Why White People Can’t Be Black, and Other Thoughts (Or, Not Another Piece About Rachel Dolezal! aka, Are We Still Talking About This?!)

I know I’m two days too late, and in internet time that’s the equivalent of being two years too late, but I had to put my thoughts in writing. I’m not sure if I add anything new to this conversation since so many people have written about this by now, but I’m doing it anyway! 

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By now everyone has heard of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and NAACP Spokane, Washington Chapter President who spent years lying about being Black. What started out as a juicy piece of gossip quickly erupted into a national conversation about race and identity. And as soon as I read the story, I knew people would try to drag Caitlyn Jenner and other transgendered people into her foolishness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

What is a Black Person?

#AskRachel on Twitter was probably one of the funniest and most interesting reactions to come out of this controversy. The premise of the hashtag being that if Rachel was “really” Black, she would know the answers to questions like:

What’s interesting about these #AskRachel questions though, is that most of them involve music and media; lyrics from rap and R&B songs that played regularly on radio stations throughout the world, TV shows and movies with Black characters that were broadcast on national stations and were in syndication for years. In other words, stuff white (and Latino and Asian) people also grew up with and wouldn’t hesitate to answer enthusiastically and correctly. But that doesn’t make them Black, does it.

So then there were the #AskRachel questions about family life. And church life. And food.

These are trickier.  These were about the intimate spaces of Black people, ones that (most) white people wouldn’t have access to. But a lot of Black people don’t have access to these spaces either. Because they are about a very specific Black experience. A Black AMERICAN experience with Southern roots. As a 1st generation American raised by Tanzanian parents with immigrant friends from Asia and Latin America, I still can’t answer the potato salad question (yellow or white? huh?) My mother never talked about “McDonald’s money” and I had no idea what a “kitchen” was  (the kinky hair at the nape of our necks) until I took an African-American studies class in college. But that doesn’t mean I’m not Black, does it.

So it’s clear that there is no ONE Black culture, and having access to elements of Black culture doesn’t make you Black…so then…what is Blackness?

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The Skin I’m In

Nobody questions my Blackness because I have brown skin, kinky locs, a wide nose and full lips. But we know Blackness is not just about skin color or facial features. There are Black identified folks who are lighter than Rachel Dolezal. Black folks with blonde hair and blue eyes. Black folks with white parents. Black folks with white kids. So what makes us Black?

When I visited Tanzania as a kid, the children there would call me and my siblings “Mzungu” or “white person”. Although our biological grandparents were right there speaking Kihaya and Swahili with them, we were still white people. We spoke, walked, dressed, acted in a way that they only associated with white people and therefore, we were white folk too. The argument “We are all Black” wouldn’t even make sense to many Africans because their concept of racial and cultural identity is not Pan-African but tied to their very specific regional customs and languages. Many dark-skinned Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa would not be able to answer any of the #AskRachel questions. But aren’t they Black?

Systems of Power Define Us

Colonial Anglo-Saxon European people in power, aka “white” people, were the ones who first defined us. They were the ones who decided one drop of African blood = Negro or Black. We did not know that we were all supposed to be connected until those European people in power decided to enslave and colonize those of us who lived on the African continent.

But then we took back their definition of us to fight their oppression. We actively look for connections and celebrate them instead of allowing ourselves to be destroyed by them. “They” told us we were Black to justify oppressing us, and we reclaim that identity to empower us. “Yes, we are Black. And Black is beautiful”. 

Black is Political

When I say I’m Black, I’m connecting myself to millions of other African descended people around the globe. I’m saying, although we may have differences, I choose to recognize our similarities. It’s a statement of solidarity.

Honor the Ancestors

I think this is probably the most important part. We are who we are because of our ancestors. Or better yet, we were born because our ancestors survived and reproduced. Our ancestors who became Black, not because they wanted to but because they were forced to, were colonized and enslaved into it. They suffered heavily because of it. They lost their cultures and histories because of it. And when we say we are Black we are calling on that history and remembering them and honoring them. We are recognizing their struggle and saying, “Despite it all, We Are Still Here”.

So that’s why it doesn’t make sense for a white woman to claim Blackness, no matter how passionately she may be about advancing the lives of Black folk. She is not here despite it all, she is here because of it all.

And she is a liar. As my husband pointed out, the biggest issue with Rachel Dolezal is the deceit. In fact, it completely contradicts Black identity. A light-skinned, “white presenting” person who could pass as white but identifies as Black is admitting something about their history. They are choosing to accept the past, choosing to accept those ancestors and family members who struggled and survived. A white person claiming to be Black is denying that history of racism and oppression. They are saying Blackness is not about our heritage and history but about a performance. Even if their performance looks and feels authentic and/or respectful, it is still a mockery of Blackness because it denies the past. The past that made us Black in the first place.

Why Transgender People are Not like Rachel Dolezal

Since transgender people were dragged into the conversation, it made me think about the ways gender and race are similar and different as social constructs. I will admit that it is a complicated conversation, but the easiest way for me to understand it is this:  Every culture and society in human history has had males and females, men and women. How we choose to present our maleness and femaleness has varied throughout human history and look different depending on the society, but the possibility for those two roles has always been there. (And actually more than two roles since intersex people–those born with ambiguous genitalia or sex organs, have always existed).

