Questioning Blackness: The Politics of Authenticity

Just Thoughts
Just Thoughts

“Thinking black should not take precedence over thinking critically, intelligently and honestly.”

-Professor Kimberly Jade Norwood, Professor of Law and African-American Studies at Washington University

We have come a ways since the days of the “one-drop-rule,” whereby one’s Blackness was confirmed by the presence of Black blood in one’s veins and arteries.  Here in the 21st century, ideas of race have moved beyond biology.

Today, the Blackness of the uneducated and unwed mother “welfare queen” is never questioned, yet when a Black woman (such as myself) acts in her best interests she is deemed “not Black enough.”  When I, a Black woman, chose to pursue my post-secondary education at U.C. Berkeley, I was told by my peers that I was “acting White.”  My first experiences with this construct of Blackness cemented the conviction that Blackness largely a negative construct.  My question was: Why should we continue to include the things that hinder us as qualifiers of Blackness?

I came across Professor Kimberly Jade Norwood’s article entitled, “The Virulence of Blackthink and How it’s Threat of Ostracism Shackles Those Deemed Not Black Enough.”  (Kentucky Law Journal, Vol. 3, 2004-5)  Professor Norwood is a professor of Law and of African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.  I shouldn’t have to say this- but she is African-American.

She begins the article with a brief anecdote set in her time as a professor of Law.  A colleague of hers was organizing a group to discuss issues of race and jurisprudence.  Upon realizing that she was not selected to be part of the group, she confronted the person organizing the group who replied:

“I didn’t think you were interested… Well, Kim, let’s be honest.  You don’t teach anything related to race, you don’t talk or write about race.  You haven’t attended any critical race conferences.  Frankly there is nothing about you that would have led me to believe that you were interested in these issues.”

Prof. Norwood then asked: “Are you saying that I’m not Black?”

Her colleague replied, Well, I’m not saying you’re not Black, but I guess I can see how someone could come to that conclusion.”

Her Blackness had been questioned- and by a White colleague no less.

Norwood defined Blackthink as the assumption that Blacks were homogeneous in thought- liberal, pro-choice, pro-welfare, anti-Republican and pro-affirmative action.   Those who do not conform with these narrow criteria were “de-Blacked.”

oreo

coconut

banana

Uncle Tom

House Negro

“acting White”

In being “de-Blacked,” these non-conforming individuals were stripped of a racial identity.  This “de-Blacking” is problematic enough when it manifests in intra-racial relations, but when non-Blacks begin to adopt the position of “arbiter of Blackness,” then it becomes doubly problematic.  Simply put- de-Blacking is an insult of the worst sort.  It questions the existence of the individual in question and it undermines the individuality of that same human being by applying a singular mold upon them and finding them wanting.  As some would say, “not Black enough.”  It is dehumanizing.

Interesting that a White colleague would assume the position of arbiter of Prof. Norwood’s Blackness.  It makes sense to an extent.  Blackness is a construct that places African-descended peoples in opposition to Whiteness.  This Blackness makes sense only in comparison and in contrast to the encoded identities of Whiteness.  Whereas the White woman was constructed as a paragon of virtue who must be protected- even at the costs of her freedom; a Black women was assumed to lack that same virtue, as she was deemed less-than human and less-than feminine.  Always less-than and never ‘enough,’ Blackness itself was found lacking.

Who defines Blackness?  Blacks or Whites?

What is Blackness?

What makes one Black?

Black womanhood could easily be reduced to the loud, the uncouth, the fecund and the uncultured denizens.  However, this mold of expectations is insufficient for recognizing the heterogeneity of Black American women.

And what about Blackness as defined by Blacks?  In my own experience, my peers in high school defined Blackness in opposition to Whiteness.  Pursuing academic interests was “acting White.”  Speaking standard , grammatically correct English and saying “yes, ma’am” or “yes, sir” to authority figures was being an “Uncle Tom.”  And Black womanhood was expressed largely through the clothes one wore, one’s gait and even the men one chose to date.  I had major problems with the latter- why should my womanhood be defined in relation to the man in my life?  Needless to say, I felt it unnecessary to conform.

I shall term conformity to these arbitrary standards of Blackness “walking the tightrope.”  It is all at once a balancing act and a spectacle.  On one hand, failure to comply makes one “not Black enough.”  On the other hand, conforming to the same standards makes one “less than.”  Striking the balance isn’t an impossible task- code- switching (slipping into the vernacular), “keeping it real” and the like are not untenable.  However, all of this maneuvering would be made unnecessary if we all were allowed to chose how we identify without picking from a prescribed list of politically charged terms and constructs.  This does not mean rejecting African-American culture (the heterogeneity of Black American culture warrants another blog post), nor does it mean embracing models of Whiteness.

It just means rooting one’s identity independently of man-made constructs of race and ethnicity.  In my case, it means rooting my identity in my Creator; the One who made me who I am.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.”

-Psalm 139:14 (NIV)

6 Comments

  1. And yes, I am completely aware of the limitations of employing a Black/White binary. Here it makes sense. Ordinarily, I prefer to include other groups in the discussion.

  2. It’s a shame when being ‘black’ is being substandard. I’d hoped that integration would help us but it seems to make being black seem ‘ghetto’ ….strange…..when black men and women get into good schools and not on welfare, etc. were not ‘keeping it real’..this has to change….we were into education UNTIL the early 70s (when I noticed it) when having good grades made you ‘white’…the Asians DONT HAVE THIS PROBLEM, and they are making it. Black men…yes, the guys need to get the grades to go into MIT, etc. As you can see, i’m not anti black man, just foolish mess is what im against.

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