Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Black and Blue - But Not White

I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case
’Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
Those lines are from the song “Black and Blue” written in 1928 by Andy Razaf and Thomas “Fats” Waller, and while I understand the sentiment, I’m uncomfortable with Razaf’s choice of words. I know that he’s trying to say, “I’m really just like the rest of you,” but the fact that he uses white as the standard is what makes me uncomfortable.

Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues have commented that I’m not really black, or that I’m one of the whitest black people they’ve ever met. No offense was intended by my white friends, and thus none taken. Indeed, it was meant as a compliment. On the other hand, when said by other African-Americans, it was intended as an insult. It was meant to say that I was an “Oreo” black on the outside and white on the inside. Now, in the spirit of my discomfort with Razaf’s lyric, the time has come for me to finally address this.

When even the most enlightened of people say this, what they’re really saying is that I, and others like me, don’t fit into their stereotype of what a black person is like. What kind of music a black person should like, what kind of food a black person should like, what a black person should talk like, etc. And to be sure, this is a stereotype. It’s a stereotype based on a statistical misunderstanding.

A few years ago, I read in the Statistical Abstract of the United States that 30% of African-Americans live in poverty. While that is a high percentage, the all-important flip side of this is that 70% of us do not live in poverty. This is where the statistical misunderstanding comes into play, and, with apologies to my sister, the statistician, I will deliberately oversimplify things in order to make things easier to understand.

The 30% of us who live in or near poverty are more likely to live clustered together in so-called “black neighborhoods,” where they make up 90% of the population. On the other hand, the 70% of us who are better off are more likely to only make up 10% of the “white neighborhoods” that we live in. In other words, there are actually more of us in the suburbs than in the inner city, but the greater concentration of us in the inner city, and the media’s representation of them, is where most people, even many African-Americans, get their idea of what we’re “supposed to be” like or where we're supposed to live.

That which is put down by inner city blacks as “acting white” is simply holding middle class values and striving for a middle class life, a goal which has been held by us since Emancipation. That which my confused friends and colleagues consider my “acting white” is similarly the result of having grown up in a middle class community with middle class values. The problem is that neither of these groups seems to be aware of just how many blacks there are out there with middle class values, sensibilities, and tastes. Both of these groups seem to think that to be “authentically black” (whatever that is) you have to behave like the 30% that is so much more easily seen.

I’m tired of being told that I’m pretty white for a black guy, even if it’s meant, especially if it’s meant, as a compliment. As I would say to Andy Razaf if he were alive today, white is not the standard. I may be the same as you inside, but that don’t make me white.

It makes me human.

1 comment:

  1. Another excellent post - as usual. I think, if anything, you are letting your friends who would say something like that off lightly. It's understandable, because they are your friends. In print, at least, saying "you're pretty white for a black guy" comes off to me as kind of insulting. And it clarifies a division where one doesn't necessarily need to exist.