“Well, you’re black, show us your rhythm.”
“What? You don’t like Jazz? But you’re black.”
“I bet you’re really good at basketball.”
“You’ve got that gangster lean.”
Being black, I often get the sense – sometimes as a dread foreboding before the fact – that I am going to be put into a position to answer for some province or aspect of blackness that I have little or no connection to, or knowledge of. You don’t have to look far to see a black character in print, film or television retort “What, now I represent all black people?” It happens all the time – the black representative, put on the spot by some white person, or worse, large group of white people, faces expectant and hungry, awaiting a performance of blackness, a validation of what they consider harmless stereotypes. Clearly in this case, art imitates life.
Some of these stereotypes are meant to be positive – Black people are good at basketball, dancing, slam poetry, hustling, jazz, sex, slang, style, violence, “cool” and so on. However, in practice these archetypes and assumptions can lead to deeply awkward and embarrassing (or as some would say, teachable) moments.
I recently went out with a group of the Providence fam, among them “Quintavious” (who despite my name for him, is NOT black). During the night he said a number of racist things, of varying degree, including:
-Calling myself and another young lady of color “the two tokens”
-Yelling “Get out of the way nigger!” at a car that pulled out in front of him on the road.
-Saying that “There are niggers and there are black people.” To which I replied resignedly “Well, that’s what Chris Rock said.”
-Telling me the story of how his ancestral village in Ukraine murdered a black man because they thought he was the devil.
-Saying I had “black rage” and would be good in a fight because of it.
-Saying “Once you go black, you never go back.” a number of times, sometimes pausing after “black” and waiting for me to complete the sentence. All this while trying to set me up with some girl.
To be fair, Quintavious was very friendly toward me that night, and often apologetic after his insensitive comments. He offered to let me punch him in the face after the incident in the road, an offer which I declined. I never know what I’m supposed to do in these situations. When I read about Kanye West beating the living daylights out of a kid for calling Kim Kardashian a “Nigger-lover” I “stood and I applauded”. “GIVE THAT MAN A MEDAL!” I shouted, drawing the attention of fellow library patrons.
But I can’t beat up Quintavious in a chiropractor’s office. The man isn’t known for his restraint – he says backwards things about many social groups. In the end, he isn’t the one enforcing the war on drugs, he isn’t throwing bombs into black churches or turning down black loan applicants. And yet, his calling up of all the negative history of my people in the US and the world makes me feel bad, and for no particular action of mine.
At times like those in question, I wish there was some racist word for white people, or some hurtful incidence, deep, humiliating and imprinted as the national DNA as slavery, for white people. One could pull it out like “Well remember when [white humiliation]!” Everyone would go “Daaaamn.” and laugh, and the scales would rebalance to even. Unfortunately, history is lopsided. There isn’t any dry ammunition in the cupboard. “Honky” and “Cracker” are harmless and quaint words, barely offensive, more likely to draw ridicule than offense. “White Trash” refers mostly to poverty – and why drag the poor into this? Anyway, these revenge fantasies are a different matter for another time.
However in a broader sense, one gets the feeling that there is no place to hide. One will always be too black for some people, too white for others. Every black person – from 50 Cent to Alan Keyes, from Oprah Winfrey to Stuart Scott, from Robert Griffin III to Cornel West, from Kanye West to Condoleezza Rice, from me to the black guy I walk past in the grocery aisle – will have to deal with some fool – from established pundits to twitter idiots, from friends to acquaintances to foes, calling them or someone they look up to (though perhaps in not so many words) “Niggerish” or “Thug” or “Oreo” or “Uncle Tom”. Failing those direct attacks, there will be unrealistic expectations and the recall of painful racial memories. It’s inevitable.
Clarence Thomas is at the Men’s Warehouse, putting in an order for some casual weekend robes. After giving the specifications, he browses the suit section, where he encounters Ice Cube.
Ice Cube: Hey, ain’t you Clarence Thomas? Man, why you putting young black men in jail and tryna overturn affirmative action and shit? Why you always standing in the way of progress? I got an opinion for ya – you’re a got-damn Uncle Thomas!
Clarence Thomas: Why you brazen hoodlum! I’ve heard your records – Cube. You’ve set a loathsome example for young black men all over this great nation. All the drugs and violence destroying peoples’ lives, and you’re reveling in it! And where’s your sense of country? What kind of traitor writes a song called “I Wanna Kill Sam”?
The men glare at each other, before bickering some more. A feminine voice intercedes.
RuPaul: Fellas, fellas. Keep it in your pants.
Cube and Thomas roll their eyes.
Clarence Thomas and Ice Cube (together): Ohhh, you. Don’t get us started.
The three trade barbs. Suddenly, a rack of suits falls over, revealing a man in a trenchcoat, holding a camera to his eye. His left hand is inside his coat somewhere.
Clarence Thomas, Ice Cube and RuPaul (together): James O’Keefe!
James O’Keefe: Keep going, oh racial fissures, uhh dirty laundry, mmm so good.
Ice Cube: Now that’s one creepy-ass honky.
