What we call ourselves: a conversation about blackness

I work at The Schomburg Library, a branch of the New York Public Library.  It serves as a black research library and is a historical monument in Harlem.  I assist a program for high school and middle school students.  I love my job.  I love the opportunity to be surrounded by my history and I love having access to lectures, book’s, and materials that sustain the black community.  I love it so much that I frequently post about my experience on both my facebook and twitter status.  On the first Saturday of the program, I posted the following:

Working with black kids in the morning is my only motivation for waking up at 7am on a Saturday…

I received this response soon after:

Hi Dear I do love you, but i want you to be politically correct, you can write working with minority kids. I am an HIV/AIDS activist and my organization is about to start housing the homeless. I was trained on how to avoid offending a group. I hope you are not offended by this little private note. Thank you.

I responded with the following:

i am not offended by your email at all but ofcourse i was a bit surprised only because i do not know you.

my staff and i were actually talking about the identification “black” and who makes and creates “blackness”. what is the difference between “black” and “african american”? identifying as black was part of a unified movement in the 90’s that challenged the notion for being “american” as there are some people with darker skin who choose not to identify with being “american”.

i am aware that some identify differently but to me, it’s just what words and what language we choose to give power to. i tend to question the idea of organizations leading “diversity trainings” to inform their staff about how they should address others of various races. most organizations tell you that because they don’t want to get notes like the one that you sent me. that is the number one way they lose their funding.

besides, I don’t know many activists who fought for change and spoke their mind who were concerned about being “politically correct”, no offense.

This response was sent to me by another black women (or a minority darker skinned woman, as she may prefer to be called).   She clearly wanted to keep me identity conscious and “politically correct”.

Here is what I have to say about being “politically correct”.  It’s a bunch of bullshit.

Now I am not saying that we should not honor what people wish to be called or that we should blatantly offend others at our own convenience, but regardless of how I choose to be called (person of color, minority, African American, daughter of the Zulu Nation, whatever)…. I am black.  In this country, I am black.  Whatever connotations come along with that, whatever images my blackness brings up for people is out of my control.  And being called black is out of my control.  So, I own it, because I know I am a multifaceted human being who identifies as a black woman, as a girlfriend and lover, as queer, as poly, as a writer, etc, etc.

And let me tell you, loving being black has not been easy.  No one taught me how to love being black. In fact, saying that I love being black leaves me with a bit of fear and disbelief because no one has ever asked me to love being black.  The only thing I know that goes along with identifying as black is the struggle (or the scruggle, as I humorously call it).   I have to choose to love it every single day because if I didn’t choose to love being black, I would allow myself to go as invisible as the world that conspires to make me.

Sometimes, I feel like the minute I begin loving my blackness, something throws me off course.  I get mistaken for a white woman on the phone because I speak proper English.  Another black person asks me where I’m from and when I say the suburbs of Maryland, suddenly I’m not representing the way I did a minute ago.  I go to college in Western Massachusetts and decide to cut off all my hair because there are no places in a 50-mile radius that have ever encountered African American hair.

That, for me, is at the heart of the struggle.  Just loving my skin, my hair, my lips, and all the features that make me black, regardless of the fact that I may be questioned and unrepresented.  So being black and identifying that way has nothing to do with the word.  It has more to do with what I experience daily because my skin happens to be brown.

The dialogue that we have about what we call ourselves will be on going.  But it is my opinion that there is a deeper conversation to be had then about words.  It’s a conversation about the idea of authenticity, internalized hatred and general confusion about ways to identify because we have never had control over what we call ourselves.  It is our responsibility as a community to take back our ability to identify ourselves without organizational diversity trainings telling us to say what does not offend.  Ultimately, they are telling us what terms are right and what terms are wrong.

If we get to a place where we say what is comfortable for everyone, we lose our ability to challenge others and ourselves.  We weaken the muscles that start revolutions.  And then we allow others to stop us from defining who we are.


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