When my mother was pregnant with me my parents had a boy name and a girl name in preparation. They knew I could be one or the other. However, being anything other than Black (Tanzanian, Haya) was not an option because that’s what they were and my grandparents were, etc. And given my readily identifiable Black features, that’s also how the world would see me.

But we are all made up of male (our father) and female (our mother) parts. We are all exposed to male and female identities. And while the easiest (laziest) way to identify someone as male and female is through their genitalia and physical appearance, we know that being male or female involves much more than that. In fact, many societies throughout history have understood this and created spaces for transgender people. Some more information about that Here and Here.

Simply put, race, as we understand it today, is a fairly new concept that relies on specific historical events and context, but sex and gender have been around forever. 

So…are you still reading? Is anyone there? LOL. There’s so much more to say about this subject, but i’ll leave it there. I also want to add that I find Rachel Dolezal’s story more sad and silly than offensive. But I’m glad that her story has gotten me to think more about how and why we define ourselves the way we do.

Superpowers, Selfie Sticks and The Liebster Awards!

A lovely blogger, Marcella from What a Wonderful World (I love the photography on her blog!) has nominated me for a Liebster Award! Thank you Marcella! Woo-hoo! And what is a Liebster Award, you ask?

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The Liebster is a blogging award that started a few years ago as a way to introduce and connect new bloggers to each other and to each other’s followers. In other words: genius!

Part of being nominated for an award is answering a few fun questions from the person who nominated you. So here I go!

1.  What is your favourite thing to photograph?

It’s a bit boring and predictable, but I would have to say my children! If privacy weren’t an issue, I would be flooding this blog, plus all of social media with their pictures every day! :) But privacy is an issue, and I always take a long time framing and choosing the photographs I end up posting of them on this public blog. I never want to show too much of their faces, or expose them too much. I don’t think it’s fair to them in the end. It is difficult though, because they are obviously, such a big part of my life and the topics I enjoy writing about! 

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2. Selfie Stick: Yes or No?

No thank you. Besides taking up too much unnecessary space, they seem so…corny? I just don’t understand why a person would go out of their way to take a better selfie…?! I’m glad to hear the Smithsonian has banned them!

3.  Which wonder of the world would you most like to visit?

The pyramids and Machu Picchu are at the top of my list! 

4. If you were to write a book about any country, where would it be?

The USA is the country I know best. But I do have a very early draft of screenplay set in Tanzania, so there’s that!

5. Which magical power do you wish you had while you were travelling?

I’m actually so excited about this question, because I think about this ALL the time after living in Chile and struggling to get over my fear of speaking poor Spanish. If I had a magical power while traveling, I would definitely choose to have the ability to speak ANY language, fluently! Can you imagine how amazing that would be? 

 Disney's "Pocahontas" is very problematic and disrespectful to the memory of the real Pocahontas and actual history, but it did portray one of the strongest female characters I had ever seen AND she was able to speak English within 2 seconds of meeting John Smith so that was cool...

Disney’s “Pocahontas” is pretty disrespectful to the memory of the real Pocahontas and actual history, but it did portray one of the strongest female characters I had ever seen AND she was able to speak English within 2 seconds of meeting John Smith so that was cool…

6. Which book would you recommend from the past twelve months?

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi!  

Some of my favorite quotes from the book: 

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

and, “They themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again.”

7.  Which seat do you book on a plane trip? (I’m always a window seat girl!)

With two small children, an aisle seat is absolutely necessary. 

8.  Can you cope with cold showers?

Screaming and crying, yes sure. 

9.  Which song reminds you of a great travel experience?

“Quiero ver” by Cafe Tacuba always reminds me of a great road trip my husband and I took a few years ago.

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10.  The dress:  Blue and black or white and gold?  

I went from being adamantly Black and blue to white and gold to light blue and gold! I’m either very indecisive or incredibly empathetic. 

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And now it’s my turn to nominate a few blogs.

1. Binahkaye from Be(coming) Binakahye Joy

2. Joy at Truth and Travel 

3. Spicy and Mel at Loc’d & On d’Go

Here are the questions:

1. If you could live anywhere in the world, where it would be?

2. What is your most memorable traveling experience?

3.Have you ever been through a major identity shift or change? If not, what group did you belong to in high school? :)

4. If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?

5. What does your dream vacation look like?

6. What is your favorite food to cook? 

7. What do you think about the one-way trip to Mars?

8. If you won the lottery, what is the VERY FIRST thing you would with the money?

9. What did you want to be (career wise) when you were little?

10. What is your biggest fear!

Thanks for playing, and don’t forget to nominate other bloggers!

