According to the AJC, a white student has started an informal White Student Union at Georgia State. The student claims that whites are a “minority” at the school, and he wants to organize around issues that effect white people “like immigration and affirmative action.” The student says that he “wants to celebrate white identity” and realizes that some will think that he is forming a racist organization. This story makes me ask the question, is white pride inherently racist? And I want to distinguish between “white pride,” and pride in one’s individual ethnicity, such as Italian, Irish, German, Swedish, etc. When someone expresses “white pride,” could they just be proud of the collective identity, culture and achievements of people of European descent or should we soon expect to see them parade around in a white hood and cloak? Take the poll and please share your comments.
"In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate." Toni Morrison
— Toni Morrison (@MsToniMorrison) August 4, 2013
Lorain Horizon Science Academny In Ohio Reverses Afro Puff Ban, Admits It Was A Mistake
I missed this news when it came out six weeks ago and stumbled upon it today through serendipitous circumstances. A school banned afro puffs and hair braids in its new dress code. The school issued an apology the next day, and an African-American board member claimed the ban was aimed at African-American boys rather than girls. I commend the school for recognizing its mistake and quickly resolving the issue. By changing the policy, they have certainly demonstrated that they were concerned about the well-being of their student body.
Nevertheless, I’m sharing this link to Huffington Post’s coverage because I think the incident spurred some very interesting conversations about identity. If you have thirty minutes to watch Huffington Post’s extended video to hear all of the comments it’s really a worthwhile experience. A professor discusses how growing out his afro has resulted in colleagues saying he looks like a criminal and police seeing him as suspicious. He goes on to discuss the subtlety of racism these days, as opposed to the overt racism of the Jim Crow era. The interviewer herself shared that just before she left home to attend Harvard, her female relatives ran an intervention to try to get her to perm her natural hair. She laments that she wishes she had a choice.
I think that “choice” is the key word here. Equality comes in many forms. Having the choice to accept and embrace your identity is a fundamental aspect of equality. Black women stand alone in all of humanity as lacking the choice to grow their hair natural. Sure, we can do it if we really want to, but we do so with consequences that women of no other race will encounter. You see, we do not know if wearing our natural hair will prevent us from being hired, promoted, loved, or apparently even tolerated in school.
If you think this is an exaggeration, take a look at the Black women on TV. How many Black female news anchors, politicans, judges, entertainers, and models wear their hair naturally? How many Black female “sex symbols” wear their hair natural? The vast majority wear their hair permed, straightened, weaved, or wigged. If most of them are choosing to alter their hair as a form of individual expression, then we have equality. But if they are essentially forced to do so in order to be acceptable in the public eye, then we have a lot of work to do.
Equality encompasses the right to be. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, Black women now have the right to live where we want to live, get the education we’d like to have, enjoy any public space we wish and even marry those of whichever race we happen to adore. But, we haven’t yet gotten to the point where most of us feel free enough to be natural.
I recall the day I first found out I wasn’t Black. I was in middle school hanging out with my White friend “Kristin.” I had come over to spend the weekend at Kristin’s house, a beautiful home just a few miles from the beach in South Florida. We were sitting on her bedroom floor playing cards and talking with effervescent, pre-teen abandon. I don’t recall the precise topic of conversation. We may have been comparing our circle of friends—uber-nerdy math wizzes in a magnet program for gifted kids—with the “regular” kids who were geographically assigned to our school. We may just as well have been discussing hair styles or music. Strangely, there is a dark void where my contextual memory should be, but I remember as plain as day when Kristin uttered these five words, “You’re not Black. You’re smart.”
In the very brief conversation that followed, Kristin outlined further reasons why I wasn’t Black while my 12 year old self fell into a haze of shock and bewilderment. You see, I have never been confused about my racial identity. Though I have often been the only Black friend, the only Black neighbor or one of the only Black students or employees, I never lost my sense of self in the sea of whiteness. Somehow I have managed to be comfortable in my black skin and to think of my achievements as merely incidental to—not in spite of—my race. So her words were very hurtful, though undoubtedly meant as a compliment, At this tender age, I was confronting the reality that my good friend was actually a racist. Sure, she wasn’t a Confederate flag toting, Dixie whistling, white robe wearing racist. But she was a racist nonetheless, and I’d had no idea up until that very moment.
At my current age of thirty-something, I now understand that the racist mind tends to views things in sharp, qualitative dichotomies: white v. black, smart v. dumb, citizen v. criminal, etc. It was easier for Kristin to believe that I wasn’t Black than for her to believe that a real live Black person could be smart. That being said, racism itself isn’t really black or white. It is various shades of grey. Kristin welcomed me into her home, shared food with me, and genuinely valued my friendship. On the other hand, she believed that Black people couldn’t be smart, own their homes or speak proper English.
This grey area is at the heart of modern racism in America. It is an area where beliefs of general inferiority can give way to perceived exceptions, where actual friends can be subtle enemies, and intentional acceptance commingles with subconscious rejection. It’s a condition that most Black people understand inherently, due to their experience, and a reality that most White people find to be completely incredulous.
Let’s say Kristin grew up to be a manager. In the course of hiring or promoting diverse job applicants, would she remember the smart Black friend of her youth or would she tend to assume that Black applicants aren’t intelligent enough to do the job? Will she protest (openly or internally) if her only son wants to marry a Black woman? Will she be suspicious of a 17 year old, unarmed Black teenager walking lawfully through her neighborhood on the way to his father’s house?
Therein lies the rub.
There are millions of “Kristins” in America subconsciously carrying around notions of racial superiority, notions that have been carefully cultivated by centuries of deliberate policy and a few decades of arguably benign neglect. And sometimes they make decisions that directly impact my life. It’s not their fault, really. They live in a world that has been constructed to affirm and celebrate them while vilifying and devaluing others. Some of that is certainly changing, but just because we’re past the era of lynchings and color-coded water fountains doesn’t mean that we are in a post-racial society. The more that we can bring these grey areas into the forefront, the closer we will be to true equality.