It's Not The Color Of Your Skin, But The Depths Of Your Spirit That Counts

I began replying to a quite heart-felt comment left this morning by Dr. D. on my post I wrote a few days ago, entitled Black Celebration...Sort Of. Except, my comment was turning into a rather lengthy response. Ok, a really long response. What can I say, I'm on vacation and I have time to mull these things over in-depth. So I decided to post my reply here instead of in the comment box:

Dear Dr. D. (and everyone else too),

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your thoughts! I hear you and believe me, I know that the labels we use to identify ourselves are completely fabricated. You are right to raise the question, what is being white and what is being black? Sometimes I talk to people who don't even know that white people in the new world weren't even called white till after 1680. They don't know there was a legal process of deciding whether folks from southern and eastern Europe were white. Likewise, I meet folks who don't know black people weren't always called black. Regardless of background, we don't know our history and how developing racial classifications was a necessity for keeping the legitimacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Yes, all the terms we use so freely, that I use every day, were designed in order to deny the humanity of entire groups of people and keep us divided.

As for me, I think about how the baby of the white master and the black slave woman had to be black. If not, that would mess up the nice neat racial divisions put in place. So, if I live in a country where having one drop of black blood makes you black, and it's been that way for hundreds of years, it's really hard to go around claiming to be something else. Sure, it provides an incentive to do it, a drive to mess up the little system that's been put into place. But, given that in the African-American community there is historical legacy of people who are blond and blue eyed identifying as black, people who had some great great great great great great grandparent who was black, how can I be around black people and say that I'm not black?

If I do that, many black people, including those in my mother's family, are going to diss me. If I do that, people will say I don't have black pride, that I'm trying to get away from being black, that I'm ashamed of my background. Do I worry about what people will say? Sometimes. Do I worry it might be taken as a desire to not be black because in America, being black is seen as less desirable, less beautiful, less intelligent, less capable, lazier, more threatening, more criminal, and on and on and on. Do I want to claim both my identities in order to mess with the system? Oh yes. Indeed. Are either of those my true identity? No.

Undoubtedly, we are all truly spiritual beings housed in a physical existence. I certainly need to work more on developing my spiritual side. Yet that spiritual path has to be walked with practical feet. Sure, I don't want to let society tell me how to categorize myself, but what I want and what happens are two entirely different things. I don't know how it works in other countries, like in the UK for example, but here on a formal level, when I go to fill out any government form, I have to check a box that asks me to indicate what race I am. I have often had the box checked for me and, just to be difficult, I've asked government officials in both Chicago and Los Angeles how exactly it is that they decided to check black for me instead of, for example, Hispanic. I'm not Latina, but I like to poke holes in those dumb forms just to mess with the officials. I never considered asking why was it that in Chicago or LA the officials decided by just looking at me that I wasn't Hispanic till after I lived in Harlem. You see, in New York City, I was always taken as either Dominican or Puerto Rican. Especially because I wore my hair curly all the time. People there sometimes got upset with me because they thought I was trying to deny my Latin roots. It was a new perspective to consider. I asked myself how could all these people look exactly like me but not be black? How come they got to identify as Latino and if they lived somewhere else, like Chicago, would that, "I'm not black, I'm Dominican" thing even fly?

Another experience you make me think of is from five or six years ago. I sat next to a white man on a flight from Chicago to Birmingham, Alabama. No big deal there but twenty minutes into it, I was pretty fed up after he asked me, "Do you watch golf? You know, Tiger Woods really is a credit to your race."

I was really offended but wanted to be polite so I merely answered back that I did not watch golf. The man replied to me, "That's too bad. He's such an example of what black people can become if they just try."

I'm sure he was just trying to be sociable and friendly in his way, but I wasn't having it. The sass in me came out and I told him I really wouldn't know anything about being black since I was white. Wish you could have seen his mouth fall open as I explained, "After all, my father is white and I believe in going according to European patrilineal descent laws." He got really quiet. Five minutes later, he asked the flight attendant if he could have his seat changed.

An interesting read on why we're so messed up in America on this who's black and who isn't issue is a text by F.J. Davis called, "The Nation's Rule: Who is Black?" Click here to read an excerpt from it. I definitely think you'll find it interesting if you haven't already read it before.

Part of the article talks about a woman named Susie Guillory whose passport application was rejected because she'd checked the white box on the passport application. Turns out, Susie, who never knew she had black relatives, had been delivered by a nurse who knew her Louisiana family's history and checked the black box on Susie's birth certificate. Susie was only 1/32nd black, meaning several generations beforehand, she'd had a black relative. She was married to a white man and she sued the government because she didn't want to be black and wanted her birth certificate changed. She lost her case.

