This may be considered a rant. But it’s legitimate ranting.
I remember watching A Time to Kill and I recall vividly a dialogue between Matthew McConaughey’s character and Samuel L. Jackson’s character, in which Jackson’s character proclaimed that the reason he hired McConaughey’s character was because he was just like them, the them in question being the other white people trying to convict him. But this isn’t the accusation that stayed with me the most. It is what Jackson’s character said afterward to McConaughey’s character. He tells McConaughey’s character that he, McConaughey’s character, a white man, will never see him, Jackson’s character, a black man, as just a man; he’ll always see him as a black man.
This ‘revelation’ has stayed in my head over the years. It popped into my head when my brother complained that people who claim to not see race or see him as a black man, offend him, because he’s a black man, or when the monolithic and visible “black race” gets blamed or called to take responsibility for the act of one. Or, my favorite, when a non-white person is not called by name, but by race. I.e. the black girl.
I understand the frustration of non-whites (I refuse to use minorities) and blacks in particular. It seems that whites, who are the dominant group in western society, set the standards for everyone else and they have decided to treat non-whites as collective individuals, while they reserve the honor of individuality for themselves. A white gunman is never the responsibility of the collective white race, unless he’s an *ethnic* white, see Italians, etc. Such a person is seen as a rogue, a lone ranger acting independent of the group; but, of course, blacks and others are never given the same courtesy.
I remember, cough, an episode of Strange Love with 1990s clown rapper Flava Flav and his European giantess Brigitte Nielsen in which she, a perpetual drunk, took him to a ‘fancy’ restaurant where he started acting like a fool, attracting the attention of the [all] white patrons, during which Brigitte turned to him and explained that he was being stared at strangely because they [white Europeans] are not used to blacks and their behavior. I am summarizing, but of course the gist of the tale is there: Flava Flav’s behavior is a judgment made on black people as a whole because he’s the epitome of blackness in a crowd of white people.
His childish, disrespectful and idiot antics are blamed, not on his person, but on his race. He’s part of the collective whole called the black race.A black person can’t act like an idiot publicly without it becoming a ‘black thing.’
But to be fair, the racialized judgment and box-fitting is not only coming from whites. I have always been quick to show that many blacks stereotype, caricaturize and box themselves. I cringe whenever I hear black children call other black children “whitewashed” or “whitey” because they speak fluent [non-accented] English, and are studios students who don’t wear Hip-Hop inspired fashion, and who listen to other genres besides Hip-Hop/R&B. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with listening to Hip-Hop or dressing in Hip-Hop inspired fashion, but there’s nothing wrong with not doing this either. The point is that there’s no one way to act when you’re black.
Being “black” is not limited to Hip-Hop, basketball, Ebonics, illiteracy, poverty, teen pregnancy, etc. This is the point. When blacks stop forcing each other into perfectly square boxes, it will make it harder for white mainstream society to do it.
Anyway, the monolithic black culture/race doesn’t exist and believing it does is ignorant.
That said: here’s how you avoid falling prey to stereotyping individuals:
1. Don’t automatically assume that a black person is into Hip-Hop–ask the person what music he/she listens to firstly.
2. Same goes for basketball, chicken and every black stereotype.
3. Don’t keep referring to the black person as “that black girl/guy.” Learn a black person’s name and practice using it.
4. Don’t tell a black person they are clean, pretty, quiet, polite, smart etc for a black person. It’s NOT a compliment.
6. Don’t assume that a smart, pretty, quiet, polite, clean, etc black person is “acting” white, or may be part white (or part some other ethnicity).
7. Don’t disrespect prominent, intelligent and successful blacks (the Obamas, Miss Winfrey, etc) by calling them ghetto, militant, animals, etc. These people are far from any of those things. And failure to recognize that is failure to accept that not all black people fit the stereotype. In other words: closed-mindedness, ignorance or bigotry.
8. When describing a person, either for someone else or while telling a story, unless the person’s race/religion/weight is necessary to the theme/message of the story, avoid putting it in.
This goes back to the A Time to Kill example.
Here’s an example:
A black man fell off a chair.
Ask yourself: what’s the main punchline you want the listener/reader to get. Is it (a) a person fell off a chair or (b) a black person fell off a chair? And if you choose (b) then ask yourself why it’s important to know that it was a black person who fell off a chair.
PS. You can substitute black with any other ethnic group/religion/ or the adjectives: skinny or fat and it will make no difference. Ex: a Muslim woman fell off a chair.
The above example shows the difference between recognizing a person’s race and dwelling on a person’s race. This might explain why people who are quick to prove that they’re not racist say things like “I don’t see race,” which angers my very black brother (ha! ha!). For what it’s worth, I think what these people mean to say is that while they see that you are ‘black,’ they don’t dwell on that fact, dismissing ethnicity as insignificant in comparison to a person’s other attributes and achievements.