Sunday, April 01, 2012

Black self-worth? C'mon... I'll race you...!

Okay - so I've been doing a lot of thinking about race lately. Race and gender. Why now particularly? Well I guess I've always thought about it - after all, what first-generation Caribbean woman in the UK has the luxury of NOT thinking about these things? But now my awareness is sharpened by the experience of watching my son grow up in the world, watching his ideas and perceptions be formed right before my eyes. Layer by layer. In trying to figure out how to raise him, I'm being forced to figure out what I reallty think about everything from religion and music to economics and the tooth fairy. How can I best equip him for his life? How can I give him the least amount of baggage and the most mental agility, emotional strength and solid self-awareness? How do I improve upon myself? How do I give him the truth, rather than perpetuating in him the ugliest aspects of the society we live in? And more fundamentally - what is the bloody truth, anyway?

Today, I'm going to scribble about one of the big paradoxes that keeps me foaming at the brain which is - how do we transcend race without disregarding race? Meaning, how do we repair the horrific legacy of racial inequality without simultaneously perpetuating it? Race is a political construct - an ideology that holds in it's every fibre the key to it's survival, like the information contained in DNA. It is divisive, misleading and oversimple. Despite it's artifice however, the damage race continues to wreak on billions of humans is profound and very real. There can't be medicine without diagnosis. I must identify and acknowledge myself as 'black' before I can begin to challenge how that label has shaped my identity. But to do so is to identify myself as an 'other', to take on a narrow identity that in most instances obscures my human-ness, reduces me to a stereotype, a cause, an exotic, an 'issue', a collection of narrow behaviours, a role that ultimately affirms the status quo of white privilege and whiteness as 'default' (black literature is Black literature, white literature is just literature etc.) I don't like to talk about these subjects much. I keep waiting to know more, and holding my tongue - often because I don't want my desire to transcend race to be mistaken for the desire to ESCAPE race, which is very different. Transcending race means to have an understanding and pride in cultural origins without subscribing to the centuries-old system of divide-and-rule tactics. To escape race, on the other hand, is to try and pretend the system does not exist. To deny one's own personal beauty and and give it up for another's. To give up one's vision for another and thus, look upon oneself as an alien. Escaping race means to pretend that one has not sustained injuries and attempt to annihilate one's past, and one's pain by absorbing oneself in the dominant culture. In that route lies a much darker peril, because then, we carry poison without the hope of a cure...
But sometimes we try to cure this ailment with remedies that are dangerous in and of themselves. What set me off thinking about this is that I took little man to his first protest today for an unjustly murdered black teen and listened to some very inspiring, emotionally arousing speeches. However, during one of these, a community leader launched into a line of indignant vitriol I've heard over and over again - one that has always made me uneasy. Soon after I got home, I posted this on FB:

'Opinion: Black leaders need to stop trying to motivate the black community by saying things like 'black folks are ignorant' or 'the reason for the sorry state of our people is...' and such. It's not useful. It plays to the very same stereotypes we're trying to debunk. There are a lot of fantastically educated people and well-brought up kids in the black community and that should be highlighted. We don't need more negativity, no matter how well-meaning, directed at a group who's already been under such a sustained ideological/emotional/psychological/financial (etc.) attack in society. What's needed is persistent challenging of the systems that lock us in a dynamic of inequality. What's needed is emotional/spiritual support so that people understand their rights as HUMAN BEINGS. There is a great value in understanding black history, but our achievements as a 'race' are not what make us worthy of dignity and fair treatment. We don't need to do anything to deserve that except be ALIVE.'
I posted it because it seemed to me that for many, the solution to racial injustice is to entrench themselves even further in the ideology of race, to create a new 'blackness' in order to liberate 'blacks' from the old one. To create an identity that is more positive, but just as stifling - appealing to us with a narrow definition of what 'blackness' means; imploring all brothers and sisters to start acting like 'real' black people, like the 'kings and queens' we really are! But a) I hate to point out the obvious, but we can't ALL have been kings and queens, can we? And when exactly. And where? What country on the vast continent of Africa housed this Utopia? This is not very often made clear ( especially given the diversity of origin within the diaspora) b) Highlighting our contributions to world knowledge is a natural and understandable defence to being told we are worthless, but still a reactive rather than proactive means of creating identity. Sketchier still when the list starts getting reeled off highlighting all the ways that black people started everything, invented everything and are best at everything. That is an attitude that only minority consciousness can support (how unnattractive and downright vicious would it be in a dominant group?), and thus, ironically, an attitude that relies on a position of victimhood to thrive. Instead of screaming how much better we are than everybody else, we should fight to be recognised as equals who deserve fair treatment, fair portrayal, fair access to opportunity and fair representation in the media and history books (and the right NOT to have our hair squeezed by sweaty-palmed strangers. Sheesh!) That is our right. We also need to recognise the depth of injustice and inequality on all levels of society and fight all of it - most notably gender and class inequality as well as race. As I said earlier, human value is not something that needs to be defended. It is is intrinsic. I don't want my son to ever doubt that his worth is infinite or feel the need to hitch his worth to anybody elses accomplishments but his own. A child is a child is a child. A man is a man is a man. A woman is a woman is a woman.

If we feel the need to try and prove or defend our worth... then we don't truly grasp it in the first place.

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