Sure, all that one drop rule craziness is man-made bullshit. Most black Americans truly cannot say that they don't have a white relative somewhere in their family tree. And yet we call ourselves black. Can all the "white" Americans like Susie, people who think they are "pure" Mayflower or Ellis Island white, really be so sure that they don't have a black ancestor in their family past?

Of course, on the one hand, the whole discussion is stupid because we are all one human family and are all connected anyway. On the other hand, it matters so much. My two sons are at least 1/4 white, but they are black. Sure they may have a white grandfather and a great-grandmother who was one of those 1/32nd black people, and another great grandmother who was part Native American, but according to the way things work here, they're black. If I tell them otherwise, I am not preparing them for what America has in store for them.

People may say my boys are cute now but I know that in ten years when my two sons are teenagers, if things stay the same in America, there are a whole lot of people who will be afraid of them just because they are black males. If things don't change, they'll be getting pulled over by the police. They'll have teachers that will assume they aren't smart. Yes, I am raising them to center their identity on their spiritual inheritance, not their racial or ethnic heritage. But the general world around me does not do the same.

We're pretty unique here in America given our depths of racial craziness but I believe we set a tone for the world in this. Therefore, we have an incredibly important responsibility to take the lead in eradicating this insanity. We can tell folks in the Sudan to stop what they are doing but they know that here in America, we are no model of racial and ethnic unity. Sure, there are definitely shining examples of unity. Certainly, within the Baha'i community that I grew up in back in Chicagoland and the one here in LA, I felt there was genuine love, trust and friendliness regardless of race or ethnicity. It's a community where race matters in a positive sense, not in a negative one. It's a community that is focuses less on terminology and more on the transformation of the heart. Truly, none of this changes if we don't change our hearts.

Last thing I'll say is that you also make me think about how I've told many teachers I've worked with here in Los Angeles that they have to teach their students in Compton and Watts, and every single other poor black and Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles, like those kids are going to grow up and marry their own children. To me, that's the ultimate test of commitment to fostering bonds of fellowship, love and friendship amongst people from diverse backgrounds. But that's a whole other topic.

Thank you, Dr. D. for sparking all these thoughts. I think about this stuff all the time and truly believe with more open and honest dialogue and some accompanying action, we can create a different future. Certainly, your thoughts and contributions are a part of that in your corner of the globe.


Barb said…
What a well-written and much needed post!!!

(Thanks for the tip about the purse sale at Penney's!)
I have always wondered, too, why children of mixed black and white ancestry are always considered black, no matter what they look like.

I'm sure it's because so much of our culture is devoted to keeping people separate so that the dominant group can remain so. This system does nobody any good.

The truth is, each of us is our own race. We nearly all have relatives of different ethnicities, which makes us all one race -- human. We could advance individually and as a nation if we stopped counting drops of blood to determine which label to apply to each other, and put more energy into building a kinder, more equitable world for our children of all colors.

How appalling to be told that anybody is a credit to his race. I have never in my life heard that said about a caucasian. A lot of folks are still livng under rocks, apparently.
Unknown said…

Thanks for sharing these articulate and thorough thoughts. How lucky am I to have had you as a mentor?! Much love and Happy New Year.

Miss Berg
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you and hope you get something good at the sale.

Indeed, the way our culture thinks (or pretends not to think) about these things fundamentally impedes our chances for peace and prosperity. We are all one family, even if we operate a bit dysfunctionally at present. But, as members of that family, we have to all take responsibility and do whatever it takes so that future generations don't get told they're a credit to their race. (The fact that people still say that is pretty sickening, isn't it?)

Mentor? Moi? I'm thinking how lucky I am to have had the pleasure. By the way, come back to LA. We miss you.
Yes, it is sickening. And in Tiger Woods' case, which race was the guy talking about, anyway? His mother is Asian.

Which is my point. We're all blended people if you go back far enough in any family. The whole concept of race is absurd and invalid, and distracts us from seeing each other clearly. Our skin color, like eye color, is the least of who we are.
Great post. I'm sending this to my brother who has decided he doesn't want to be called black anymore (prefers American Muslim, which he is) and wants me to start a national campaign for this on my blog. ;) Sure, it would be nice if we could all just be "Americans", but could that really ever happen? We argued pointlessly over the holiday about this never-ending debate. For me, it's ended (ended a long time ago). The concept of race is BS, but whatcha gonna do? This is how it is.

Plus, I like being able to claim our legacy, jazz and Alvin Ailey and everything that makes black people special. I do my best to ignore the emabrrassing aspects our folks put out there.

Your thoughts are almost identical to my husband's (who happens to be biracial as well) If you two l feel this way, Harold Ford Jr. (Democrat - TN) should really stop saying his grandma was white! And all the black people who claim to have "some Indian in 'em" should stop dwelling on that too. LOL

Thanks for breaking it down. There really needs to be more public discourse about this. :)

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