Thursday, January 11, 2007

Keeping it REAL!

Last Friday, I called a couple close friends and asked them to take an informal survey that I had hurriedly created. There was a point I wanted to prove to another close friend of mine and I was certain my survey would provide the valuable insight I need to construct my argument. As I expected, some of my friends were quite amused by the questions I posed and others were clearly uncomfortable. I started everyone off with the same exercise...

"I'm going to name two contemporaries", I would begin. "Pick the individual you consider to be more 'authentically black' ".

I started with what I considered to be the "easiest" comparison.

"Michael Jackson or Jay-z?", I would ask.

"Jay-z", most of the respondents would reply.

"Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan?" I would ask next.

"Tiger Woods is Kablasian!!!!", they would often shoot back.

Chuckling, I would instruct them to simply answer the question.

"Michael Jordan", they would finally concede. I would chuckle again.

The comparisons got increasingly more challenging. Whoopi Goldberg or Dave Chappelle? Barack Obama or Al Sharpton? Oprah Winfrey or Tyra Banks? Though the pause between answers invariably grew longer, the answers were usually predictable. Looking over my notes after each interview, several questions came to mind...

What makes Jay-z, Michael Jordan, Dave Chappelle, Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey more "authentically black" than Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Barack Obama and Tyra Banks? What factors contribute to ones classification in one race or another? And what does it mean to be "authentically black"?

A further examination of my results would soon provide partial answers to my questions.

I started with the Michael Jackson / Jay-z comparison. From a societal level, what makes Jay-z more "authentically black"? Is it his association to hip-hop (a stereotypically black musical genre despite the fact that 75% of record sales are attributable to white middle class youth)? Is it his darker skin color (although before the bleaching, Michael Jackson was of darker hue)? How about Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan? Though Tiger Woods has openly self identified as Kablasian (whatever that is), Michael Jordan has never - to my knowledge - self identified as "black".

I was quickly spiraling into a sticky web of stereotypes, faulty racial reasoning and misconceptions...

...Whoopi Goldberg married that dude from Cheers but Dave Chappelle is married to an Asian woman...Barack Obama is bi-racial yet often lauded as the first "black" Senator since Reconstruction and even the prospective first "black" president. And how about Oprah and Tyra? What sort of racial metrics does one utilize to gauge Oprah and Tyra's relative "blackness"?

I was getting no where fast! It would not be until early the next day that I would regain my focus and recall the original intent of the previous nights exercise.

You see friends, the comparison I set up for my friends speaks to the complexity of the social construct that is race. Race is not biological. Race is not the definitive categorization we often make it out be (ask someone of "bi-racial" lineage, if you don't agree with me). The concept of race was constructed. To be black or white in America speaks more to the way in which society perceives and responds to an individual, than to any genetic similarities or predispositions.

The reality is that because I am of a darker hue (heavily pigmented), I am like to be socially funneled into certain residential communities, schools, churches, social/professional networks, which naturally acculturates me into a group of people similarly perceived by society. Sadly, most people now accept the fact that I am (as a "black" man) statistically more like to be pulled over by the police, denied a loan, or discriminated against at work than my "white" roommate simply because of my darker hue. And much like Tiger Woods, I may attempt to self-classify as something other than "black" but ultimately the greater society will treat me as they perceive me.

My point is this: Race is complex, messy, and here to stay! The idea of a color blind society is as fanciful as the idea of a world without poverty. Racism, in my opinion, is an inevitable by-product of the ridiculously complex social interactions by self-interested individuals that have and continue to take place all over world.

I fully support and have actively engaged in attempts to minimize and correct the negative effects of America's most infamous social contribution, but I also believe that any attempt at addressing the matter of race most be couched in an appreciation for the construct's complicated history, pervasive effects, and unpredictable future.

I'm not a cynic but I do believe in "keeping it real".

And so to my dear friend who believes that we may one day live in a world free of racial discrimination, poverty, and conflict, I leave you with this: Your desire is honorable, good friend, but let's KEEP IT REAL!