I embrace many identities. I’m a Christian. I’m a father. I’m an American. I’m an athlete. (Well, I was an athlete.) And I’m Black or African American — terms that I use more or less interchangeably. The only identity that some people ever challenge is the last one. By “some people” I mean some white people. Their opposition to that particular part of my identity is due to complex historical, sociological and psychological factors that I don’t have space to exegete fully.
In my experience that objection nearly always comes from people who are well-meaning, including friends. (Somewhat ironically, the people who tend not to raise objections to Black folks’ self-identification usually are those who complain about things like Black History Month.) The bottom line is that Black people do not want white people to try to dictate how we should self-identify, irrespective of their intentions.
This phenomenon is white people’s awkward and inappropriate way of saying “You’re one of us. Be proud!” It is an attempt at inclusion. They will say things like, “You’re an American” or “You’re Larry” — as if these identities are mutually exclusive. Or they’ll say, “You know that you’re not actually Black, right? Just like I’m not actually white!” Or they’ll say, “Elon Musk is a real African American! He’s from Africa!” If Mr. Musk wants to identify in that way — and I don’t know that he does — more power to him. But that has nothing to do with how Black folks identify ourselves.
My personal favorite is when people tell an obvious fib by saying, “I don’t see color.” At that point I’ll suggest that they go “see” an optometrist. Most importantly, I share that if they would focus on racial equity as much as they focus on how we identify ourselves, this issue would eventually go away. “Talking about race” is a problem only for those who are not interested in eradicating racism. What actually deepens the racial divide? Racism does.
Unfortunately, white privilege and its attendant paternalism are ingrained in our culture. Trying to disguise it by saying “you’re one of us” is offering racism with white gloves and a slice of apple pie. On the contrary, I’ve lived for half a century and I don’t recall ever witnessing a Black person telling a white person what color or race they should embrace. White people should take their cue from that and cease their attempts to rob us of self-determination.
Some people approach this discussion from an academic standpoint. They emphasize that race is a social construct. As a result, they argue that race isn’t “real.” This argument is accurate — and utterly irrelevant. What’s important is our lived experience. Race doesn’t have to be “real” to have real consequences. Some people emphasize the importance of class, as if wealth somehow mitigates racism. I remind them of the old “joke” about what racists call a Black person who has a lot of money. One could substitute a doctorate, fame or any other achievement. The answer to the “joke” remains the same.
The fact is that Black folks did not create the concept of race; white people did. Europeans conceived it. White Americans perfected it. White South Africans copied it. Centuries ago in Africa we did not consider ourselves to be “Black,” any more than Europeans considered themselves to be “white.” We weren’t even “Africans.” We were Maasai, Zulu, Xhosa, Asante, Yoruba, Himba, etc.
The sole reason for creating race was to establish a hierarchy — with Blacks on the bottom. We have even been subjected to hierarchies within our race. At a young age I was told the following by whites and Blacks: “There are Black people and then there are …” (Indeed, you can’t understand the Rwandan genocide if you don’t understand the intra-racial strife that Europeans created to divide that nation.)
I often hear people ask, “Can’t we just ‘get past’ race?” I suppose we could. Will we? I highly doubt it. Nothing about our nation leads me to believe that will ever be the case. Virtually every week we hear about Black people who are fleeing the police being shot to death. Even if the officers aren’t consciously thinking, “I’m going to shoot this Black person,” I am certain that they aren’t thinking, “I’m going to shoot this American.”
In the end, it’s all good. Black folks have taken lemons and made lemonade. Or, to be culturally appropriate, we have taken social chitterlings and made them a delicacy. Don’t tell us how to eat it.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.