Black White Man

My mother is black, and my father is white. I walk among you.

Archive for January, 2008

Good question: Is “What are you?” a good question?

Maybe it was being raised for a few years in the South, or maybe it was just the enlightening moment of reading Malcolm X’s autobiography — but I usually prefer that people ask an awkward question about race than not.   I like people’s thoughts to be out on the table — even if their thoughts are racist or ignorant, I can at least address them if they come out.

So I try not to discourage people from asking things like that.    I understand that some people consider it reductionist (“I’m not what a ‘what’, I’m a ‘who’!”), and usually when people ask “What are you?” it’s with a bit of an unpleasant tone.   But really, is that so much better than the tipsy-toe “Where are you from?” or “Where are your ancestors from?”?   I know what you mean when you ask “What are you?” … isn’t the point of language to be understood?

Mostly, when someone asks me this, I feel like it’s an opportunity to blow their minds a little bit.    Of course, when I answer them, they are incredulous.   But over the years, I’ve crafted a response which is inarguable.   If I say, “Well, I’m Black” some people with disagree.   Fine.  That’s their right.     If I say, “Well, I’m White.” … firstly, that’s a lie, because ‘white’ in this country includes the concept of racial purity in a way that ‘black’ and ‘hispanic’ don’t; and secondly, they don’t believe me … they follow up… “Are you Jewish/Italian/etc. etc.?”   So, what I’ve come around to answering is, “Well, my mother is Black and my father is White.”    These are indisputable facts.    If I show people pictures, there’s no argument.    So then the asker is just confronted with the poverty of their racial definitions.   And that’s exactly how I like it.

But I couldn’t get them into that uncomfortable position, unless I was okay with them asking the question in the first place.

Obama – Politics of Race, part 2,9171,1689619,00.html

Here’s one of the original posts that was quotes in the post that I quotes yesterday.   Phew.   Gotta love the incestuous blogosphere.

I’m posting here mainly to follow up with yesterday’s post; I don’t have much to comment on here except to say that this is some exception, honest writing from another multi-racial journalist; and so very insightful to Barack in a way that someone who isn’t multi-racial might have a hard time with.

In particular, this line stuck with me, and will for a long time:

“…race is used here as a kind of bullying truth that pushes aside the actual human experience.”

I think that no one line has ever summed up my entire racial identity so well.   For me, being multiracial is a constant struggle to prove that our racial constructs are to simple to describe me.   It’s not even that my heritage is complicated.   It’s simply that I’m not covered by the prevailing model.

Blacks in America: Bargaining and Challenging
I’m so very tired of analysis over Barack Obama’s blackness.    But when I came across this post, I was shocked at how fresh and interesting analysis can be when it’s intelligent and insightful!    In a nutshell, the author talks about how Black people can either challenge white America for its current and past racism, or they can “bargain” with white America, presenting a feel-good I’m-okay-your-okay type of situation which allows the individual Black to succeed and the white participant to feel good about themselves.    He’s basically reframing the age-old dichotomy between the agitator and the collaborator.

The really interesting part of the analysis of politics is when he points out (I think rightfully) that Obama has to distance himself from challenging Black politicians like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.    Clinton can afford to associate herself with this Black constituency, and so has a fair chance of winning the “Black vote”.

But I’m actually more interested with the broader application of this dichotomy.    Personally, I’ve always been very influenced by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — I believe that the right, if painful, approach for Black Americans is to bargain on the outside, and challenge on the inside.   I believe that there are times to strike, when the iron is hot, but ultimately we’ve got to play their game.

I’m rambling a bit, but this post has given me quite a bit to think about.

I get so tired: on being a minority.

Jennifer writes an extremely thought-provoking post here on the need for a “white spokesperson” to explain topics of race.    I have some thoughts on this which I’ll leave for another time, but right now I’m mainly interested in her lead-up, which is equally interesting.    Jennifer talks about being just tired from the daily wear and tear of being a visible minority on her campus.   Reading her post gave me one of those moments when something felt but never labeled in your life is suddenly given words.    I’ve been constantly tired my whole life, living almost always in majority white environments.   As a multi-racial person, I also get tired in Black environments, but for different reasons.    In white communities it’s usually a kind of wariness about the constant racism and classism that a lot of white people drop.  And then there’s the fact that I usually “pass” without meaning to, and I hate it, so I’m often looking for openings in a conversation where I can mention my race without it being a jagged reference.   In a Black setting I constantly worry about proving my Blackness and not seeming to hill or uppity.     In a nutshell I carry a *lot* of baggage, and it’s gets very very tiring.   And I’m glad that I know have words for it, thanks to Jennifer.

