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September 15, 2004

John McWhorter and the Beginning of Blackness

What strikes me most about John McWhorter's latest essay on blackness is that he spells out his name. It's a deeply personal thing that resonates with me, and with my father as well. The long and short of it is that John would appreciate it if we never call him 'African American' again. I agree with him, fundamentally. But when he says we should use Black with a capital 'B', I become enthusiastic.

I don't know how many times I've written about African American vs Black. It's pointless to search this site for a citation. (But this is interesting, especially given my evolving appreciation of JM) The basic way I've been using the terms since Jesse encouraged the use of African American is this: African American is demographic & ethnic. Black is cultural and political. Black is a self-definition, it is an intellectual construction of mental liberation from the chains of an identity defined by white supremacy.

In order to substitute Black for African American, as McWhorter suggests, leaves us in a bit of a quandary. You see, in order to accept Frederick Douglass as Black, one has to do a bit of anachronistic fudging. Is it reasonable to say that Douglass' problem was very much like my problem? Do we have the same problem with the Fourth of July? No, not exactly. Douglass predated the Black Consciousness Movement. But if you broaden the principle, you could say that Douglass' solution was a Black solution. In fact, in order to call Sojourner Truth or Mary Bethune the same Black as Medgar Evers or Stokely Carmichael you'd have to do some awfully clever trickery. But let's assume that were possible. The great advantage is that you could place the best of all historical African American (demographic) political philosophy, into one big Black bucket, and then have all African Americans feed from the same trough.

I hear scholars screaming 'Ahistorical'. OK, true. But not quite as ahistorical as Africa's effects on us blackfolks as any good linguist will tell you. I will leave it to the scholars to work out the kinks in such a program. However, I will enthusiastically endorse the existentials of capital B Blackness, because I know where this fifth generation McWhorter is not taking it. He is not taking it to the hiphop streets.

I've been using the term 'blackfolks' and 'whitefolks' here. So let me remind you what exactly I mean by that. Blackfolks would be average African Americans who have an average amount of Black Consciousness and apply it to themselves. Whitefolks would be the average European Americans with and average amount of White Consciousness applied to themselves. You're black if you understand what it means to be black in America and you have some sense of the lessons of Black Consciousness. Simple. Consequently, as Boohab, I have demanded that whitefolks ask themselves why they continue obliviously to act white. Because everybody knows what that means.

But a new capital B Black would force a renewed evaluation of whether blackfolks are indeed acting Black. Considering the fact that he's claiming it positively I do not doubt that the inevitable conclusion is that there is something of value he sees in it. In other words, there must be a false 'black' which stands in distinction from the true 'Black'. Otherwise why would he care to claim 'Black' instead of the falsity of 'African American'? It has to do with pride, and that must be the pride of accomplishment. In other words to be Black you have to claim the right accomplishment, you have to be proud of the right things.

This is not the end, but the beginning of a new Blackness.

Posted by mbowen at September 15, 2004 12:46 AM

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My leftist cousin likes to sigh in exasperation "No use trying to convince you, 'cause you just don't understand" - and we've all seen this response masquerading as an argument.

And now you say - "...I have demanded that whitefolks ask themselves why they continue obliviously to act white. Because everybody knows what that means..."

No, everybody DOES NOT know what that means. We're going to have to be explicit here. If they're acting "white" OBLIVIOUSLY -

We'll, you've got a dictionary too. You have a whopper of an oxymoron there.

Posted by: True_Liberal at September 15, 2004 04:52 AM

Sorry. I assumed too much. Two Americans, one black one white. What are the racial stereotypes associated with them? Are these people aware of these stereotypes? Yes. Do they act consciously with regard to those expectations? Yes.

If you are a white person and you go into a black neighborhood, what are you to expect, stereotypically? If you are a white person on the job and your new boss is black, is this expected typically?

