We as a people often give lip service to the ideas of inclusion and treating everyone the same, but we often fall short in this area. There is a popular meme on the black internet that presents folks of various ethnicities and asks if they are invited “to the picnic.” Which means, is this person cool enough to survive and perhaps even thrive in the complicated environment known as, a black family cookout. The cookout itself, becomes a microcosm of the black community with our complicated and various social strata.
We are not a monolithic people, as many of us are fond of saying, mainly because it is true. I have a strong, clear speaking voice. As a youngster, I was made to speak clearly and distinctly and not use slang. I learned to code switch without understanding of socio-cultural implications of what I was doing. I would just naturally speak differently with different groups of people. Also, I was the black kid who did have white friends in high school, and some folks don’t like when you straddle the fence.
In school this often was expressed by my peers as, “Why you sound white?” I have so many instances of being voice-shamed, excluded, or told I sound white, that I will just limit my analysis to high school. I went to a very large, public high school in Detroit. The year that I started, 1978, the school was roughly half black and half white. I would hang out with black and white folks. I bought Cameo and REO Speedwagon albums. I think that I was just trying to be a human being in a complex society. I was friends with and hung out with human beings that I liked, despite their race.
I have been put into awkward situations by both sides. With my black peers, I was questioned, admonished, and sometimes threatened. I had a classmate inform he was going to, “beat my ass” because I was a, “white man’s nigger.” Why are some black folks so hostile to other people who do not fit their definition of “blackness?” The explanation must be fear, remember, the brother in high school wanted to assault me because I sounded different than he did, and I had white friends. Did he feel I somehow doing damage to the race by being as I was? Perhaps he felt like he was helping me find my true identity thru this cathartic ass whooping he was proffering?
I think there may be another cause. Our enslaved ancestors were first brought to the Americas in 1513. The first Africans imported to what would become the United States (Winyah Bay, SC) was 1526. Africans had been to Americas prior to arriving here in shackles, it is documented that Columbus had African sailors in his crew and the Olmec Heads suggest Africans were here long before, or perhaps support the notion of Pangea. In any case, we have been here a long time, from 1513 to now is 506 years. For 450 of those years, we were either enslaved or so limited in what we could safely do or be, that it was the same as enslavement.
Human beings are extremely adaptable to their environments. I believe that not only our physical bodies, but our minds adapt to accept whatever reality we are presented with. Our historical slave experience taught us that different was dangerous. It was dangerous for a slave to display aptitude or intelligence and being around white folks never ended well for slaves.
Imagine a young slave who does possess some aptitude or intelligence. I can imagine his parent’s reaction would be to beat this uppityness out of the child. They would rightly fear that if white folks heard of their child’s aptitude, they would take special interest in the child, which rarely ended well. The parent will almost certainly lose the child if it’s intelligence and aptitude is discovered. It was not uncommon for slaves to be taught farm trades such as blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry etc. These slaves
were a more valuable commodity for their owners and often got special privileges, up to and including being able to use their labor to earn money and buy their own freedom.
These folks, even during slavery, made up the beginnings of the black middle class. It should be noted that the larger percentage of these craftsmen and eventually free blacks were related to owners. This created a black middle class that was more beige than brown. Which created resentment in the slaves who were performing the more menial tasks.
If you look at our black American culture today, are we any different? I believe the deep roots of why we make fun of, ridicule and shun black folks who “talk white,” “act white,” or have white friends is because we realize, this ability will allow them to better navigate this racist society. That brother back in high school likely did not even realize why my way of being caused him so much anger. Could it be that these biases and defense mechanisms were encouraged by this system?
The powers that be in this country know how to keep people separate. We have poor people in this country who scapegoat and help victimize other poor people because of the color of their skin or their immigration status. I understand that race, borders, national origin etc., are all man-made concepts designed to keep the folks on the bottom at war with each other. We have participated in our oppression by not liking this one for talking to white, or this one for talking to ghetto, this one for being too light, or another that is too dark.
The faster we learn to accept people for what they are, and stop letting fear and mistrust color our interactions, the faster we evolve.