Wednesday, May 6, 2009

African-American, Black or Other: Who Are We?

Are you aware the categorization of race and ethnicity in this country is different from other countries? In the UK it's Caribbean, African or Other. They use the term Black & Minority Ethnic (MBE). Having slavery declared illegal (but allowing the “lesser” evil of colonialization) set up a different dynamic than the United States. That is a stark contrast to the "average" Black person in the US. There is much confusion about who we are - and aren't. If I make a mistake in discussing this that's okay because this is something we need to hash out.

I want to explore the role of race and ethnicity and the impact it has had on the Black people born in this country whose ancestors go back around 5 generations or more. I'm estimating the specific generations that were here during the time when they were enslaved (or free and trying to stay that way)! First of all I’m still not sure how I wish to refer to myself. Black or African-American seem to be my only options. We don’t all share the same ethnicity but we can claim some commonality, can't we? Many of us can do so with pride, but many of us cannot. I believe part of the reason is that we’re not all sure what our family’s specific ethnicity is.

I have wondered about my own family gene pool and how the women of my lineage fared but have seen it as a potentially emotional and financially taxing undertaking. Having those conversations about being a Sojourner, the Death of Black Unity and asking What About the Future Generations as well as How Do I Pick A Quality Mate at various blogs has challenged me in so many ways this past year. Believe it or not I went from Entertainment/Gossip blogs to a few political ones due to the election, to those that ask the tough questions and demand that I do internal work. 

This is despite that fact that I’ve already done a LOT of internal work and highly recommend everyone see a qualified mental health professional one can feel comfortable with. Even if I had all the answers I'm not sure how much emphasis would be appropriate because of the unresolved racism that exists externally via white supremacy and internally through the Black on Black intra-racial/ethnic/gender/class conflicts. Doing that internal work and always being interested in seeking justice is what led me to hosting my own blog.

Some of us may claim we're "Black” and that's it. I refuse to use the lower-case “b” in writing about us because I’ve always considered that “rule” something white people did to keep the inferiority complex going.  It’s easy to say a concession has been made by the use of a lower-case “w” for white, but when you’re running things you can make such superficial gestures. Which term embodies the qualities we're looking for?

I think I can safely state when some of us claim “Black” as our entire racial AND ethnic distinction it’s because many of us may not know our gene pool or lineage past the 3rd and possibly the 4th generation. Depending on the relationships forged many of us simply do not know: unless our ancestors did something extra-special (which implies that surviving throughout Reconstruction, Jim Crow & Civil Rights wasn't special enough) or they TALKED about it and had documents to show for it.

Depending on one’s class status and point of view, a person mired in daily financial struggles or other situations may not see it as a priority (though they SHOULD) to put the time and money into the necessary research to find out their full heritage spectrum and perhaps may not how to either. Dare I say a lot of Black people do not know who their "people" are or what they did to survive. This lack of knowledge fuels a lot of the embarrassing patterns I discussed in yesterday’s post.

I want to make it clear that by using Black I’m referring to those whose ancestors were forcibly brought here to the USA, survived being enslaved and built this country. Many of us  share a common African heritage of being the descendants of those enslaved but we were dropped off in different parts of the world. The US Census calls it something else, but since race is a made up construct I say we take the word back and make it work for our benefit! Some may use African-American and even prefer it. Those first few survivors who had their individual cultures and languages wiped out were forced to become reconditioned blank slates for the purposes of providing labor and breeding.  People were solely focused on freeing themselves NOT on their various ethnicities. That may not the experience or intention of every individual Black person who set foot here but it is more than likely the majority one.

Slavery is seen by many as painful, shameful and something we had to “overcome”. Thinking of it as something a strong, resilient people SURVIVED because they FOUGHT TO LIVE is NOT the way many of us think about it. There was so much shame being carried around by many of our forebears that we were taught to look forward and keep it moving. It was like escaping Sodom and Gomorrah: if we looked back we’d turn into a pillar of salt. At the time that was part of that Black Unity survival tactic but it is choking us now.

There were also legal barriers put in place to hold our ancestors back post-Slavery as well. Land was stolen. Miscegenation laws meant some of us were legally barred from entering into a marriage contracts with others who weren't just like us. We couldn't own guns. 

Many people who may be able to easily identify their various ethnic markers can do so with pride, but some do it with a certain animosity towards others who can't. White supremacy has aided and abetted many. The enactment of the paper bag tests of the past speak to that. The music videos of today show how much worse it has become. We may all be “Black” but some of us are looking for a little something extra to add-on and to put on a pedestal. That extra can be beneficial for some in a patriarchal supremacist society in the same way women share a common gender but some women (usually white) are still valued more than others.