I'm taking you at your word, but I find it difficult to believe that you have no context for understanding the phrase 'acting white'. But then again there are still millions, I'm sure, who've never seen Peggy McIntosh's list. I'm sure there are many folks who can answer yes I am colorblind, yes I am white, without any sense of contradiction whatsoever. I'm positive that there are many who have never heard the kind of talk Tim Wise expresses. But I would think that a bit of common sense might be applied in understanding that the primary responsibility for undoing white supremacy lies with the people who benefit from it. Since there is no difference or distance between the white in white supremacy and the white in whitefolks, one would expect that they undergo some sort of consideration of the matter. It's not as if blackfolks have not done it themselves, over and over. We simply expect some reciprocity. Then again, that's a lot of whitefolks to convert, and it must be awfully painful.

I don't know how white any of my readers are, and as Cobb, I'm not particularly interested. As Cobb, I'm not particularly interested in talking about the benefits of sunshine. But when it comes to obvious...

Posted by: cobb at September 15, 2004 07:34 AM

Well, I looked over Peggy's list, and I have to say that I now understand my confusion over what in the hell "whiteness" is. Because I was thinking, okay, I get up in the morning and drink a cup of coffee, is that a white thing? I pack my daughter's lunch and see her off to school, is that a white thing? I exchange a few words with my husband and drive to work, is that a white thing? and so on. I, like everybody else, am just trying to live my life. Does anybody really go about their business thinking, "Okay, now I am being black", or whatever? If there's something I do because I want to do it, and it's not hurting anybody, and somebody else frowns upon me because it's a white thing, am I not justified if I tell that person to take a flying leap? Are we really stuck in the black good/white bad dichotomy? Because that's really kind of juvenile.

Now that I have read the list, I think Peggy means "dominant culture". I live in a city whose population is 2/3 black. You could apply virtually all of the things on her list to black people in this city. You can apply them to white people too, though, which may be why I don't feel particularly oppressed.

Posted by: Laura at September 15, 2004 10:26 AM

I think everyone agrees that 'racism still exists in this country'. If you want to get to the bottom of it, you'll find that the same things are white & black as they were 100 or 200 years ago. The stereotypes about blacks being more sexually promiscuous or less intelligent don't change with the fashions - they are consistent, indeed they are permanent. Similarly the rationales whites used to change the laws of this country to favor their own race have not changed.

I don't expect that every American is going to address this problem seriously which is why I don't care if you think your conversation at breakfast is relevant to America's problems with race. But identity is deeply part of the problem with race in this country, and the way people's self image correlates (or doesn't) with their politics makes a significant difference.

Understand that it is because the dominant society is white is why you can live to be as old as you are and be obvlivious to your whiteness as you raise your family. Whereas what my blackness means to me is more central. This is not a matter of choice so much as what society expects of us. Neither of us invented race, we live with what we're given and yes we're all just trying to live, but I know I have muscles developed from climbing over obstacles you may have the luxury to ignore. It puts us in an interesting juxtaposition, doesn't it?

Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 11:11 AM

If that's true, how much racism do you think is present simply because that's how a person of the dominant group "is supposed to" act?

For example, take a white child who is brought up in a multiethnic, multiracial neighborhood and school. His friends are all equals and this is the norm. Then this kid grows up and moves to the big city where the dominant group (whites) treats the smaller groups in a certain way. The former child tries to act the same as before, but the minority folks around him dismiss him as an insincere "whitey". He defaults to acting as others do because it is expected of him, simply because it's easier and he gets less grief from both sides.

I know people who have had this experience, and I wonder whether this is more true than we might think.....

Posted by: caltechgirl at September 15, 2004 01:28 PM

That depends on whether that kid votes white or black. I hate to be curt about the matter, but I really have no interest in what I call Class Three racism, namecalling, spitting, cursing, fistfights and other misdemeanors. I don't have any doubt or any problem calling what you exemplify as racism, but it simply doesn't register much on my scale. Rather, I'm interested in race at the intersection of nationalism and political identity.