Clinton Surrogate Makes Creepy Reference To JFK Assassination – Politics on The Huffington Post

Clinton Surrogate Makes Creepy Reference To JFK Assassination – Politics on The Huffington Post

In light of the recent accusations against Bill Clinton for “playing the race card”, I think that this story about one of Clinton’s aids is a little more relevant than it was when it posted.

But really… the interesting thing to me about this story is that I think more people should be talking about the chances of assassination.    One of the things I dislike about race relations in this country is that the fear of being called a racist stifles important and relevant conversation.   And I do think that a conversation about whether Obama is seriously risking his life is both important and relevant.

I don’t think I’m saying that he shouldn’t run.    I think I’m saying that we should all be prepared for what will happen in this country if he’s elected and his presidency is … short.    No doubt it was callous and extremely cold-hearted for this aide to be so flip on the subject, but he’s the only guy I’ve seen in the media who’se talking about this!

Bruce Leroy: the Last Dragon

I have a little tradition. Every year, I celebrate MLK day by watching Black movies. Usually I choose something light; in the past I’ve done Shaft or Posse, because part of the point is to invite my white friends over to encourage them to celebrate the day, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable. Still, next year, I think I’ll do Spook Who Sat By the Door.

In any case, this year was Bruce Leroy: the Last Dragon. I hadn’t seen it for year, and I remembered it as being excellent, but, dude, I had no idea. The thing is genius. It’s possibly the last great Blaxtoitation film, and a Berry Gordy joint to boot. It’s everything that’s excellent about Blaxtoitation films, everything that’s excellent about kung fu flicks, and everything that’s great about 80’s movies, all in one! Truly you should check it out.

Synopsis: Leroy Green is a young student of kung fu growing up in Harlem in the 80’s. His master can teach him no longer, as he has achieved the sixth level of mastery. He must search all over (Harlem) in order to find a master who can teach him how to reach the seventh level, where mind, body and soul are one. Along the way he must battle Sho’nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, protect his family’s pizza restaurant, dress like a ninja, and learn the “moves” needed to win the heart of Vanity, a popular pop singer in the area.

It’s golden. I think I myself achieved the seventh level while watching a kid escape being tied up by doing the robot. Brilliant.

Here’s the trailer, courtesy of YouTube:

Law & Order episode, “Blood,” featuring a light-skinned Black man who passes

After a couple of hours of Googling, I finally found the info on this episode. It’s “Blood” and it stars Stephen Mendillo as a light-skinned Black man (like me) who joins a law firm in the 60s. Since equal opportunity laws hadn’t been written, yet, he made the choice to start passing when he applied to the firm. It gives a very interesting, and I think balanced, view on the topic. I said it yesterday, and I’ll say it again. I think that anybody these days (and they do exist) who is passing needs to buck up and stand up for their ancestry. But I can’t say for sure what decisions I would have made when there was apartheid in this country, and I can say pretty confidently that I would have passed if I had been born in slavery. The situation as presented in this episode of Law and Order reminds of something that I often forget, and that my Mom has to remind me a lot: segregation in this country was not that long ago. Anyone over 50 in this country remembers it. That’s hard for me to wrap my mind around, but there it is. And so, I’m sure, that there are lots of people in that generation and older whose friends, family and co-workers all believe that they are white. And if they had to do it all over again now, they would do it differently, but they started the lie in a more difficult time…

Anyway, it’s got me thinking. If you do get a chance to see the episode, do.

“Tolerance Fatigue”

The moment you decide to pass – a clip from “the Human Stain”

A few days ago I saw a very good episode of Law and Order, featuring a light-skinned Black man who started passing in the 50s so that he could make his way up to partner at a law firm. I was Googling just now for a link, which I didn’t find. But I did find this great clip from “the Human Stain.” I have very mixed feelings (no pun intended) about people who passed during the days of slavery and apartheid. Now, I think there’s no excuse for it, and I’m glad my momma raised me better. But I can’t say I wouldn’t have bowed to what must have been an enormous pressure. This clip shows me the counter-argument. I don’t think I could bear to have this conversation with my Mom.

Obama’s Victory Speach – Iowa Caucus

For those of you who may have missed it:

Good speech. He yet again managed to move me emotionally without saying anything in particular. But, the more I think about it, the more I think that that may actually be the job of a president. The president doesn’t actually do much. He sets tone. He makes speaches. He’s a leader. But the people getting the job done are in the capital building. So, maybe an Obama is just what we need.

Plus I think it’ll do wonders for the confidence of both African Americans and Black Africans.

Is it just me, or is Obama consciously trying to emulate the Revered Dr. Martin Luther King in his vibrato intonation of “they SAID…”?