Thursday, September 11, 2008

Who is a Real "Black Person"?

Okay, so the creator of Blue Corn Comics came and left a comment on my blog a few days ago. I had linked to his writing in a post I'd written a while back called "Who is a Real Native American?" He also wrote a post on his blog that referenced that post and today I went over there to comment on it.

In the process of reviewing what I'd originally written, I happened to notice that there was a link to another one of my posts that I hadn't noticed before. Ironically, it happens to be the one where I was discussing an incident where some self-described "radfems" were trying to set themselves up as the authority about what black people look like. So, it seems the universe is trying to tell me that I need to be writing about this stuff for a minute. I decided to respond to this link on my own blog because it got kind of long and I didn't want to just take up that much space on her spot. This blog post is in reference to the linked post on "La Libertine's Salon" called "Gonna have to be a racist bitch on this one"


Well, I would never consider you a "racist bitch" for what you've expressed here even if/though I disagree with some of it. That's just not how I see people. Now, let's get on with it. Shall we?

Instead of guessing what I mean by black, why not just ask me? What "black" means to me depends on the context of its use. However, in this context, I was referring to folks in America. Here in America, YOU may see black as referring to someone of "black African heritage" but that certainly isn't how the everyone else uses it nor is there any reason why the rest of us should. It is just as accurate to use this word in reference to someone from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia as it is to use it in reference to someone who is believed to have a predominantly Sub-Saharan heritage.

Being black is so-oo-oo much more than simply being the descendant of slaves. Just because you don't think any of the Maghrebi populations (and those next to them) as having contributed to YOUR heritage, it doesn't mean that they haven't contributed to the heritages of other black people in America. As a matter of fact, they have.

And what of those who live here and are from other African populations that did not make up the heritage of most who came over during the slave trade? Are they also not black in your eyes? Americans with Tanzanian, Zambian, or Kenyan heritage--are they less black than those with Senegalese or Ghanaian heritage?

I'm very curious about where you came up with the idea that the average African-American "is going to have hair that is tightly curled, coarse, and kinky". Can you back this up with anything empirical? When you say "tightly curled coarse and kinky" can you come up with any objective means of deciding what's tightly curled? How much curl needs to exist in order for you to feel that one's hair is "tightly curled"? Are we going to resort to the pencil test?

Furthermore, when you say the "average African-American", by definition that includes those Americans whose predominant heritage is from non-Saharan African areas. Does your claim (about what the average African-Americans hair is like) hold true when they are included in the equation?

Also, you completely failed to comprehend why the people mentioned in that post were being called racist. When a white person proceeds to tell black people that they can't be who they say they are and that they can't look like how they do and that we should all defer to their labels for others, what do YOU call it?

Also, you say,

"That is why there are certain products and procedures that will work on African-American hair that will not work on or even seriously damage hair that is different from that and vice versa".

"African-American hair" includes every type of hair there is because, again, by definition it includes any American who has African ancestry, regardless of whether you'd consider that person black or not. There are no products that work on all African-American hair. My daughter and I both have afros but we certainly can't use the same kind of products.

I can easily make my hair look like the one you described as the "coolest hair style in the world" without using a single product. My daughter's hair simply isn't going to look like that unless I did some major braiding, then used stiff hair gel, then made her get under the hair dryer and untwisted it. I can use aloe vera gel to help smooth down her ponytails but it's completely pointless for me to use it because my hair has a different texture the gel isn't nearly heavy enough to weigh down my hair as it will her's.

These differences between "black hair" and "white hair" that you believe in also exist within the black population. If a person is black and they have straight hair, then guess what that means? Straight hair is "black hair" too. If a person is black and they have wavy hair, then guess what that means? Wavy hair is "black hair" too. Neither hair type is more or less black than the other if black people have both.

By the way, both me and my daughter are "mixed". Yet, our hair if very different. My nieces are also mixed but their hair isn't just different from mine and my daughter's--despite having the same parents, their hair is different from each other's. My mother and her siblings have the same parents but their skin tones range from chocolate-brown to milky-pale. The darkest of them has the straightest hair. The lightest one has the kinkiest hair. Is her hair more African-American than the hair on her darkest sister's head? How could that be true? They are both just as African-American as the other, sharing the exact same heritage.

With regards to your hairdresser issues, it isn't the one drop rule that caused your problems. It was your own bad judgment with regards to who you let mess with your mane. I don't know how y'all roll in whatever part of the country you're in but, down in New Orleans, I was taught that you never let a hairdresser get in your hair if she doesn't have the same kind of hair as you have. If you want to see how long your hair can get, then you don't go to a hairdresser with a pixie cut. If you have kinky hair and you want someone who can give you a gorgeous and hip kinky style, then your best bet would be to find a hairdresser who also has kinky hair. There's good reasons for this. The hairdresser has gone to school to learn about the basics, after that she takes her skills in a certain direction. If she has hair on her head, that's the hair that she's going to be most used to dealing with, the kind of hair that she'll have the most consistent experience working with.