Example. LA Riots where peopld get killed. What do news anchors and politicians subsequently do to appeal to white voters vs black voters when it comes to an issue that large? How does support for police, law and order become 'white', and lawlessness, violence and chaos become 'black'?

I'm thinking about what it might be like for a white person to go to Compton, stand on a platform in front of 200 blackfolks and begin a speech, "I'm not black but..."

I'm thinking about how Bill Clinton became the first 'black' president.

I'm thinking about what it means existentially for one to be a 'black' Republican.


Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 02:28 PM

I know that you realize, Cobb, that when it comes down to an individual white person or an individual black person, you have no idea what obstacles they have overcome and what muscles they've developed in the process.

I'm trying to understand your point. We may be at least partially in agreement. I am tired of race-talk when it comes to issues that shouldn't be divided up: schools, for instance. Issues get turned into black issues or white issues and it's pretty silly sometimes. Like women's issues. I'm a woman and I want my President to take steps to try to prevent terrorists from flying planes into buildings. Does that make the war on terror a women's issue? Duh.

Avery posted some time back that people have said to him "I don't see you as black" and he thought, "Then what do you see me AS?" I think people who say that have negative connotations about black people. They get to know Avery and decide that he's a fine fellow and doesn't fit their stereotype, so instead of revising the stereotype they decide that Avery's not "black". Except that I suspect the stereotype is subconsciously getting revised, every time they let themselves get close to an actual black person.

So it's true that I don't go around thinking about how white I am. Maybe that's your point. But it looks to me like you think white people ought to somehow repudiate our whiteness. To paraphrase Avery, if I'm not white, what am I?

Posted by: Laura at September 15, 2004 03:02 PM

Exactly. I'm not asking you or anyone not to be American, I'm asking people to not be evil. If you don't get up every morning and salute the flag of whiteness, why defend it? What does anybody need it for? This is exactly the question Tim Wise is asking, and it's why I refer folks to him, because I want to see whitefolks crawl out of that hole, to disinvent the racial box they were born into. To disinvest in white power. To become.

But if it comes down to not checking the White box, where does that leave you? If the White Rapture came and only people who said "I'm not White" were left, how many Caucasians would be left in America and what would change? If whitefolks include you in a conversation how do you get out of it?

By degrees this is a mellowed out version of this repudiation script.

If somebody called you a 'redneck' (and I'm guessing) you'd be offended. But would you respond that you are a righteous white? I don't know the parallel. I simply don't think 'white' has been recovered and that no recovery parallel to what McWhorter is attempting is going on.

Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 03:36 PM

I understand that a lack of recovery leaves whitefolks in the lurch, and I hear it all the time. I hear, "I don't support Affirmative Action but just because I'm white, that makes me a racist, but I'm not racist." Or "just because I'm white, I can't say this or I can't suggest that."

Then don't be white.

Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 03:39 PM

Gosh, Cobb.

If someone who equated blackness with thuggery suggested that you not be black, what would you say?

I don't often have the experience of white people saying racist things to me. I suspect that's because it's just not socially acceptable among the people I tend to associate with. I don't slam strangers or acquaintances when they make those remarks - I'm not the racist police, after all, and that doesn't accomplish anything but make people mad - but I do counter with "you realize white people do that too" or "the black people I work with blah blah blah" or "that's not been my experience" or whatever. I think it's better to make people think than to make them mad. Sometimes making folks mad is necessary, of course, and I've done that too. Southern ladies, black and white, are raised to be polite though.

I don't equate having racist attitudes with being white so I don't feel the need to say "I'm not white". I don't want to let the racist jerks out there define what being white is. I don't want to surrender the field.