Blackness is not easy to navigate. There are so many shades and hues of culture within the spectrum. It’s beautiful to think of blackness as a wonderful Pan-African umbrella – spinning red black and green, refracting the light of the diasporan sunshower and keeping all of us dry from the acid rain of the oppressor. However, this collective experience turns unpleasant and exhausting when white people turn the umbrella inside out, creating a guilty-by-association set of prejudices that dispense with individuality in favor of easy snap judgments. In my experience, attacks on public and historical figures of color can often feel like attacks on me. But they shouldn’t, right? What do I have to do with Dennis Rodman? Yet I found myself defending him in a Detroit Pistons blog comment section, almost against my conscious will (I’m Crispus).
But I believe there’s a silver lining to this cloud, a recent one. That is the disintegrating of large and rigid, limiting standards of blackness, and the minor diaspora into subculture’s embrace.
I’ve been wearing my hair in an orange Mohawk (a real, basic punk Mohawk, not that styled and graded, decorated and defanged faux-hawk stuff) for close to two months. It was, and is, an experiment in newfound freedom, since I currently don’t have a job. I had worn Mohawks before, but usually for a week or less, and never orange. I feel that people now have to make their initial impressions of me on different terms. Usually this kind of weird hairstyle would be a social detriment. “Look at that punk! Look at that weirdo!” might be the reaction, but in pairing the hair with blackness, I hope to create a moment of confusion.
A MOMENT OF PRECIOUS PRECIOUS CONFUSION. For you see, to be a non-descript black man in America is to risk all sorts of judgments, prejudices, ill treatment, and physical assaults. I believe this is part of the reason for the wave of thick glasses sweeping through not just the hipster community, but the black community as well (I wrote about this previously). It’s not just glasses though, any signs of non-traditional cultural values in the form of unorthodox costume can shatter stereotypes, and in that moment of confusion, free one from any of the preconceived negative categories we often fall into, like so many Plinko chips. Swapping out the hoodie and sagging baggy pants for a dapper costume – for example a bow tie, hat, thick glasses and skinny jeans – can change out the whole Plinko board (bear with me on the Plinko analogy) for any black person. Instead of slots at the bottom reading “Drug Dealer” “Parolee” “Delinquent” “Homeless” “Low Wage Fast Food Worker”, one can have slots like “Artist” “Musician” “Scholar” “Student” “Intellectual” “Author” “Nerd” “Skateboarder” “Blogger” “High-Powered Attorney”.
You might say “You’re just telling black people to dress non-threatening for white people’s benefit!” Well, yes and no. Again, appearance can be a matter of life and death. What if Trayvon Martin had been dressed like Steve Urkel on that rainy night? What if Amadou Diallo had been dressed in a full mime costume? I’m not blaming the victims, I’m just saying that the state’s lethal enforcers are more likely to hassle and assault those who are dark AND dress nondescriptly or in accordance with negative stereotypes. As much as I reviled David Stern’s dress code decision at the time, and for years after, I realize now that he was doing the league a great service.
And why shouldn’t black people of all stripes avail themselves of the long traditions of style created by black and race-neutral subcultures? Why not dress like a hippie, a rock star, a jazz cat, a Muslim, a poet, a college professor, a minister, a black panther? Perhaps once, there was a loud voice, derisive and shrill, calling out a message – that is “Black people don’t [ski, snowboard, speed skate, play golf, enter triathlons, eat vegetarian, direct films, go hiking, knit sweaters, play guitar, catch butterflies].” Every year the voice grows weaker, rings more hollow and desperate. The attempted enforcement of these old and useless racial norms of activity and dress only serve to hold back pluralism and impede self-actualization.
I worry I may come off as prescriptive. I’m not telling anyone they have dress a certain way or do certain things. All I can really relate is my experience. In going to heavy metal and punk shows, attending art-house films, shopping at the homebrew store, attending engineering school, living in southwest Rhode Island etc., I often find that I’m “The only black guy at X”. In appearing just a little out of the mainstream, I’ve found that I give subcultures an early chance to claim me a little bit, to extend the cultural olive branch – i.e. “That guy’s dressed weird, maybe he’s into X too.” The mainstream meanwhile, may not identify with me, but I find that I prefer to stand out in the general public, rather than fit in, because really, what kind of fitting in can I hope to achieve? I don’t necessarily fit in with the general white public, no matter what I’m wearing, unless I can build some sort of verbal rapport. I don’t fit in with culturally “black people” in general (though according to my theory, the catch-all term “black people” is a fallacy).
There are many shades of black, and too many of them have been used to paint a negative mosaic of the entire race. Indeed stereotypes, many well intended, can feel constricting, awkward and embarrassing when they are misused among friends, or in the public sphere. However, by embracing subcultures and blending their unique colors into the already fractious spectrum of blackness, people of color can create new hues for themselves, ones that can confound the pre-assumptions of white people or authority figures in general. The most beautiful thing is when someone decides that they are going to very proudly be themselves, and let the chips fall where they may. Ask Prince, Pharrell Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Grace Jones, Steve McQueen, Nicki Minaj, Sun Ra, Bad Brains, Kool Keith, George Clinton, Michael Jackson, and yes, even Dennis Rodman what they think about racial norms. They will probably tell you that they don’t.