Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Blacker Than Thou Or Internalized Racism

This is a little game played amongst black people.  I have to admit I have been guilty of playing it on more than one occasion.  I usually get drawn in when the ever so touchy subject of black hair gets brought up.  This is largely because I see chemically treated hair as privileging Eurocentric features.  I cannot divorce the origins of the project from the identity of a person.

At any rate, the blacker than thou game arises from the idea that there is one way of being black; and therefore if you don't fit a certain stereotype somehow you are not legitimately black.  This can take the form of social discipline of language, dress, and speech.

At times this can be a real deterrent to our progress as a people, because education or a desire to learn can be seen as taking on the qualities of whiteness. When you are living in a world where everything around you daily refies whiteness as good, it is tempting to reject much of it in order to preserve self esteem; however this can damage our own communities.

Even the title of this post will be offensive to some.  There are those of color that resent the term black to this day.  Some prefer to be called African ___ (fill in the blank) and some prefer not to be be referred to by the colour of their skin whatsoever. 

On one hand, we want to think of ourselves as the "black community", however no such monolithic group exists.  It is easier to speak in generalities, and say the black community says or does xyz, but it would be a false universalizing statement.  "The community" is full of dichotomies; however the racism that we face is real.  It is this universalizing experience that causes this desire to speak in a communal sense though we are little more than a collection of individuals experiencing divisions that effect us differently based in race, sexuality, ability, class and gender.

The experience of an African immigrant to North America, and a black person whose family has been here for generations are quite different.  The African immigrant will deal with xenophobia as well as racism, on top of whatever other areas of marginalization that they personally are dealing with.  Their concept of blackness will be completely different from one that identifies as African American, and yet their voices and  their experiences are equally important to understanding the complex  issues that POC  face.

Who is black and what constitutes blackness are issues that we will continue to battle.  Some would choose to exclude others based on personal prejudices.  The Afro elite would love to silence the voices of the poor because they feel it reflects badly upon them; yet the poor and the marginalized constitute a significant percentage of the black population.  The poor question the elite, noting that they do not suffer in the same ways, and therefore challenge their right to legitimacy.

This is an ongoing internal conversation as we try to decide amongst ourselves what constitutes legitimate blackness.  Who gets to speak on behalf of a community that has such clear and divergent interests?  Just like all other groups it is my belief that intersectionality must be included in our conversations about race.  The needs of a transgender woman, and the needs of a disabled woman are equally important.  Each has a unique experience in terms of the ways in which race  issues will manifest itself; however each has a legitimate claim to blackness.

We have a tendency to accuse one another of internalized racism the moment someone  presents an issue, or a perspective that we cannot wholly identify with.  This is the result of privileging an individual understanding of what constitutes blackness, rather than considering the position of someone we have constructed as "other".

This infighting amongst us over legitimacy is counter productive.  When we bifurcate identity into politics without giving equal weight to what each group is saying, we are doing the masters work.  Division between marginalized bodies helps to maintain white hegemony. 

One of the ideas that came out of the 60's civil rights movement was the idea of black pride.  If we cannot accept blackness in all of it multiplicities then there is no such thing as black pride.  What is the concern of my brother or sister is my concern and until we can decide on a more cohesive understanding of what it means to be a POC in a society determined for us to remain second class citizens, I fear that we will tread water with little  to no progress being realized.  Today blackness to me means each and every person who chooses to identify this way regardless of how I feel about their political stances.

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