We live in a world that is constantly trying to define us by race, ethnicity, gender, culture, language, creed, religion, level of education and social status etc. The list goes on and on and on. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be an insatiable desire by family, friends, the media, pop culture and even organised government structures to shape who we are, based on what “best” identifies us. But who and what define us? Is it our race or gender or profession or religion or social status that best defines us? Aren’t these trappings mere adjectives that partially describe us, but do not in any way define who we are?
Well society seems to disagree and has ingrained in our every fibre, that these adjectives define our very existence.
I am not my skin colour.
In multicultural societies, race seems to be the single most important factor that distinguishes people. People are often divided along the lines of race whether in public or private life. I remember during my university days I often had to fill out application forms that required me to disclose my race. I would have to pick from options provided what race was best applicable to me. The options read as follows; “White”, “Black”, “Asian”, “Coloured (a politically correct term used to refer to people of mixed-race origin in Southern Africa)” or “Other”. While filling out these forms, I remember thinking to myself; “why is this information necessary?”, “this is ambiguous”, “What is other?” “What about people who don’t fit into any category? Should they just tick “other” and be done with it?
I have often seen that race is seldom seen as just race. Race is a label that is pregnant with racial stereotypes. By this I mean that labels attached to people purely based on the colour of their skin is often the deciding factor people use to define and judge them. For instance, white people are often viewed by the rest of the world as, privileged, savvy and most likely to succeed in life’s ventures. Asians are seen as tech-smart geniuses, innovators and even shrewd business people. And blacks are viewed as lazy, ignorant, incompetent, dead-beat and most likely to fail in life. But what about people who don’t fit into these pristine laid out racial stereotypes?
What about black people who are privileged, savvy, tech-smart and innovators, all in one? Then what? What does the world do with people like these who do not fit into the boxed stereotype that has been rolled out for each race? They become an oddity. The world makes good excuses for them, such as; “the odds were in their favour”, or “they are the exception to the rule” or they may be fiercely hated by detractors, all because they do not fit into the neatly packed racial box laid out for the races.
Among the black American population, there seems to be a movement geared towards determining “How black are you?” At the first sound of this, it seems rather preposterous because skin colour and facial features should answer any questions concerning racial ambiguity. However, because physicality alone is sometimes not enough to determine a person’s race, there is a growing need to check a person’s racial credentials. By this I mean determining how black a person really is, based on their upbringing, life experiences and interests. The rise of the privileged black, sometimes referred to as “coconuts” or “oreos” —people who are racially classified as black, but considered “white” inside because they are well educated or have had a privileged upbringing and therefore do not fit into the traditional black stereotype, is also another reason why some black people have had to “authenticate” their very existence.
The American TV show—“Black-ish”, created by Kenya Barris, echoes my sentiment on the topic. As the name of the show suggests—Black-(ish), is about being black but not quite black enough. The show centers around an educated and successful black family, who defy prominent black stereotypes; by graduating from college, getting good jobs and owning a home in a predominately white suburb. However, the father feels that his children are not in touch with their “black side”, due to their privileged upbringing and sets out to educate them on what it means to be black. In one episode, the father is disheartened to discover that his son likes field hockey instead of the proverbial “black” sport of basketball. Though the show is depicted with humorous gusto, the message reflected remains unadulterated—to be black means you have to identify with certain “black” things. The show is definitely awash with references of what it means to be a black person in modern day America.
Rachel Dolezal— a former president of the NAACP, Spokane Chapter in Washington, sparked a media firestorm when reports surfaced that she was a white woman, passing herself off as being black. Following this revelation, there was a mass outcry for her to “validate” her claims to being black. Some people even took to twitter armed with a host of questions and a list of possible answers—the correct one being the answer that most identified with the black race, to express what it means to be black.
In my curiosity, I looked up some of the so called #AskRachel questions, and I must admit I did not know the answers to some of the questions, even though I am fully black (not mixed race or anything). Does this make me any less black?
Well, whatever the point of the #AskRachel exercise was, I would have to say that people should not be defined based on whether they sound, look or feel White, Black, Indian, Chinese, Hispanic or whatever the case maybe. Race says nothing about our upbringing, life experiences, interests, desires or even aspirations.
You fight like a girl
Even within gender there are prescribed roles for boys and girls. If a boy doesn’t fight hard enough on the play ground, he is told he fights like a girl and if a girl fights hard for what she wants in life, she is told she is bossy. If a man shows emotions, he is considered weak and if a woman displays strength she is called cold-hearted. What is wrong with a man being gentle and a woman being motivated and driven? Does this rob the other of their existence if they choose not to subscribe to what society considers the appropriate behaviour of a man or the actions of a woman?
The Bible or the Qur’an?
Religion is definitely another dividing line. Though not as pronounced as race or gender, it still remains a factor that distinguishes “us” from “them”. When most people see a Christian, they almost intuitively think, “a religious fanatic”, or someone who is out of touch with reality because they live purely based on faith. I once had someone at university ask me “Why are you Christian, when you are educated”? As if to say, that Christianity is for the illiterate and uninformed. And the same goes for Muslims, who are often viewed as “dangerous” or “terrorists”. While being a Christian or a Muslim partially describes a person based on their faith beliefs, it is not the end of and be all. There is always more to a person than being Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist or Agnostic etc.
A few last words.
In a world that is constantly trying to define us based on our outside trappings, how do we break free and establish our own identities? How do I tell the world, yes I am black, but I am not lazy and incompetent like the black stereotype suggests? How do I say yes I am black but I don’t enjoy the TV show Empire and would rather watch Game of Thrones? How do I explain to the world, yes I am black but I have two left feet and can’t dance to save my life? Do these exteriors make me any less “black”? Am I denying my heritage and identity because I do not conform to things that are considered “black”?
How do I tell the world that I am a Christian and I love the Lord with all my heart, but I am not a “religious fanatic” who is out of touch with reality? And how do I explain to the world that even though I am a woman, I have been told that I act like a man? Am I betraying my gender because I am a strong, educated and motivated black woman? No I think not.