Recently on Facebook a friend posted something to the effect of “My name is John and from now on you should refer to me as Irish-American.” It was clearly a snarky comment about blacks referring to themselves as African American. In fact, when challenged on it his reply was “I’ll call them ‘blacks’, you can call them anything you want.” I tend to call people whatever they call themselves, I think it’s a matter of respect. While here’s nothing pejorative about “black” and Blacks use it synonymously with “African American” John’s rejection of the term is indicative of something worth examining.
Take a little challenge: to the extent you can, write down the name of (someone you know personally) a teacher, an electrician or other contractor, a barber/hairdresser, an auto mechanic, a police officer, an attorney, an engineer, a computer tech person, an insurance agent. Now go back and write down the name of an African American in each of those roles. How many did you get?
Here in what is possibly the most segregated city in America, most of us (whites) have little or no contact with ordinary black folks. We know little about them and are quite ignorant about how much we take for granted, ethnic pride being just one example. People tend to want to know the country and culture they descend from. In the “City of Festivals” we celebrate Irish, German, Italian, Greek, Polish, French, Mexican, Indian (etc) culture. Black folks were robbed of this through the horrors of slavery (including the systematic rape and mating of slaves). They can’t say “My family is from…” because they don’t know.
Initiatives like the African World Festival and Kwanza have been attempts to recreate and reclaim a lost ethnic pride, to create a new positive identity, and yet many whites react with derision. It would be like if we took a pig and kept all the good meat and gave them the scraps and them when they turned those into something tasty we talked down on the food….
Let’s talk about speech. I have no problem with proper English; in fact I am quite a proponent of it and have an English degree. However, I didn’t have to learn to speak differently from what I heard at home, that I speak pretty much like my parents. Blacks are held to another standard. In many lines of work they’re expected to speak like whites, and we congratulate them when they do: “He speaks so well”. At an inner city school where I worked one 3rd grade teacher called it the “cash language” (‘you speak one way at home but you need to speak this way to make the cash’).
What then are we to make of criticisms of President Obama speaking “too blackly” to black audiences, as if he’s not being authentic? What’s wrong with speaking to people in their own language? Does it make white folks feel excluded? Some of us act like it’s all about us, all the time. Grow up.
There is one place where we have lots of contact with African Americans, the white media. If you couldn’t come up with the names of any black teachers or insurance agents, you might be able to name some criminals. Yes, I wrote “white media” which locally would include most of the TV stations and WTMJ and WISN talk radio. Tune into talk radio on WNOV and you’ll hear reasonable and educated black voices addressing the problems in their community, like the recent violence in Sherman Park. When I hear white people saying “I’d like to hear more blacks condemning the violence” I can be pretty sure they wouldn’t know where to find a copy of The Milwaukee Times, or even find WNOV on the dial.
Why aren’t more of these African American voices represented in local white media? Good question.
I never bought or sold anyone, and from what I know of my family, neither did my ancestors. I have had many black friends in my life. Still I can acknowledge that my experience as a descendent of European immigrants is fundamentally different than that of the descendents of African slaves, and that I enjoy certain privileges they don’t. There is no personal shame in this acknowledgement.
Most people want race relations to get better, and if for nothing but white self interest we need them to get better: demographics show a declining white percentage of the United States. Are we going to be a strategic partner in future societies or a reviled minority? Are we going to work with blacks to transform racist aspects of our society or are we going to be an impediment to this transformation? In many ways it’s up to us because we are still hold most of the strings.
What can we do? A good place to start would be LISTENING. Stop listening to white people talking about black people and start listening to black folks talking about themselves.
NFL quarterback Colin Kappernick has drawn a tidal wave of criticism for his refusal to stand for the National Anthem. My initial reaction was that this was a misguided and ineffective protest that might cost him his career, I thought “maybe he’s dumb.” However, as I listened to interviews with Kappernick and read more about this I learned that he was a straight A student, won many awards, and nearly had a professional baseball career. I also learned that the Star Spangled Banner’s writer, attorney Francis Scott Key, owned slaves and prosecuted abolitionists. There are even pro-slavery lyrics in later stanzas of the song:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”:
The “hireling(s) and slave(s)” referenced here included black slaves who fought with the British in exchange for the promise of their freedom. While Keys seems to view them as mercenaries, in a very real sense they were fighting for liberty (their own).
Now I’m not going to throw out my Miles Davis CDs because he beat up his girlfriend, and some of the the Founding Fathers owned slaves. I’m not saying that we should ditch The Star Spangled Banner, but before we send Kappernick off to the proverbial gallows we should give him a fair hearing and ask ourselves “Why would this NFL star risk his career? What are his reasons for doing this?” This requires listening.
If we had all the answers things would already be a lot better. We need to stop talking and start listening.