American.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time traveling abroad. To say that African-Americans are very Westernized, and specifically very Americanized, after centuries of living here does not negate the fact that African-Americans are a separate, identifiable ethnic group. African-Americans are a people that are distinguishable from others, and connected to each other, by a shared set of historical experiences and cultural norms. African-Americans are not ethnic or racial blank slates.
African-Americans have legitimate cultural practices of our own. Is every single artifact of our African-American culture “legitimate”? No, but I vehemently disagree with the notion that African-Americans have absolutely nothing that’s real. I disagree with the idea of giving respect to everybody else’s cultural heritage while disrespecting my own by saying that I don’t have one. Or by saying that mine doesn’t count relative to other people’s cultural heritage.
For example, I don’t believe that West Indians or the various Black Latino ethnic groups have any more of a “real” cultural heritage than African-Americans. If African-American culture is a hodgepodge—as I’ve heard many African-Americans say in public—then the same applies to other Western Blacks. I never hear the African-Americans who make these statements apply the “hodgepodge” label to the cultures of other Western Blacks. They reserve that particular dismissive term and attitude for their own people’s culture.
The bottom line is that ALL Western Blacks are enmeshed in whichever European culture was and is dominant where they live.
English-speaking West Indians are enmeshed in British culture. African-Americans are enmeshed in British-descended, WASP culture (with pockets of also being enmeshed in French culture in Louisiana). Black Latinos are enmeshed with the culture of their former slave owners, the Spaniards.
Before somebody says that all these other Western Blacks have cultures that are more “real” than ours because they have their own independent countries, please consider the following questions. Are any of these other Black folks’ countries independent in the same way that China is independent of the US? Or are some of them independent the same way Mexico is “independent” of the US? Finally, are some of these countries independent to roughly the same extent the city of Detroit is independent? (For example, note that Puerto Rico is not an independent country.) Let’s be clear about all of this.
Even the straightened hair, green-contact-lens-wearing, skin-bleaching Sammy Sosa is not claiming confusion about his specific ethnicity as a Dominican. He’s not saying, “What is Dominican? I just don’t know what that means.” He simply wants to be any race but Black. Mr. Sosa is a good example of a Black person who has racial self-hatred, but not ethnic self-hatred. He’s thrown away “Black,” but he hasn’t thrown away the “Dominican” part of his identity.
African-Americans’ cultural heritage is no more (and no less) made up than those of these other Westernized Black people.
I’m not going to assign a rank to my cultural heritage that’s less than the rank these other Western Blacks assign to their cultural heritage. I don’t hear these other Westernized Blacks saying that they don’t have any culture of their own, or that they don’t know what it means to be part of their own ethnic group. I suspect this is because these other Western Black ethnic groups never demonized having ethnic self-respect as being something negative.
This is something positive that African-Americans can learn from other Black ethnic groups.