The Race Box

The other day I received a call from our local hospital. They needed to pre-register our littlest one for a medical exam, and began asking me a series of questions. Birth date? Insurance? Race? Before I could answer the last question, the woman on the other end quickly added, “Caucasian, right?” I paused, wondering why she assumed she was white. My first thought was that maybe she had my husband’s information in front of her….although that didn’t make much sense. Later, I realized that she had assumed I was white (that’s for another essay though). After a brief pause, I answered, “Well…I’m Black. But her father is…Latino…(At this point I remembered that they don’t usually allow you to just put “Latino” as a race)..of European Descent…(in my head I added, “and probably some Mapuche and possibly Inca and definitely Ashkenazi Jew, and quite probably some North African in there too…).” “Ok, so what should I put? African American or Caucasian? I can only check one”. Only check one. Only check one?

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I remembered my Dad’s research about this very topic, how adamantly opposed he is to categorizing his patients according to race, because although culturally significant, racial categories don’t give us enough information. A lot of people identify as “African American” but the majority of African Americans are of mixed heritage, a combination of West African, European and Native American bloodlines. The history of the “one-drop rule” in this country means that even if you technically have more European/Caucasian ancestors, you could still be considered “Black”. So a Yoruba man from Nigeria, and a person who identifies as African-American, despite having only one African grandparent, would be placed in the same racial category. Fascinating for social scientists, but a little ridiculous from a biological standpoint.

“I can also just check, Not Answered”, the woman added. I paused again. If I didn’t say “Black” was I going to turn into one of those self-hating Black people who want to run away from their African ancestry?? I should just say “Black” out of principle, as a political statement if nothing else, right? The world was going to see them as Black anyway….well at least our eldest. I looked at the baby on my lap, with her loose curls and lighter skin. I remembered that the medical staff in Santiago kept saying she looked, “mestizo” when she was born, asking me if she was going to get darker as she grew, if her hair was going to get curlier. As if I knew. Ok, maybe the world wouldn’t readily identify her as Black, but surely she would identify herself as Black…!?

“Ma’am?” I was taking far too long to answer this stupid question. “No, it’s fine, I just…I’d rather not answer the question.”

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Every year since Mia was born, I see chunks of my Tanzanian identity detach and float away, swallowed up by some vague cosmopolitan/Afropolitan-ness; the identity of a person raised in malls and airports, fed by English speaking sitcoms and commercialized holidays. Being in Chile for two years made me feel that loss even more. When I look at our oldest, I  see a little Chilean girl. She speaks Chilean Spanish and knows Mazapán songs and the Andes mountains. She talks about Santiago every day and asks us when we will go back.

I remember that feeling of homecoming, when my siblings and I would watch the dark waves of Lake Victoria from our tiny plane windows, breathing a heavy sigh of relief when we landed after those long thirty minutes of flying; the red clay dirt staining our jeans and borrowed kangas as we made the bumpy ascent to our ancestral village in Kamachumu; the loud whispering of the banana leaves in the wind…it felt like home. It belonged to us, and we belonged there. It didn’t matter if we didn’t speak the languages, or completely understand the cultural codes. When we stood out in our classes, our Afro puffs amongst a sea of straight hair, Tanzania was waiting for us. When our teachers stumbled on our last names, our classmates snickering, Tanzania was waiting for us. When the Black girls would double dutch and speak in slang I didn’t understand and the white kids would keep their distance, Tanzania was waiting for us. Whenever we were asked, “where are you from?” The answer was always: Tanzania.

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I was listening to an NPR interview with David Oyelowo, the actor who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma”, and he said something that struck a chord with me. On speaking about what it’s like to grow up as a Black person in the West, he says:

“The truth of the matter is, what living in the West unfortunately does for you as a black person is it engenders in you a minority mentality. You are a minority and so therefore you live in a world where subliminally you are being told, or you are taking on, the fact that not every opportunity afforded within that society is open to you. Whereas when I lived in Nigeria [from the age of 5 to 13] the notion of the color of my skin, the notion of opportunities afforded to me as a result, never occurred to me. And it does affect how you bounce out of bed. It does affect your ambition. It does affect your outlook on life.”

Through my Tanzanian identity, I never had a “minority mentality”. And I hope that my girls will never feel that way either.

I’m accepting the fact that they will probably stand out anywhere they live. Their darker skin and curls will continue to collect lingering stares and smiles in Chile. Their lighter skin and looser curls will attract long glances and giggles in Tanzania. It won’t be that much different from my own experiences in many ways.

But I want them to feel like, despite all that, they belong. That they have a home, roots, land, ancestors whose spirits they can feel and call on for support, a place where they can just be themselves. I hope they can both always feel that way about Chile, and about Tanzania too. I hope I can always feel that way about Tanzania.

meandmia

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I’ve decided to start a new project. I’d like to continue blogging about these questions I have about race and identity and raising multiracial girls. But I want to take it a step further. I’m going to challenge myself to learn more about our Tanzanian and Chilean cultural traditions, this includes music, language, food, and more….

And I’m going to be creating little videos, or mini-films about our attempts at integrating these little traditions into our everyday lives. I hope you’ll check back and follow me on this fun journey. And I’d love to hear from you. How do you practice your own cultural heritage? If you are in a multiracial family, how do you balance or pass down those traditions? How do you feel about those race questions?