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Black Like That Guy Over There

Late last January, Salon published an essay by Debra Dickerson titled “Colorblind.” In the essay, Dickerson argues that Barack Obama, son of a white American mother and black Kenyan father, is not black. To be black in America, suggests Dickerson, your ancestors must have involuntarily arrived on U.S. shores from West Africa. Voluntary immigrants of African descent from African or Caribbean countries–and, presumably, anywhere else–just don’t make the cut. See ya later, Stokely Carmichael! There’s the door, Shirley Chisholm. (Nelson Mandela, you’re welcome to visit, but, uh, try to keep the black thing to yourself, aight?)

This was fun. Just around the time Senator Jospeh Biden was congratulating Obama for being articulate, bright, and nice-looking [read: for a black guy], Dickerson was declaring that Obama isn’t black. Maybe if Senator Biden had read Dickerson’s essay, he’d have framed his comments differently. Not more intelligently, just differently.

There was a sort of frenzy. The New York Times cited Dickerson’s essay in an article on the difficulties Obama will face in securing the black vote given his ancestry. Dickerson appeared on “The Colbert Report” on February 8th and was quickly dispatched. NPR’s February 9th Morning Edition aired a segment on whether Obama “really understands the black American experience.” Blogs buzzed. Salon’s own Gary Kamiya wrote a rebuttal. To date, 493 readers have posted letters in response to Dickerson’s article–hell, I wrote one. And so on.

A great deal of the Obama coverage and responses to Dickerson during that week or two–probably not coincidentally, the first few weeks of “Black History Month”–addressed what Obama’s parentage might mean to black voters. Would black voters feel connected to Obama? Reading Dickerson’s essay and the articles and other media coverage it appeared to prompt, I found myself less moved to think about black voters than to think about blackness.

Who was Dickerson to say who’s black and who’s not? What purpose could it possibly serve to ignore the roles race has played in the histories of blacks from other countries? What, exactly, makes the American-born black experience so very different from the experience of other blacks in this country–and so in need of Dickerson’s protection? What’s going on here?

I remembered a Barbara Jeanne Fields essay I used to assign to students, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” Fields sees us reaffirming the existence of race–an invalid notion, an ideology–every time we bring it up, every time we even say the word “black.” I imagined Fields’ blood boiling at the thought that we should not only recognize blackness, but create new categories of it: “nouveau black” was one species of blackness Dickerson proposed on “Colbert.”

As I now understand “Colorblind,” Dickerson has one main concern about recognizing Obama as black and it has mostly to do with whites. She writes:

    Whites […] are engaged in a paroxysm of self-congratulation; [Obama is] the equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s “black friend.” Swooning over nice, safe Obama means you aren’t a racist. I honestly can’t look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites’ need for absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out the obvious: You’re not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You’re replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened. If he were Ronald Washington from Detroit, even with the same resume, he wouldn’t be getting this kind of love. Washington would have to earn it, not just show promise of it, and even then whites would remain wary.

I’m not so sure Dickerson is right about Ronald Washington’s chances of getting love. But I am beginning to recognize the extent to which blackness is classified and ranked, and the extent to which the severely misguided notion of an authentic black experience–an authentic black character to be protected or coveted or feared or elected–flourishes: in politics, in music, in everyday life. I can’t stand this notion and yet… and yet I understand why so many people–black, white, or whatever–hold onto it.


Last week, I had a blowout argument with a friend who is a wee bit racist. I’ve been friends with him for years and though he says incredibly intolerant things now and then, until now I truly thought that his displays of bigotry were intended solely to piss me off. We all have our prejudices, but I’m naive and like to think that most of us–okay, many of us–are at the very least seriously dismayed by our quiet little prejudgments (when we catch them), not to mention our big deafening ones. Pious me, I am duly dismayed.

But this guy it turns out, not so much. There we were sitting at a bar and he and this other guy were talking about how obnoxious New Yorkers are (so the conversation had already become intolerable) and then my friend said it: he said that the New Yorkers he really can’t stand are the poor black ones. He went on to describe what it is, exactly, about poor black New Yorkers that he doesn’t like. Hold on to that for a minute.


I was once a student in a graduate seminar, a master class taught by a white writer with interests in sub-Saharan Africa. There were about twenty students in the class; let’s say eighteen of them were white. I was surprised to discover as the class discussed V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, the title story of which (if I remember correctly) is set in an unnamed sub-Saharan country, how readily the instructor and students referred to two of the books’ characters as “the white characters.” A fellow student had pointed out that the white characters in the book seemed “empty,” the instructor had explained that perhaps V.S. Naipaul does not know white people, a number of students in the class had agreed with the instructor, and so the class took to the term “the white characters.”

I remember feeling as if I were suddenly privy to the kind of conversation I’ve always secretly feared white people have when I’m not around–I felt kind of like Eddie Murphy in that old SNL skit, the one in which he has no problem getting a bank loan when posing as a white man. I also had the feeling that no one in the class registered that their generalizations about whites (who, apparently, have ways) and non-whites (who don’t know whites’ ways) might dismay anyone in the room, not even themselves. And I can’t help but wonder if, for better or worse, the students and instructor would have been more circumspect had they recognized me as black (and, like Naipaul, of Trinidadian extraction).

I’ve had a few friends–including the one at the bar–tell me they don’t see me as black. I’m never sure how to take this. I usually have a more emotional than intellectual response to my friends’ admissions. It’s weepy to say, but mostly I feel hurt, unrecognized, unseen. What have I gotta do? Would I be black if I spoke differently? If I dressed differently? If my skin were darker? If my hair were kinkier? If my mother hadn’t gone to college? Seriously, would I? I’ve got other creds. Should I list them? Maybe not.


So back to the bar. I told my friend I’d had enough. I told him how offensive I found his ideas. I yelled. He yelled back, saying he understood neither why I should find his ideas so offensive nor why I should be so personally insulted. He kept telling me he wasn’t talking about me, by which I understood him to mean “my people.” And the thing is, he wasn’t talking about me. But he was.

It was my friend’s (and let’s just say that friendship is on hold at the moment) ability to categorize in the way Dickerson recommends that made it possible for him to think that while he might have offended my values (and for this accused me of being PC), he couldn’t possibly have offended me personally–after all, to him, I’m not black.

I was of half a dozen minds: he wasn’t talking about me, but he was; he offended my values, but he also offended me personally; my personal offense–as in watch it, that’s my tribe you’re talking about–is justified, but not as much as it would be if I were Debra Dickerson. There are big differences to take into account between the lives of the people my friend attacked and my own life, there are no significant differences to take into account between the lives of the people my friend attacked and my own life.


On March 23, the Wall Street Journal published a story on Keith Kakugawa, Obama’s best friend from high school. Kakugawa, who like Obama, is multiracial (half black and half Japanese/native Hawaiian), has not fared as well as Obama has: as the story reports, Kakugawa is homeless and has been in and out of prison for years. In this and other articles I’ve read, Kakugawa may be presented as multiracial, but his racial identity isn’t really thrown into question. If anything, Kakugawa is presented as Obama’s introduction to blackness. I can’t help but wonder how Dickerson and my friend from the bar would see Kakugawa. I say I wonder, but really I have the troubling sense that I know very well what at least one of them if not both of them would see.

— Suzanne Menghraj

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