"I don’t really think about you as being black, Maya."

Dear friend,

I know you meant well. Or at least, that you didn’t mean me any harm by what you said. I must admit, it was slightly amusing watching you struggle to dig yourself out of this hole you realized you’d inadvertently dug.  It led to an interesting discussion about the differences between “white culture” (after questioning what exactly white culture is and whether it can be separated from mainstream American culture more broadly) and Jewish culture–you tried to draw an analogy between my personality:blackness::Jewishness:whiteness, and really, I want to commend your effort. I guess majoring in Psychology, Philosophy, and Economics makes you more attuned to the reality of cultural sensitivities and how to handle them with finesse more than most of my non-ethnic-minority friends.
And don’t worry, you’re far from the first person to say this (or something similarly-themed) to me. I just a) hoped I had embraced my blackness enough in college to dispel such observations, and b) can’t help but feel as though I should be offended, either on my own behalf, on that of black people as an amorphous group, or both. I cannot blame you–and am not trying to–for your statement because, as I learned during the Black Solidarity Conference this year, even [at the very least some, a concentration of whom I interacted with at Yale in February] of my peers and current race scholars don’t see me as fitting into the larger overall picture of blackness either. But don’t think for a second I’m condoning this, because I’m not. The fact that lots of people, even insiders, do this, does not in any way make it any more acceptable, or any less racist. So, friend, peers, scholars, larger world, I must again beg you to reconsider the apparently negatively themed definition you give to blackness. Who are you excluding from that group, and why, and what do you presume gives you the authority to make those cuts? I ask you to remember that race itself is a social construct, an idea that our forefathers made up to promote white privilege and deny persons with whom they were uncomfortable (or did not even consider to be persons) the rights of citizenship or even simply the rights of man–sure, it’s one made visible by the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, the breadth of my nose, but again, these are all things that human beings themselves defined as fitting the construct of blackness, not inherent distinctions.

We struggled to define white culture when trying to establish Jewish culture’s distinctiveness. I would like to raise the challenge that black culture, and (though I know little about it, everything I know about the world as a sociologist or even as an observant member of society leads me to believe that) even Jewish culture cannot be limited to one narrow definition against which to pose some other narrowly defined cultural group. Every mainstream culture has a counter-culture, usually multiple counter-cultures. There is always an underground, a counter-movement, even the smallest of revolutions. There is always someone who is unafraid to open their eyes, see their surroundings for what they really are, and say, “Hey, wait, this isn’t what I want. This isn’t correct/right/fair/justified/appropriate/normal/what-I-should-be-striving-for.” There is always someone pushing for change. 
So, I have more rock on my computer than hip-hop/rap. That doesn’t mean I can’t spit a T.I. verse back at you, and it doesn’t mean I’m not black. I will never fight someone because they scuffed up my sneakers, most likely because I’m in a cute pair of flats. That doesn’t mean I’m not black. I have owned exactly two pieces of clothing from a “black” clothing brand in my lifetime, and they were both from JCPenney on clearance. (I can’t turn down a good deal.) That doesn’t mean I’m not black. I’m not a great dancer–I learned how to two-step less than two months ago and I cannot (and may never be able to) pop or lock (though I can drop it). That doesn’t mean I’m not black. Enunciation and complete complex sentences define my natural linguistic structure; while that might make my 6-year-old cousin interrupt Thanksgiving dinner to start the following exchange:

V: Maya, why do you talk like that?
Me: Talk like what?
V: All…proper.
it doesn’t mean I’m not black. I am and will continue to become highly educated at very elite universities, where my study of blackness and black peoples should not separate me from them. That doesn’t mean I’m not black. I disdain of the use of the word nigg- by any and all persons, much in the same manner that I disapprove of faggot and cunt and a lot of other entirely inappropriate derogatory terms. It doesn’t mean I’m not black. I don’t like collard greens, but I won’t eat macaroni and cheese that hasn’t been in an oven and trust me, your sweet tea isn’t sweet enough for me. This doesn’t mean I’m not black. I don’t have fake gold hoop earrings with my name in them, but again…I think you’re getting the picture here. 
I guess the more significant way to approach this is to examine what means I am black, besides my aforementioned skin, hair, and nose. 1) My recognition of the history this country tries to hide and the havoc that history and its hidden status wreaks on the black population even in 2011. 1b) My disdain for the term post-racial, no matter how you’re defining it. Like my homeboy Brother West says, Race Matters. 2) In my house, Santa and Baby Jesus were both black, and though I didn’t grow up to believe in either of them, I learned to see the world from a black person’s perspective. I learned about the black tax (which I still believe in), and I learned the importance of remembering where you came from, because no one else is going to. I learned Kwanzaa and sweet potato pie and the foods you have to eat on New Year’s to bring good fortune. I learned everyone from the Temptations to India.Arie. So I would like to take this time, world at large, to throw your assumptions about my cultural background back in your face. 3) In line with your mainstream negatively-themed ideas of blackness, world at large, which I do not agree with but feel the need to address, I am no stranger to struggle. I know what it is to be on food stamps. I know what it is to have the electricity/water/cell phone cut off due to nonpayment of the bill. I know what it is to not have food in the house. But knowing all those things taught me to dream, taught me to work towards a goal, taught me dedication and resilience, and combined with a lot of luck, those things have made me successful. Fact: either success nor lack of it are definitive of status as a racial minority. 4)  R&B/Neo-Soul is my favorite genre of music, which is just as rooted in the black community as hip-hop. 5) My ideal breakfast features grits. 6) AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, I am black because I SAID SO. Honestly, that’s the only reason you should need. Because this is an identity I have adopted as belonging to me and people like me and lots of people who aren’t like me in many ways EXCEPT for their adoption of this same identity. If the work I’m just beginning on racial identity and college students has taught me anything, it is that beyond being a social construct and a category that people will try to place you in no matter what, race and your identification with your race is a choice. Whether that choice is manifested through organizational involvement, circles of friends, or something as simple as being the little guy’s advocate in a classroom debate, it is an active decision. It is a decision I have made, it is an identity that is important to me, and while I certainly don’t want it to be the only thing you categorize me as, I do want you to stretch your notions of blackness to include me. In fact, today, tomorrow, and every day until you concede, world at large, I will do nothing short of demanding it. 


About alaiyo0685

I'm a kind of quirky, pretty stubborn, way too opinionated, twenty-something, intellectual, introspective, queer, Black, female, in a polyamorous relationship, and this is where I try to figure out my life.

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