Recently I was asked why I call myself White Girl in Black Face. I’ve addressed that question in bits and pieces, but I’ve never fully explained my motivation. So thank you, dear reader, for pushing me to do what I’ve been avoiding. Let me try to break it down.
I chose the name because:
1. I’m telling it like it is.
My mother is white and my father is black. I have never met my father. I was raised with my mother and adopted by her second husband, who is also white. Growing up, both sides of my family, locally, were white. The majority of our neighbors were white. The majority of my parent’s friends were white. The majority of my classmates were white. You get the idea. Inasmuch as race is a social concept, I was socialized as a white person. I had little access to blackness. When we were moving, I asked my parents if we could live in Arbor Hill, which was the most heavily black neighborhood in Albany. I felt estranged from black people, but I was aware that I “looked” black.
2. I’m questioning race.
What is blackness? According to the modern American concept of race, it is having one or more black ancestors. What is whiteness? The absence of black ancestors. That’s why people can call Barack Obama our first black president even though his mother was a white lady from Kansas. If the definition of blackness was having no white ancestors, there would be no black people, certainly not in America. If the definitions of white and black were the same, neither race could exist. American racial categories have no empirical foundation.
Biologically speaking, there have never been “races” in the sense of a group in which all members share certain genetic traits. Two “black” people might have less in common genetically than one black person and one white person. Our modern concept of race originated during slavery when perceived differences between black and white were highlighted and accentuated as a justification for stripping people of their rights and humanity. As we all know, blackness was used as a basis for all sorts of cruelty and mistreatment, whereas whiteness was used as a basis for all sorts of protection and advantages. I believe it is impossible to separate race from its racist origins.
3. I’m embracing ambiguity.
When I applied to NYU, I marked both black and white on the application. After enrolling, I received paperwork in which I was classified as black. I called the registrar’s office to explain that one of my parents was white and one was black. They told me that they didn’t have space in the computer for two races.
Rewind a year. In high school, I was a volunteer at the NYS Legislature. I worked with an Assemblyman who agreed to propose a bill on my behalf to add a “multiracial” category to school and state forms. The idea being that people like me aren’t half this and half that, we’re 100% mixed — a whole new thing. The bill was vehemently opposed by several members of the house and Senate, most notable by Denny Farrell, Chair of the Ways and Means committee. He called me (seventeen year old me) for a meeting and explained that, by insisting on my multiracial identity, I was taking power away from black people. He felt that I was eschewing that responsibility to be counted as black. I argued that there was power in self-identification. He promised to kill the bill and he did.
I do not deny the existence of black culture. I do not deny the music, the food, the sense of humor, or the love. I do not deny collard greens or the blues. I do not deny the need to stand strong against oppression and disenfranchisement. But I could never see how embracing the dual concept of race, a system invented to degrade, is empowering to black people. The reason this was so clear to me even in high school was because there was no place for me. And yet, I walked and I talked and I breathed. Sometimes I burped. I knew I existed.
“If the existence of certain human beings causes problems for certain concepts or systems of categorization, then it is the concepts or systems of categorization and not the human existants which need to be criticized and changed.” – from Race and Mixed Race by Naomi Zack, Philosopher
4. I’m flipping the script.
By calling myself White Girl in Black Face, I am questioning the exclusivity of whiteness. I am proposing that race is not intrinsic, it is learned. I am not trying to be white or trying not to be black. I am refusing to play along.
5. I want to get to the next level.
I believe that in order for any of us to be free, we all must be free. Things are changing and they’re going to keep changing. It’s pretty simple. I want to be where we’re going, not where we were. Also, I like when things make sense.
6. Oh and lastly, I’m f*****g joking, people.
Ok, your turn. Tell me what you think, “like” my post, pass it on, tweet it, facebook it, tumble it, stumble upon it, subscribe to the blog (button on upper right). Talk to me. Love me. Electronically.