(1)ne Drop:Shifting the Lens on Race by Dr. Yaba Blay and Noelle Theard, featuring portraits of individuals who identify as "Black" speaks to an article entitled "4 Ways to Push Back on Your Privilege" by one of my favorite bloggers, Mia McKenzie (aka Black Girl Dangerous). Many portraits in (1)ne Drop may raise a few eyebrows. Take the portrait of 'Zun Lee' on the right. He says:
"When I applied to grad school or for jobs, all of a sudden the boxes come up. I had to make a choice, so for the first time, I checked 'Black.' And I didn't think long about it because for me, it was based on personal circumstance. I just chose the box that I felt most at home with because I didn't relate to any of the other options. From then on, if I were asked, I would answer, 'I'm Black.' Of course, people told me I couldn't do that — that I couldn't choose that box. But I had spent all of my life being pushed away by people. In Germany, I wasn't even given the option to check anything because I wasn't welcomed there. I had no box. For the first time, I was being given the option to identify myself. Now I had a box, and I was happy in that little box."Is it okay for Zun Lee to identify as black? He doesn't self-identify in his quote as "Asian." Should we, the viewers and readers see him and insist that he must be "Asian" or at the very least "not black?"
The Black Girl Dangerous article says:
"4. Be careful what identities you claim
If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. The same goes for white-presenting people who claim POC (Person of Color) but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race. Just consider what it means to claim that and to then argue about its validity with people who do experience racism in their daily lives, and who don’t have access to the kind of choices around it that you have. (I’m not saying you’re white or that you should call yourself that. I’m only questioning use of the term POC.) Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience. Really. Think about it. Don’t just get offended and start crying about identity-policing. Really consider what that means."
So here's my take on all this…
I would argue that it's about all of these things and that everyone should feel empowered to name themselves. At the same time, identities come from somewhere and have histories. And that is something very crucial to understand, especially when it comes to the ways in which racial identities become marginalized and oppressed. McKenzie is definitely speaking to this point. But I would like to push back a little on the Black Girl Dangerous article and how this point can be very limiting for multiracial people who may have white/light-skinned privilege and yet identify themselves as a person of color (POC).
As you all know by now, I'm often harping on this idea that identities are political. They are political
because they function in a system of power and privilege, of exclusion and inclusion yada, yada, yada... you get the point. The “Man” made the system, the system’s broken and destructive, and we’re all inextricably tied to the system no matter how white, how mixed or how black, we may be. Politicizing identities was also a very strategic posturing that many social movements like the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the LGBTQ rights movements all used to stake claim to space and recognition and advocate for rights and equality. That is not to say, however, that identities are only political.
I think that the really powerful anti-racist, social justice school of thought and action that I and others like me are steeped in can sometimes be very limited in its understanding of this. We focus a great deal on marginalization, and identities of "oppression”—of being defined by what privileges you don't have, what you weren't given, what is not recognized. It is a very powerful way to develop identity and a critical understanding of systems of oppression and how to dismantle them. But it also runs the risk of essentializing and reducing identities. So, while blackness is most definitely about the painful history of Africana people being dehumanized and enslaved, of being conquered and colonized, of being marginalized and discriminated against, it is also about the beautiful history before colonization and enslavement, and of resistance and struggle, of survival, of community, of building new homes, cultures, families--of starting new races and peoples and nations and imagining more just and vibrant futures.
Throughout U.S. history, blackness has encompassed all manner of individuals and communities that "white" society deemed “less-than,” illegitimate, pariahs, unassimilable. The one-drop rule was a construction of a white supremacist colonial system that depended on classifying race in order to protect its grip on power. Actually, the individuals photographed for the (1)ne Drop book that may look "white" or "not black" would have very likely been classified as "black" at so many points in our history. Fun fact, Irish immigrants were once considered "black", as were early East Asian immigrants. The white poor in the U.S. were often called names typically used to degrade black folk. The labels “black” and “white” were never only just about "skin color." That was the front. That was the lazy, surface qualification that propped up the whole system that was always deeply aware of its own frailty, fearful of its own demise, constantly thinking of more insidious ways to maintain its power.
