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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Blackness..who defines it?

In my daily cruising of blogs, I was struck by a blog I read about Soledad O’Brien and the issue of Blackness. Soledad is hosting a two part program on CNN that I have not yet seen on being Black in America and guess some folks questioned whether Soledad was really Black enough to be a part of such a discussion. For starters I will admit that I didn’t even know she was Black, over the years I thought she looked like she might be Black but with that name honestly, I never gave it a second thought.

However in the larger picture, reading about her Blackness or lack thereof brought me back to my own childhood and how often I endured cutting remarks from family members on my supposed lack of Blackness. As I have talked about before, I attended predominantly white schools even when we lived in Black areas, I was the kid in high school who had to get up at 5:30 am to trek across Chicago to get to school by 8 am. In my early years, we did though live in a predominantly white area.

For starters, as a kid, I was the kid who couldn’t jump rope, not just any rope, double-dutch, that definitely earned me lots of laughs as a kid.. later on I was put down because I talked white, I read books, and the worse offense in the eyes of relatives, I listened to white music. Back in fourth grade, I bought my first albums, Duran Duran and The Police and yes these were indeed albums. LOL

Later on growing up I grew to embrace all kinds of music, yet despite my love of music, I have been told I cannot dance. How many family gatherings did I attempt to let loose only to hear the family “Look at S, she dance like a white girl”.. laughs all around.

It wasn’t until in the past 10 years I realized I wasn’t the only Black kid who grew up being cracked on because of my supposed lack of Blackness as a kid, yet even when we become adults if you were a member of the non-black enough crew growing up, you still get it from adults. Its never ending, but the reality is what the hell is Blackness?

Honestly I beleive much of what we in America call Blackness makes no sense, to say that a group that  has millions and millions of members must all do the same thing is group-think on a crazy level. What I consider the Black experience in America is a rich diverse array of experience. It shapes us individually and creates Black folks as diverse as John McWhorter, Jesse Jackson, and many others. Even factoring for socio-economics, we are as diverse as white folks. No one ever expects white folks to be all the same.

Yet for many of us Black folks if we see someone engaging in behavior that we associate with White America we are quick to slap a label on that individual and heaven forbid we might even call said not real Black person an Oreo. Yep, been there, done that too. Thankfully I have reached the age where it no longer irritates me that family members think I am an Oreo, I suspect my move to Maine solidified in their minds that I am a true Oreo.. oddly enough these same folks like many who are quick to judge who is really Black, no nothing about Black history.

Blackness as I define it is a state of mind, its the ability for me to take pride in my roots, its when I reached that place where I can proudly share about my humble family roots, the grandfather who was a sharecropper. Its that place where as a Black woman I can look upon my own natural attributes and be at peace with how I was created, I see joy in my nappy hair, my full lips and hips and cocoa complexion. Its the place where I want to embrace all members of the diaspora, where I understand that the Dominican brothas and sistas are the same as me.. we all hail from the same place, we just ended up at different places.

No, Blackness can not simply be reduced to a few points, Blackness is not necessarily growing up in the hood, Blackness allows for the richness that gives us the Soledad’s who choose to embrace her heritage because she understands that Blackness is more than skin color. I like to say its in our blood, we feel its strength, its the strength that allowed a people who had been taken away from their homes to create in this new and strange land that was forced upon us. I sometimes think that if the ancestors could see this silliness that many of us engage in that they would cry out in shame at what we have become.

Instead of deciding who is Black, let us make sure we understand who we are first and foremost.