Would those excluded from the ones that enacted these tests think they were part of a collective that could share common goals but had differences or would they think they were being excluded by those that wanted to be set apart and favored? Wasn’t it with a certain reluctance that those who sought to benefit in some way decided that a collective would have a greater impact in addressing systematic racism? Haven’t some of those “Others” decided they knew what was best and would tell EVERYBODY what to do and how to act? 

Aren’t these the same tactics MEN used in addressing racial inequality by telling women to be silent and do as they said and they’d take care of EVERYBODY? We can’t acknowledge all of our “parts” without recognizing those that are in fact some looking to serve the interests of their sub-group of class/ethnicity/gender/religion/skin shade. Whatever it was that they placed in high regard.

Isn’t it true that those Blacks who know their ethnicity and/or lineage are the exception and not the rule in this country? If so doesn't that knowledge also come with those belonging to a different class structure? It’s certainly convenient to be part of the collective when it benefits your specific ethnic group, but isn’t it also true that once that benefit ends so would the desire to be part of  that collective  - for many? When you can claim to be "Black/African-American" but also “Other” that isn’t a level playing field. If you were the beneficiary of the longer end of the see-saw how many would voluntarily seek to even it?

If those additional things weren’t considered so valuable then would people have placed such importance in them? If by virtue of your birth you get to skip ahead of the line, even if it’s behind another group can you deny that you received some benefit and still have an authentic relationship with the ones who are behind you? Or would you instead like to find out who’s in line AHEAD of you?

Yes we can pay for mater/pater DNA testing and do research. The internet has made that a lot easier now. I'm saying the thought doesn't even occur to a lot of people because they think their feelings of shame and inferiority are almost exclusively due to white racism. This is why these intra-Black issues have not been addressed and why so many act out. We know something is wrong but haven’t figured out what “It” is.

Imagine if you hadn't been exposed to all aspects of your heritage or had parents who didn't really want to be Black/African-American and used your ethnicity as a cover to declare yourselves “special”. We can certainly say, "well snap out of it now that you're an adult" but adding that on top of external obstructions, bad habits, apathy, etc is a LOT to wade through. Then add fatherlessness (which is a very common but not exclusive situation) on top of it.

Being educated doesn't erase that. Having $$ in the bank doesn't erase that. Being famous doesn't erase that. (Click down to my inclusion of the Chris Rock lineage discovery moment in yesterday’s post). Any achievements you make may seem somewhat hollow or incomplete. So if under those circumstances you can claim an ethnicity that is different from many people you may know most people will do so with pride but also are running away from some aspect of themselves at the same time. They don't want to be like those "other Blacks/African-Americans" or have these internal conflicts. They want to be special. Feel better. I believe it is ALL tied together.

I would like to say I have it all figured out but I don’t. Unlike so many Blacks who claim American Indian heritage we actually do have some on both sides of my family, but that isn’t an attempt on my part to make myself an “other”. I know the Cherokee Nation is NOT taking applications at this time! I have to confess that I do NOT know a huge portion of the rest of my family’s ethnicity. Our family - like many others - was too busy hiding and lying about numerous things. Think about how many of us had relatives that could pass for white and did so. It was a matter of life or death at that time. It also meant keeping it a secret and losing an physical and psychic connection. To think that has not had a negative impact on us would be a lie. Yet this isn’t the experience of many other Blacks. Trying to get my grandparents to tell me anything about their childhood and other relatives was like pulling teeth. Nobody wanted to talk about the past. So we were what I'd call a “generic” Black i.e NOT WHITE and IN SURVIVAL MODE.

At some point these survival tactics are no longer useful. Hence the need to move forward. Not everyone is doing so with full disclosure and honesty. I see the “I Am ANYTHING Other than Black” dynamic played out. I have male relatives who’ve mated with Black women who were Caribbean and African respectively. The dynamic of separation and “othering” was often prevalent, first in their choice of mate (a non-African American woman) and in raising their children as one said “like a white person”. Now what the heck was that supposed to mean? They were alluding to having a revolving wardrobe of new clothes, extra-curricular activities and other amenities. They did not want to accept how wrong their thinking was. I should also mention that while these men mated and had children with these women they did not marry them. So if we’re going to assign certain "good" behavior belonging to whites exclusively it hadn’t occurred to them that they would’ve been husbands and not a baby-daddy? 

Some may ask why there shouldn’t be some distinction and I agree - there should be. Not just ethnicity or class but of who the majority “Black” population was that built the United States. Credit should be given to those of us whose direct ancestors put blood sweat and tears here and made the ultimate investment – but whose descendants have been denied inheritance benefits. We are uniquely born Americans and provided the wealth and opportunities that many other people’s current progeny get to benefit from though NOT OUR OWN.

If we do some research and find out our ethnicity is more closely aligned with some rather than others in the future that is fine, but let it be clear that it was a core group of people who DID NOT KNOW ANY OF THIS who were the ones that did the bulk of the labor and sacrificing. I get to claim them though because I came from them, not some other Blacks who can currently acknowledge their various classes and ethnicities from this Island or that set of circumstances. After all we’re still ONE, right?

