On Wanting Greater Representation of Blackness and Policing Who is "Black Enough"

by Brittany Dawson

Last week, I grabbed coffee with a former classmate at Starbucks. We laughed, gossiped about How To Get Away With Murder, and discussed books we were reading. Somehow the conversation shifted from books to race, perhaps the controversial election of South Carolina Black Republican senator Tim Scott inspired this change. Everyone had an opinion.

As she slurped puddles of remaining coffee, she let loose a powerful statement that still hurts today. “You know what Brittany? I don’t really consider you Black. It’s like you’re different from other Black people, ya know? You talk so well.”

With a brisk smile, she tilted the cup towards her lips and placed a cold hand on my shoulder. “I don’t see the big issue with Tim Scott. He’s not a thug or anything.”

I scowled, raised my eyebrows, and felt my stomach sink. Noticing my reaction, she tried to clean up her mess. “I’m not racist but I think you… I think Black people ought to know the right way to be Black.” She grabbed a wad of napkins and daintily dabbed away blotches of coffee. As angry as I felt with her, I partially blamed how we as Black folk advertise dichotomous representations of Blackness: Black and not Black enough.

What does it mean, “the right way to be Black?” According to Charles Barkley, “if you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law,” you are in the clear. This is to counter so-called thuggish, pants-saggin’ ratchet behavior, which must be avoided because it is the wrong way to be Black. Barkley’s troubling comments spurred a rise in comments from other self-appointed “Blackness enforcers”—people who police, castigate, and wag a pointed finger at Blacks who deviate from monolithic, one-dimensional rubrics of Black identities—a befuddling practice that discredits diversity in other spaces.

How can we ask for greater representations of Blackness when we continue to propagate these limiting ideas? We are leaving a myriad of unclaimed experiences to rot solely based on homogenous definitions on what Black is and is not. Should all Black people fulfill their social responsibility to uplift the community? Vote left? Dedicate their lives to dismantling the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? While I’m sure the Blackness police have been around longer than Barkley’s misinformed comments, ascribing limited portraits of Blackness to all Black people halt ways to explore, understand, and represent the African Diaspora. This is deeply entrenched in how America categorizes Blackness today.

In Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, for example, a working definition of the African Diaspora is offered. Touré describes Blackness as “a completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form,” a much more inclusive and multidimensional definition. When we attempt to place surveillance on Blackness, individuals are judged on superficial markers that deepen the divide within our community of who gets to claim Blackness versus who doesn’t. Mia Love’s historic win in Utah exemplifies how problematic these assumptions can be. Because Love has distanced herself from her race to pander to White-centered politics, the historical significance of her win has been negated. The greater implication suggests that there is a dominant, agreed-upon form of Blackness we should follow to be “claimed” or recognized by other Black people, which signifies a misunderstanding of the Black identity and its complexities.

Another problematic assumption lies in who gets to “claim” Blackness when it comes to mixed race people who self-identify as Black. Commenters on a recent For Harriet article discussed this at length, with many stating that biracial or mixed women cannot be Black. Instead, it’s as though we pick and choose. We celebrate Mariah Carey as a prominent African American woman who contributes greatly to the music industry. Barack Obama, who is also biracial, is not referred to as “the first biracial President,” but the first Black president. I wholeheartedly acknowledge the murky language surrounding Black folk whose interests do not align with social justice or those who do not “appear” Black, but we must respect these unique, individual relationships to Blackness.

We all have a choice to perform Blackness in a variety of ways, no matter how problematic it may appear to the greater community. Without this variety, how can we lean on one another if we cannot actually validate each other’s experiences as members of a rich community we wish to uphold? It may be saddening to see Blacks in positions of power who do not want to be “claimed” by the greater community, or who are not committed to battling the equalities that many of us face. But these people are still our people, even if from a distance. Mia Love is my sister and Tim Scott is my brother.

I choose to claim the unclaimed--a choice we all have.

It’s time we stop believing that only certain identity markers translate to Blackness. This does not allow for complexity or diversity. Black people contain multitudes. It is important to note that while the African-American experience is primarily discussed in terms of a collective experience, it is not enough to suggest that in order to be Black, we must all share similar views or practices. We all deserve a space to explore Blackness in whatever form we desire without the fear of being ostracized or forgotten.

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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