As to "I'm white so I can't say this or that" consider this: Bill Cosby has spoken out on some issues that everybody has known about forever. I don't agree with everything he said, as it happens, but I always think that taking personal responsibility is a good thing. Anyway, he spoke about some behavior that he sees as a black thing (I'm not so sure) and if black people who need the message listen to him, that's fine. I think some will listen to him where a white person saying those things would have no credibility. There's a time and a place when a person needs to keep his or her mouth shut, and for a white person in that particular conversation, that's one.

Posted by: Laura at September 15, 2004 04:27 PM

By the way, if somebody called me a redneck, I'd laugh my head off. I still talk like a country girl from Mississippi and people make fun of my accent and my vocabulary ("I reckon") at work. But I know actual rednecks. Anybody who would call me one doesn't have a clue.

Posted by: Laura at September 15, 2004 04:34 PM


Depending on the person, I'd give them the 1000 mile stare or point them to McWhorter's book 'Losing the Race'. But it's more likely that I'd let them know representing the Old School, I'm battling for the right and proper interpretation. Understand that I inherited a duty to be responsible to the race, as in Talented Tenth. It's a very particular thing, that I can't explain simply. If you understand why there's a Black History Month dedicated to beating down precisely that thuggery idea, then know that I'm on the side of Carter G. Woodson.

I'm not the racist police either. I retired. I've been there and done that. Now I'm like the ex-chief of police, on to other things but still retaining lessons of another life. So let's extend the analogy. Most of the time, I'm telling people how to shoot a gun and they're telling me they're not criminals. Most of the time I'm telling people about anti-racist theory and practice and they're telling me they're not bigots. So I understand why folks get frustrated with me. I'm demanding. i don't want to be, because I really am retired. But I'm also not going to sugarcoat.

As for your Cosby statement, I disagree. I think that if you 'graduated from the Cosby School' and you could hold up your degree, there would be no question of your authority. Just like nobody would dare to suggest that AWB isn't funky or that Pat Riley doesn't know basketball.

Once upon a time I took it as my responsiblity to develop the kind of words and deeds that would help everybody understand that. For example if you take the 'Are you racist?' quiz on my sidebar, you will note that it doesn't matter what race you "are", to make its determination, rather what you *believe* about race.

Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 05:02 PM

I wasn't talking about 'Class III' racism either, I was talking about a conscious shift in attitude from putting less credence in stereotypes to more, and having that shift shape your actions, so in that sense I am talking about voting too, but I'm not clear on what you mean by voting black or voting white, but I think that the attitude change I'm talking about would probably lead this person to vote white, where previously it wouldn't have made as much difference.

Sorry for the run on sentence.

About Bill Cosby, it says a lot about a community (IMO) when one of their most respected members turns the mirror around, and all they can do is make excuses and villify him for saying the truth.

Posted by: caltechgirl at September 15, 2004 06:25 PM

To be fair, caltechgirl, there are a lot of black people who have supported Cosby and his message. Jesse Jackson, for one.

Posted by: Laura at September 15, 2004 07:15 PM


Should blackfolks be Republican? Why or why not? How is that a different question from 'should whitefolks be Republican?' That depends on your definitions of black and white, but that cannot fluctuate all over the map, there is historical reality to contend with. So it's not just thye stereotypes but the intellectual, cultural and political actions taken by people to deal with the history of race in the country.

That's why McWhorter's suggestion is so spicy, because you can't just pick and choose arbitrarily. You have to tie down something and say, 'Malcolm X exemplifies Black' or 'Bull Connor exemplifies white', and that's what we're going to teach our children.

Posted by: Cobb at September 15, 2004 08:07 PM

To be fair, caltechgirl, there are a lot of black people who have supported Cosby and his message. Jesse Jackson, for one.

And Al Sharpton.
And Mfume.
And Julian Bond....

Cosby was on Temple's campus a few weeks ago addressing personal responsiblity of the students at Temple.

Why didn't that make news?

Could it be that Temple is historically white?

Posted by: EBrown at September 16, 2004 06:07 AM

About Bill Cosby, it says a lot about a community (IMO) when one of their most respected members turns the mirror around, and all they can do is make excuses and villify him for saying the truth.
What does it say?

