What It Means To Be Black:Reid’s Comment, Jay-Z, Obama, et al

I ranted in the previous post about the way the media is handling Senate leader Harry Reid’s statement, but there is something that should be mentioned.

What does it mean to be black?

Sadly, it seems only people of African descent can change their race based on political and social behavior. When you are of African descent, your race is subject to change depending on your worldview. It can be measured, weighed and dismissed on a whim if you don’t fit into a certain stereotype. I’ll point out a few examples. Below is a quote from Esquire magazine about rapper Jay-Z:

Jay-Z is black black. He is old-school double-dark-chocolate-chunk black. He is black the way Labatt is blue. He is not white black, Barack black, like our president. Or the kind of black that doesn’t curse and deplores the n-word, the genteel black, like Oprah. He is, arguably, the first black-black guy to cross over into Oprah-land and Bill Clintonworld without making the Oprah-sized no-look-back forward flip that means you’re selling not necessarily your soul but perhaps something fleshier, a little more external.

During the presidential campaign of 2007-8, one of the major issues was whether Barack Obama was ‘black’ enough. The confusion, it seemed, lay not in his biracial heritage, but also his lifestyle, speech and degree of ‘association’ with black American ‘culture.’

I have heard comedian Dave Chappelle and others joke that Condoleeza Rice wasn’t black because of her politics. Terms like “white-washed” and “sellout” are tossed about liberally. News man Bryant Gumbel’s race is questioned because he speaks English with a “non-Negro” accent. The criteria for being “black” are based on everything from skin tone, degree of ethnic mixture, nationality, political viewpoint, socio-economic status, speech, struggles and nationality.

Yesterday, I posted on the blog stuff white people do in regards to a Nigerian woman who guestposted to ask whites to be considerate of her ethnicity and nationality. She was not African-American, but regardless, she was referred to as such by white Americans, despite her telling them otherwise. Some black posters became irate and accused the guestposter and other non-American blacks of assuming they’re superior to them, by refusing label association with them.

I have been involved in many such discussions on the Internet. Discussions that have disintegrated into attempts to characterize and define what and who is really black. Defining who is black and what ‘black’ is or assumed to be has proven to be quite problematic. In the U.S., the federal census has three classifications for people of African descent: black, African-American and Negro, which has resulted into outcries on black sites like Bossip.com and Hiphopwired, who argue that ‘negro’ is outdated. On the flipside of this debate, there was but one classification for people of European descent–white.

The U.S. has made a mess of things. It seems that not all African-Americans are black, and only certain people of African descent can call themselves black. In order to use the term black, you’ll have to share certain political and social attitudes and struggles with a specific segment of the African-American population, and if you are of African descent, but not from the U.S., you may have no right to call yourself black. If your worldview is not on par with those belonging to certain people with similar racial characteristics as you, then you’re a sellout like Condoleeza Rice or Tiger Woods and your “privilege” of blackness can be stripped.

This brings me to “how” blackness is defined. According to the Esquire article, there are three types of blackness. There is authentic blackness, exemplified by Jay-Z when he wants street credibility. There is Oprah’s blackness, which is neutral, and there is Barack Obama/Bryant Gumbel blackness, which is to say, a white man in a black body. or, an Oreo. This is the kind of blackness that gets you places. It is characterized by articulation, education and a non-stereotypical black lifestyle. “Blackness” is not only tentative but subjective. Furthermore, besides being black, people of indigenous African descent can be Negroes or Niggers, depending on their behavior and attitude.

Rod Blagojevich, the ousted, corrupt former governor of Illinois, told Esquire, also:

I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.

Reid’s comment about “negro dialect,” attunes to Blogojevic’s definition of blackness, which is the white American caricature of blacks, the same caricature that Esquire’s author attributes to Jay-Z. This definition of blackness is supposedly the “authentic” blackness, determined to be so by blacks and non-blacks alike; it’s exemplified by the stereotype often glorified in hip-hop videos: hardcore living, violence, “negro dialect” or Ebonics, poverty, street hustling and swagger. With this as the perceived image of an authentic black person, it’s no surprise that now Vice-President Joe Biden said this during the campaign cycle:

I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.I mean, that’s a storybook, man.

As long as this is what it means to be black, then comments like Reid’s or Biden’s, or those of Esquire’s writer will continue to surface. The saddest thing about this is that the grading or measure of blackness is not just done by whites or non-black peoples, but also by blacks themselves, who assign different degrees of blackness based on aforementioned criteria.


About TCDH

Blogger with an opinion.
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