From Wikipedia 

In 1988 Jesse Jackson urged Americans to use the term African American because the term has a historical cultural base. Since then African American and black have essentially a coequal status. There is still much controversy over which term is more appropriate. Some strongly reject the term African American in preference for black citing that they have little connection with Africa.[who?] Others believe the term black is inaccurate because African Americans have a variety of skin tones.[44][not in citation given] Surveys show that when interacting with each other African Americans prefer the term black, as it is associated with intimacy and familiarity. The term "African American" is preferred for public and formal use.[45] The appropriateness of the term "African American" is further confused, however, by increases in black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. The more recent black immigrants may sometimes view themselves, and be viewed, as culturally distinct from native descendants of African slaves.[46]

The U.S. census race definitions says a black is a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "Black, African Am., or Negro," or who provide written entries such as African American, Afro American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian. However, the Census Bureau notes that these classifications are socio-political constructs and should not be interpreted as scientific or anthropological.[47]

A considerable portion of the U.S. population identified as black actually have some Native American or European American ancestry. For instance, genetic studies of African American people show an ancestry that is on average 17-18% European.[48]

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Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

I just wanted to add that as we as we acknowledge our differences but come together for common interests those that have class or ethnic "privileges" should also be able to accept that they're coming to table with pockets that are not empty.

When we're working on race-based privilege we ask whites to acknowledge their historical and current advantages if they are going to be true allies of an anti-racist movement. We are also looking to level the playing field.

The same thing occurs between women who are seeking gender equality. As it should be with "Blacks" "African-Americans" and "Others".

Khadija said...


I can't thank you enough for hosting these recent conversations. Baraka Allahu feek! ["May God bless you!"]This is the time when it all comes together; and the time when we make sustainable advances that lead to ENDURING victories! Thank you so much for helping to move us forward!

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Amenta said...

Wow, this is a serious post that explores quite a bit of information on our (we Black people that are of generations born here in the States)ethnic backgrounds. We people of the western hemisphere are truly of a varied ethnicity. I have read that the Americas were once called Amexem, with Mexico still carrying the name. Actually, Mexico literally means the Mixing place found in the root Mex.
So, I truly agree that finding our truest pedigree would be most difficult, not impossible, but difficult, thus for me I will continue to call myself Black without hesitation.

I also believe we should start approaching our history in the Americas from a point of empowerment. For example, we MUST get out of the habit of saying that "they brought us here in chains aboard slave ships..." This minimizes the actual fact that we, Black people, have been here in the Americas since the first waves of migration from Africa 100,000 years ago. Saying they brougt us here gives the European waaaay too much credit for being able to take us from Africa in their powerful ships(my sarcasm) We made more excursions 10,000 years ago and more recently beginning 2000 years before the birth of Jesus all the way up until the 1300s. African people have continued to come here to the Americas for thousands of years and some believe are actually the indigenous population of the Americas. Clyde A. Wynters has documented these migrations amoung others, including Dr. Ivan Van Sertima. Also, in the book The Only Land They Knew, the author shows that 97% of the people enslaved in what is now called the U.S. were the indigenous population and 95% in the Caribbean were indigenous population. People that we would discribe as Black people today.

This enslavement of the Black population of the Americas follows the long protracted war between the Castillians and the Moors and thus made us prisoners of war, forced into slavery rather than millions of Africans forced or sold to become slaves in the Americas.
The issue of Caribbean vs. Africans vs. Black Amreicans truly falls on those with historical shortcomings and seem to battle using culture as a weapon only because they have bought into the "otherness" as you put it set out by the controling interest. For example, all this rivalry between the Black people from the Caribbean and Black Americans is a contrived battle started by someone that doesn't have our interest at hand. This rivalry didn't exist in years past. The people that conspired to take the famous Plessy vs. Furguson case from New Orleans, LA to the U.S. Supreme court were a mix of free, wealthy Black Americans, free wealthy Black Haitians and free Black Cubans. So it appears to me that the people that control America never wanted to see this type of interactions among Black people again, they planted the Willie Lynch seed and many of us bought it. Sadly.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Khadija: Thank you for having the clarity to get us to focus on specifics. I'd been thinking about the empowerment aspects we're working towards for months but felt something wasn't quite connecting and I couldn't figure out what it was. I'm looking forward to seeing a shift in consciousness for many of us!!

Ensayn1: Welcome and thanks for your input. I would like to see a united coalition amongst all Blacks but not without acknowledging our particular contributions. The sense of shame many African-Americans feel is palpable and it's impeding a lot of progress that could be made. Regardless of historical contributions, geography and other factors there has to be an internal change to create an external one. Since we see how poorly the majority of Blacks are doing it's a necessary one.