And here's another problem with your arguments: This "mixed" concept. If you want to be technical about it, dern near all third, or fourth generation African Americans are mixed to some degree or another. So, even if your argument that "Straight, light-colored hair isn't found among people identifying as African-American (which anyone can do if they want to) unless the hair has been relaxed and dyed or unless they are mixed" was accurate--which, by the way, it is not--this still wouldn't prove that black people don't have straight or light-colored hair because plenty of people with mixed heritages identify as black too. In fact, I'm one of them.

I'm not any less black than anyone else because I have a mixed heritage. My hair is kinkier than plenty of people who do not identify as "mixed" at all. My gorgeous skin is darker than that of some people who were born and raised in the heart of Africa. Like your maman, I am Native American, African-American and French, but I'm also more than a little bit proud to be Irish as well. Yet, I'm still black. I don't have to choose one or the other label. I can be "mixed" and be black. I can be "multi-ethnic" and be black. I can have straight hair and be black. I can have kinky hair and be black.

Your words aren't offensive to me. They are simply a bit silly. Silly, erroneous and unscientific. The fact that you even thought that AncestryByDNA site is a reputable source shows you seriously don't know what the heck you're talking about. I've discussed this company and others like it in another thread which, ironically, was about who is a real Native American.

The reason why so many scientists are wary of these companies is because they so often mask what they are really offering and then we get people making the same unscientific claims like yours that they truly believe are backed up by these corporate products. If you want to truly understand what that chart means, I'm more than happy to explain it to you. Instead of it merely being a hobby, I've actually worked in genetics labs.

You wrote that Madame C. J. Walker was "one of the few self-made African-American women in this country". Well, frankly, that's very debatable. She was the first female millionaire in the USA but there were plenty of African-American women before her who achieved success through their own efforts. Furthermore, there were plenty of hair products geared towards African-Americans on the market before her's. What made her more successful is undoubtedly her distinct acumen in business.

Lastly, you really might want to re-read what the post was about. No one claimed that "brown skin, even dark brown skin" equals black/African-American. The issue was that the comic plays into stereotypes about people of color and the evidence of that lies in the way that the white people in question went on to equate the term "person of color" with being "black" and tried to invalidate the views of people of color by asserting that they know better than we do who is and isn't qualified to consider themselves black.

I understand that these issues can be difficult to navigate, especially for those of us with very diverse heritages. However, my view is that we are the ultimate arbiters of what labels apply to us. We all have the right to be self-identifying. That means you don't get to decide that certain African-Americans aren't black. That means you don't get to decide what someone else's heritage needs to be in order for them to look the way they do. None of that is up to you. It's not a decision you or any self-described "rad fem" gets to make no matter how bad you might want to.

The world we live in is different from the one that existed a long time ago. People of color are not just going to accept other people's assessments of who they are, nor should they. The people on that picture are just as black as anyone else who calls her/himself that. Instead of trying to play "race police" with other people, why not stick to defining yourself?


White Trash Academic said...

Great post! I had to go back and read the linked post so I understood the context. I believe that none of the predominately white "radfems" had any place discussing this issue. They are constantly denying their own privilege and ganging up on those who point it out with the "oh, but I am not a racist.."

Lisa Harney said...

I am impressed.

If there weren't so many white people to explain what's racist to POC, how would anything ever get done?

Or maybe I should ask "who needs straw men on a day like this?"

Lisa Harney said...

white trash academic,

Yeah, totally. They wanted to defend the use of a picture that dehumanized women in sex work that also characterized brown men as animalistic and bestial, and anything that mocks people (women who enjoy sex work) they don't like gets a free pass on everything else - and as in this case, completely excused for everything.

I find it interesting that anti-pornography radical feminists are willing to form coalitions with the religious right and law enforcement to work against pornography and sex work, but are unwilling to form coalitions with sex workers themselves - sex workers have to exist in relation to the movement as victims or converts.

And, of course, there's race, where the main point is "gender is the root of all oppression," which inherently puts women of color in second place - or tells them that sexism is their primary concern, as if a woman of color's sexism and racism are somehow discrete things that are separable:

Or, why white women can get away with being Special White Ladies, but women of color do not.

White Trash Academic said...

Yes, I did read a little about that photograph. I would make it my personal goal to point out in their posts whenever they ignore their own privilege but the effort, I am sure, would be futile because they would moderate my comments.

Lisa Harney said...

Plus, just think of how often you'd have to post?

bint alshamsa said...

True that, Lisa!