“Chris isn't black, he’s more like off-white.”
“Yeah, you’re not black...I mean, you know what I mean.”
As a person with a diverse set of friendships, I have heard this conversation many times. It is a way of considering my non-threatening behavior, or my manner of speech. It also betrays a relief that my conversations don’t center on an obvious difference, my skin color, and its representation of the entire community of black people. I’ve even heard it from other black people as an explanation of what they perceive as my movement toward whiteness.
No matter whom I am with, these are difficult conversations to hear.
I wasn’t born into economic privilege; my parents provided for us with blue-collar salaries and some dependence on welfare subsidies. We were well aware of the flight, plight and struggle that my parents endured daily to provide for our family. As I grew older, the closest I came to being middle-class was in those fragments of time when I had a bit more cash than at other times and could join the consumerist masses in a sea of wastefulness.
“white” represents everything that is good and “black” represents everything that must be repressed and contained.
I’ve had a long-running internal conversation in response to these statements that seem to affirm the conflict. I’ve asked myself “Am I not black enough, or am I too black?” In any case, what does being black or being white mean? Why are these racial categories that are simply manifestations of social consciousness that seek to define the “I” and the “you” so important? As I’ve interacted with various groups of people, I’ve come to the conclusion that race is pseudo-nationalism written into the language of the dominant groups against oppressed groups. What both my white and black friends are confirming is that “white” represents everything that is good and “black” represents everything that must be repressed and contained. From this perspective, the appropriate question may well be “Am I just not your idea of black? Am I a monster or a friend?”
After murdering 18 year-old Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson, in his Grand Jury testimony, said Brown, “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” This depiction of Brown strips him of his humanity and tosses him into a trash heap. It characterizes him as a monster that requires justifiable containment. This belief takes a more troubling turn when we consider that Wilson is a police officer, who is supposed to elevate the humanity of all whom he encounters. But Wilson, like so many others, seems to believe that Brown is not human, and thus he is not worthy of equal protection as a citizen because citizenship embodies certain virtues that engender life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Indigenous and people of color communities wrestle with beliefs that citizenship in the United States is not a matter of color, but of a particular morality, a morality that was developed and propagandized by slave owning, sexist, and ironically, revolutionary men. The realities of our communities tell us otherwise.
And yet, Wilson’s depiction of Michael Brown is not an isolated incident, but points to rampant micro-aggressions and disembodied associations that the white population, both conservative and progressive, visit on black humanity unfailingly. My well-meaning white friends are disclosing a hidden belief that I, as a black man, am not intimidating enough to create physical fear; that I am fully subscribed to whiteness. To admit this would be to admit to the white popular image of the black community as prearranged to retaliation and retribution. As a student of theology, it is hard not to consider that this white fright is a manifestation of an eye-for-an-eye theology wrested from biblical interpretations that continue to be used to justify slavery, economic oppression, and patriarchy; an acknowledgment that an oppressive history will inevitably lead to a modern-day Nat Turner. What has led to the modern resurrection in the representations of Donald Trump and absurd legislation is really a desire to return to a Mayberry-ish time when racism, gender otherness and womanism were topics of tension, not to be discussed in polite conversation and were instead relegated to freakishness, where our derision was a source of pride and shared community.
When we limit our interactions between various people, division, even when we believe that we are progressive, becomes an innate reaction. When we limit blackness, for example, we are really enforcing and reinforcing white supremacy. When my friends refer to me as “off-white,” it is to see my blackness as exceptional. This exception is revealed in our choices of friends, employees, romantic partners, families, communities, schools, and leaders. To correct this form of reality, we erase the starkness of the black body and the black intellectual. Entrepreneurship and justice are conscripted into white culture and institutionalism and we, perhaps unintentionally, shed our blackness for what is still not fully human, yet acceptable to whiteness. I am constantly reminded, in all aspects of my life, that race, as a construct, must be socially nurtured and maintained in order to perpetuate ideas around human hierarchical diversity.
For whites, self, and indeed citizenship, becomes defined in contrast to being black, “I am because you are not.”
Perhaps the most oppressive force of human hierarchical creation is represented in its power to define the oppressed while manipulating the psyche of both the oppressed and dominant cultures. For whites, self, and indeed citizenship, becomes defined in contrast to being black, “I am because you are not.” Vocabulary and customs are established in such a way as to ascribe what is good and positive to whiteness providing social privileges to the majority while creating pressure for people of color. This can be seen in the lack of job opportunities for applicants with “ethnic” names, continuing housing segregation, the heritage narrative of the Confederate flag, high incarceration rates among black men, and calls for over-policing communities of color. Through criminalization and economic segregation, the white population is legally able to maintain their perspective of what the United States is and should be.
This is where we see a legacy of the demons that the white community has visited on the black community. Young, rightly angered, blacks riot while joyous expressive whites are merely celebrating a bit too much. Horrible language is used to describe black women while white women are simply experimenting. Brown people are told to remain rational, calm, and nonviolent in the midst of constant bouts for survival and state-sanctioned violence.
So how do we begin to forge a united identity that truly acknowledges and deconstructs a historically white patriarchy?
Forging a united identity begins by deconstructing the historical narrative of exclusive white patriarchal heritage. I believe that we must first end the demonization of people of color by invoking collective repentance, reconciliation and restitution for the tragedies of nationalism, subjugation of other nations, land theft and slavery. In this way, we can find liberation through the acknowledgment of our collective roles as oppressor and oppressed. By acknowledging the complexity of race creation and its economic patriarchal foundations in the United States, we may endeavor to explore systemic inequality. Any assertion that the United States is the home of the brave where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are evident must be substantiated not by the majority, but by those on the margins of society, those who fight for fundamental rights of existence. If black women and Muslims cannot declare, with their own voice, that the United States is a place that welcomes and finds space for all, it remains a land of injustice and a land of white supremacy and white privilege.
Along with my black, brown, immigrant, imprisoned and same-gender loving friends, I remain an outcast; I hover between spaces of academia and monstrosity. In this land, I, and others exemplify the best of our nation yet are accosted by social, political and economic violence and are further isolated in the struggle to hold onto our cultural identities and our right to membership in the assembly called humanity.
The black that white created is paradoxical in that black exists, but only through multiple manifestations of white.
Being black, at the bottom of the barrel, where we are trampled and discarded, yet continue to pursue life, liberty and happiness for all is the concrete meaning of truly being a United States citizen. It is the acceptance of people of all colors; it is liberating; it is soul, jazz, and hip hop; it is the fight for the protection of all bodies and it is the fight for livable wages.
We must acknowledge that the rights of all come through the struggle of those at the lowest rungs of society. It is the survival of the indigenous communities of this nation and the fight to restore their land and it is the communal empowerment of immigrants from Central America, the homeless, women of color and the LBGTQIA communities. It is not simply white. To be a U.S. citizen is exemplified in the struggles of my ancestors for the right to simply be.