Posted by: Lester Spence at September 16, 2004 10:20 AM

I watched the Rainbow coalition forum with Dr.Cosby and Rev. Jackson on C-SPAN as well as the City of Philadelphia forum on Dr. Cosby's comments. And I realize that a lot of other prominent blacks have supported his message. What I'm talking about is what I perceive as a divide in the black community along educational lines, with educated blacks supporting and less well educated blacks dissenting. This was dead OBVIOUS from the forum.

I think this divide relates to what you are saying about voting white and voting black but I need to think about exactly how to say that.

As for the other questions you asked, I'm going to take some time to try to formulate a coherent response. It requires more thought than I have had time to give today. :)

Posted by: caltechgirl at September 16, 2004 02:34 PM

I don't know about a divide in the black community about this particular issue, but to go back to Cobb's original topic (I think) I have to question whether it's meaningful to use the term "black community" at all anymore. "Black population" maybe.

Over many of the taxpayers' dead bodies, they have built a new NFL stadium here, even though the old stadium is not paid off and will now have no chance of paying for itself. The newspaper ran a bunch of articles with pictures of season-ticket holders (i.e., rich folks) who got to go in and see their seats. About that time it came out that the city council is discussing clearing out a lot of the neighborhoods around that stadium because they are old and run-down. These neighborhoods are very old, they are historically black, and the people who live there are there either because they're old too and they have been there for decades (since before the running-down happened) or because the low property values have made the housing affordable. Said one of our charming black city councilmen, defending the decision to bulldoze those neighborhoods, "People don't want to see that mess." "People" being him and whatever buddies he's trying to impress, having to drive past those neighborhoods on the way to their box seats, as opposed to whoever lives there - dogs and cats, I guess, since they're obviously not people.

Could you say that this councilman and the people who live in those homes are both members of "the black community"? I wouldn't think so. I think he's got his community and they've got theirs.

Posted by: Laura at September 16, 2004 04:02 PM

"...These neighborhoods are very old, they are historically black, and the people who live there are there either because they're old too and they have been there for decades (since before the running-down happened) or because the low property values have made the housing affordable..."

Oh really?

"Historically black"? Were these neighborhoods built by blacks?

Run down? By whom? Who was responsible for keeping pantries clean, floors swept, sidewalks neat?

Low property values? Well DUH.

Posted by: True_Liberal at September 16, 2004 06:00 PM

"Historically black"? Were these neighborhoods built by blacks?

Probably. I think so.

They're not talking about pantries and floors. You can't see them from the street. As for sidewalks, when you're 80 years old it's hard to get out there and sweep them.

Posted by: Laura at September 16, 2004 06:32 PM

Cobb you said, "If you are a white person and you go into a black neighborhood, what are you to expect, stereotypically?"

Depends on the neighborhood; If I go into SE DC at night, I'm more than a litte apprehensive. (Actually , think more along the lines of scared $h1tle$$ wondering what my stupid honkey a$$ is doing here.) If I'm in the suburbs of PG county I think that these are people who haven't let historical prejudices stop them. (And, that's a sweet house, wonder if I could afford to move here?)

Posted by: Rong at September 17, 2004 11:25 AM

I think that these are people who haven't let historical prejudices stop them.

Why isn't that a condenscending statement in and of itself?

I have to think more about this...

Posted by: DarkStar at September 17, 2004 03:40 PM

Just saw JM for the first time on Tucker Carlson's show. Great mind, but he needs some coaching how to put that great mind across the tube.

If that's the best spokesman we have, we be in a heap o' trouble.

Posted by: True_Liberal at September 18, 2004 04:49 AM

I continue to be underwhelmed.

Posted by: Lester Spence at September 18, 2004 06:37 AM

I continue to be underwhelmed.


Posted by: DarkStar at September 20, 2004 02:56 PM