Individualism Leveled by Skin Color
Overtures toward non-acceptance of others and separatism actually fly in the face of the very civil rights activists our young people seek to emulate. Many persons—some famous, but most anonymous—have protested, fought, been jailed, and died in an effort to have black people woven into the American fabric, not as a monolith of blackness or as separate tenants on American soil, but as fully participating and benefiting American citizens. Yet these youngsters are eager to cast us adrift. Apparently simplistic dichotomies like black and white or them and us are attractive to the young and the naive. They explain the world in simple terms that are easily understood. The subtle shades of gray that capture real life are avoided because they take real effort to work through.
I sense much fear and apprehension in the protests of the youngsters and their mentors. Fear of becoming lost in a sea of self-determination. Fear that content rather than color will become a reality and the rule in social discourse. Fear that if such were the case, they would be found wanting—having to rely on attributes and achievements defined by the past. One must take responsibility for oneself and not blame others for one’s own failings. Separatism and non-acceptance of others must certainly be the final and desperate gasps of the young and the naive at maintaining a sense of black identity and shared oppression. After all, would mature and intelligent persons really want to remain separate? Would they really want their individualities and idiosyncrasies leveled by skin color? It seems we’ve already had those experiences in America. It sounds like fear of the future to me.
The Black Community is Restricted, Trapped by Color
Our blackness, my blackness, their blackness, and your blackness trap us by color. Be black, think black, buy black, and stay black—all of these trap us in thought and deed. We are relegated to a box labeled “black.” We become and are forced to be colors—not humans with individual souls but objects constricted by the over-inclusiveness of color. We are black women, black men, black children—and are correspondingly restricted by this qualifier. We are restricted. This must surely be the case because one can’t possibly entertain one’s humanness if one is first concerned with and objectified by one’s blackness. Moreover, in our social interactions, we become hesitant to reveal or disclose to others—black or otherwise—our humanness. How can we ever be free in thought and deed if we must first and foremost be black? Can we permit ourselves and each other such freedom? Will others allow us such freedom?
Can the Human Species Overcome Our Past?
I personally hold little hope for people. My suspicion is that humans will never be able to advance to a stage where external characteristics become inconsequential. As a species, we are much too primitive to overcome color, ethnicity, and gender as assumed delineators of behavior. Our primitive nature is aptly demonstrated through our anthropology. After two hundred thousand years of development, biological and social evolution, and “civilization,” we humans still resolve many of our conflicts the same old way—we kill.
I often imagine there are beings from other worlds and galaxies looking upon us with wary eyes. I think of an alien mom (like any good mommy) saying to her offspring, “Yes, you can go out to play, Junior. But, stay out of danger. And remember what I told you: ‘Don’t go anywhere near Earth!’”
How can we begin to help our young people with their questions of identity if we ourselves continue to look backward, fearful that our blackness will no longer be a mitigator of circumstances for us; that we might actually be held accountable for our outcomes? For many of us, to be judged on the merits of our skills, personalities, and motivations runs counter to a position and status that we have, in our minds, earned. It is the position of top victim—a highly valued and reserved place in the American psyche. This is a place where self-defeat, personal foibles, and inadequacies are rarely questioned—a place where membership provides, at least psychologically, a protected status.
Black Americans Must Choose: Inclusion or Exclusion
I would hope that all sensible persons would rail against those who would throw us backward into the shadows; fearful of self-responsibility, self-determination, progress, and harmony. As America continues to struggle with becoming less color conscious, black Americans become put upon to choose. The choice is one of inclusion or exclusion. The choice is to embrace the future with all its benefits and challenges, or to clutch desperately to the restrictive and stagnant familiarities of the past.
Those persons who preach separatism, non-acceptance of others, and a tragically constricted black identity claim their philosophies are most closely aligned with the past struggles of our revered heroes. By association, they consider themselves somehow nobler than those of us foolish enough to toil in the present with an eye toward the future. Sentinels to the past such as Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rev. Jesse Jackson claim it is they who are keeping alive the spirits of Malcolm, Martin, Harriet, and others. How truly wrong are these black men and women. The message of our martyred benefactors is not one of exclusion and identification with the past. Collectively, they enjoined us to be included in the American family, not as distant relations but as central and contributing relatives. Our legacy is only defined by the past. Its attainment and realization lies in the future.
Embracing a Future of Racial Inclusion
We must embrace the future and inclusion. The actions we take will be crucially important for still-to-be-born-black children, who will, in their time, search for their own identities. Unless we are able to let go of the past, future generations will be as unprepared for their world as are today’s young pups. If our youth are left unadvised, they will likely incorporate into their identities the false and contrived anger of their assumed vanguard—the worst among the rap and hip-hop musicians. They will believe the messages of hate emanating from these entertainers are real, that these entertainers are the vanguard for a people disaffected by their status in American society. But they are not a vanguard. They are entertainers. They entertain, but, more importantly, they sell false pride and false hate. Not unlike large corporations that feed off poor black kids, these entertainers join the frenzy, gobbling up money and futures. Naively, our children—and a great number of their elders—believe that because the shark is black it won’t bite.
Skin Color Does Not Define Character
The presumptions of race that have dominated our society for the last four centuries are being rejected. Today, we are experiencing a revolution. Its nonviolence belies its omnipresence. It is not a revolution of weapons and rhetoric, but of inclusion and pluralism. We are indeed benefiting from the efforts of our forebears. We have become integral parts of the American society and culture. No longer can whiteness or blackness of skin be used exclusively to define quality of character.
The goal of the twenty-first century is to help all people—including blacks—learn not to employ color as a qualifier for opportunities, affiliations, and respect. Rather, the content of an individual’s character should be foremost. It means truly processing the ideas of the relatedness of all humans, and judging each other not by color, but by character. These ideas help define the foundation for positive relations among racial and ethnic groups. More importantly, they provide a groundwork for the exploration of identity for adolescents facing a less color-conscious society.
Well, that’s all the time we have for today. We’ll pick up again next week.
BE WELL, AND KEEP STRETCHING!
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Dr. James Davison, Jr. is a licensed psychologist and university professor. He conducts a private practice in Seattle, Washington, and has appeared on several nationally-aired programs including The Phil Donahue Show, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and C-SPAN. Dr. Davison hails from Philadelphia, and is the author of several books – Prisoners Of Our Past and Sweet Release, and the upcoming Paid In Full – related to individuality and personal freedom for African-Americans.