Things became inextricably attached to skin color—the system gave it deeply inscribed meanings. Skin color then came to dictate whether you were someone’s property or someone’s master, if you were the conquered or the conqueror, if you were closest to evil or closest to godliness, if you were an animal or a human, if you were stricken by poverty or capable of amassing wealth, if you were illiterate and uneducated or if you were literate and educated, if you had no history worth a damn or if your history was the glory of human civilization….. and on and on and on. And so skin color came to matter. It came to mean a lot of different things. And still, the labels were shifted here and there, lines were bent or erased entirely. White people today were not necessarily considered white people a century ago. And while we allow whiteness that freedom, that strange anonymity and inconsistency, we continue to essentialize blackness. Blackness, which is so complex, and so incredibly diverse gets reduced and policed day in and day out all over the color line.
I hear what McKenzie is saying, loud and clear and 99.9% of the time I’m saying the same thing. Yea, I bristle at the idea of a blonde haired, blue-eyed "white" person coming up to me and saying they identify as "black". But I also understand that identity is so deeply experiential and subjective. I also feel like McKenzie’s article lumps together privileges a little too freely. I definitely don’t experience all my privileges in the same way and they are also in dialogue or conflict with each other and other parts of my identity at any given moment. They are all accessed, played out and read externally in very distinct ways.
I don't actually know any "white" person who goes around saying they're black. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that's not a conversation I necessarily think we should shut down every single time. While they may not carry a “political” experience of blackness, there may be cultural, geographic even gendered, classed or religious reasons why a white person may say “hey, I’m black”. And there may be that one white person in ten thousand billion where we can hear them out and say, “yeah, actually I get that.” I think sometimes we’re too quick to say “nuh-uh, you can’t just come over here and say that. Stay in your box. You can’t understand this pain, you can’t get this identity.” And we play misery poker and shut folks down. And yet, there are times folks accuse light/white-presenting folk who have African ancestry (ex: Mariah Carey) but who claim other parts of their identity or say they actually identify more closely with their “non-black” identities of being self-hating, or confused or “you know, you’re just a black person like the rest of us.” That reaction comes from a very protective and defensive place and it, too, has a history. And so the great complexity of it all is something we all navigate and grapple with.
Look, don't get me wrong, I'm not invested in opening up spaces for "white" people to start claiming all kinds of POC identities. But I do think that its important for us to take whiteness and POC-ness to task and push against those boundaries. The theoretical side of me wants us to burst open these labels and understand the fullness of what all these identities really are. It makes me sympathetic to the hypothetical "white/ white-presenting" person calling themselves a POC. I know several multiracial people who may "pass" as "white" to the masses, but they self-identify proudly as POC and I would be loath to question that. I know plenty of Latin@s who are definitely “white-presenting”, but who consider themselves POCs because of language, culture, national ties etc. I also know some folks from South Asia and the Middle East (ex: Persians) who are officially considered to be “white/Caucasian” but who consider themselves POCs as a result of their identities as immigrants, as post-colonial subjects or even because of the dramatic shift in how the U.S. viewed people from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa after 9/11. Marginalization and oppression don't draw neat little lines and racism is often tied up with classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia etc. etc.
I am deeply committed to fostering dialogue that allows multiracial people to be able to name themselves. For me, part of empowering multiracial identities is allowing multi people that freedom of naming themselves and their space in various communities. I think Black Girl Dangerous' point does not really allow for that. I also don't think it's something multiracial people have historically felt "entitled" to do, nor is it a freedom we always have, to claim our identities. It's not an easy formula based simply on the way we look.
So let's go back to Zun Lee's statement. Zun Lee clearly isn't going to mistaken for a black person any time soon. But his statement speaks to a kind of experience of alienation and marginalization that is familiar to many people of color in the U.S. But what I really love about his statement was that he chose the box he felt most at "home" with. I don't know what his circumstances were. He doesn't really elaborate. But perhaps that was the community that took him in, that let him feel like he belonged. His statement really challenges us to think about what identity means to us and why we claim the identities we do. Privilege is a very important piece of the identity puzzle. And I think that allowing for more fluid, more transgressive understandings of identity will allow us to engage in deeper dialogue and work to dismantling oppression.