Black People Are Not Monolithic

Today’s post is written by regular BGIM contributor Teddy Burrage, a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.

“Black people are not monolithic.”

“Black people are not monolithic.”

“Black people are not monolithic.”

As I began to draft this post, I kept on saying that phrase in my head over and over. I began to realize how immense those five words are. To consider those words is to consider the full breadth of human experience.

The phrase says that Black people don’t move as one, but rather we move in all directions, towards and away from each other. It says that we are unique people endowed with the expected strengths and flaws inherent to human existence. It means that inside any given Black person lies an amalgamation of ideas, experiences, and values which shape each of our worldviews.

But despite our unique individuality, we are often crammed into boxes constructed by society. Even in our well-intended effort to identify with each other, we as Black people sometimes define and standardize Blackness to a fault.

Being from Maine (often referred to as “The Whitest State in the Nation”) my experience as a Black person who has one white parent is much different than a person who has two Black parents and lives somewhere like Washington, D.C., which has a Black population of 50 percent.

Much in the same way, the experiences of a Black person who grew up in View Park-Windsor Hills, California, (known as the Black Beverly Hills) is going to be different than the experiences of a Black person who grew up in the most impoverished parts of Milwaukee or Newark.

If Black people were monolithic, issues of sexuality and gender wouldn’t cause rifts in families and communities. Some pro-Black activists wouldn’t lift the message of intersectionality (highlighting the plight of transwomen of color, for example) while other pro-Black activists see it as their mission to uphold heteronormative ideals and gender roles, concerning themselves with the so-called feminization of the Black male.

If Black people were monolithic, we wouldn’t face conflicts among ourselves about politics and ideology. We wouldn’t argue about what it means to be Black or how best to express our frustrations with racism. It would be impossible for Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Cornel West to simultaneously exist on the same planet.

These comparisons could go on forever to account for religion, politics, country of origin, skin tone, parental/guardianship caretakers, education, citizenship status, employment status, criminal record, sexuality, gender identity, etc., etc.

Despite society’s attempt to conceptualize Blackness in one dimension, reality shows that we are as diverse as any other race.

Our human minds want to create schema to sort through information better and create our own understanding of the world. And it’s not just white people who place guidelines on Blackness (or any other identity) in this way.

For example, I’ve been told numerous times in my life that I wasn’t Black enough by other Black people:

I’ve been told that because I speak “proper” means that I can’t be Black.

I’ve been told that because I’m light-skinned means that I can’t be Black.

I’ve been told that because I’m from Maine means that I can’t be Black.

After hearing these things, I caught myself trying to check off boxes in head:

  • “I get the jokes on Def Comedy Jam and Comic View”
  • “I like to do cookouts”
  • “I’ve lived in project housing”
  • “My parents listened to soul and gospel growing up”
  • “I got my butt whooped as a child”

These are all experiences which I had associated with mainstream American Blackness. And yet to my dismay, I was still not Black enough, despite my own self-identification.

The conflict of checking of boxes has also been a physical one on official documents, standardized test, and census reports. Do I check just Black? Do I check Black and white? Do I check other?

But after some internal deliberation, I rejected the idea that there were certain boxes I must check to be Black, or to be me. I found that if I do or feel something, it’s something a Black person does and feels–it’s something that Teddy does and feels.

But here I digress from my personal experiences.

Culturally, there are significant aspects Blackness we must thoughtfully consider. The Harlem Renaissance, soul music, the Black Church, the Black freedom struggle, hip hop, rap, and certain hair styles are all things which are inherently and undeniably Black.

Being Black in America means that you will surely encounter racial bias in social circles, employment, and governmental institutions.

I believe that it is through our effort to honor and recognize these rich and significant cultural realities that we fall down the rabbit hole of trying to categorize ourselves. But we must find ways to both honor and realize our experiences while allowing people to be Black in their own way.

In that same way, we must find ways to talk about the demographic and statistical realities of Black life without pandering to the detrimental stereotypes white supremacy places on us.

We must be gentle with ourselves and others when we try to define Blackness. We must look beyond the narrow scope of the systems of oppression we have internalized to make room for everyone to be themselves. This will not be easy or without conflict but we must make it our goal to allow people to be Black in their own way.

Black people are in fact not monolithic and to realize that is to realize our humanity.
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