There’s something that has always intrigued me when observing the reactions of some of the people in my racial group. Common occurrences and incidences that have at times entertained me, bemused me, or concerned me. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the seeming compulsion by a large enough proportion of the black community, tending to see black people in a role of prominence, as a reflection on the black race as a whole, as opposed to representing their individual self. Furthermore, the expectations on the persons concerned that come with that mentality. I don’t want this to be a waffle so I’ll focus on a few key examples.
Julie – The Reject
Does anyone remember The Family? And the first black family to appear on that show? The Adesinas? I remember it very vividly for one reason; the social media backlash that was directed in the direction of the very outspoken, somewhat temperamental and (I personally think) misunderstood Julie Adesina. There’s no doubt that some of the ways in which Julie related to her siblings and parents was painfully abrasive more often than not; common adjectives associated with her were ‘rude’ ‘aggressive’ ‘disrespectful’ and ‘bully’. What surprised me was the amount of people who vilified her on social media. I’m not talking about just calling her a crazy black woman, because I even did that (she was acting crazy at times), I’m talking about people verbally abusing her, making derogatory personal comments about her relationship status, and complaining that she was giving black women everywhere a bad name.
As far as I’m concerned, as a black woman, she was not giving me a bad name. My name isn’t Julie, her name isn’t Tolu. She was representing herself…in my eyes. I may not necessarily have respected the way she chose to represent herself at times (even though I understand it was borne out of frustration), but neither did I feel that the mere fact we are of the same race made her some kind of representative for us all. It made me think what the ‘ideal’ black woman was supposed to look like and sound. What ways is she allowed to express herself without becoming a pariah of the community at large? How much is she allowed to say? How much emotion is she allowed to express? What are the limits of her freedom of speech before she needs to take into account she is the face of her gender and race? And who makes these damn stupid rules.
Obama – The Saviour
No-one can forget the moment Obama became President in 2008. It was a historical moment in American (specifically African-American) history and was heralded as such. In some areas, he was lauded as the saviour of all of black people’s issues in America. That’s when I personally had to pause. You see, just because a bi-racial man has been voted President of the United States, bearing in mind that the percentage of African-Americans in the US is 13.1% out of the total population (according to US Census Bureau), why on earth should anyone expect that the welfare of African-Americans should be at the top of his agenda? Not to mention the various other issues he has to deal with aside from racial imbalances. Irrational expectation no?
Even as a President, Obama has jump through hoops concerning bills and legislation. One major hoop being Congress. I won’t even bother to quote the percentage of the African-American makeup of Congress (minimal) – this is even taking as a given that these representatives would see African-American agendas as the priority. So expecting him to make major progress in African-American welfare in the space of four years (which many seemed to expect), was quite frankly ridiculous. He was appointed for the good of the entire populace, not just for black people. So the accusations that he has been a sell-out and the implication in some way that he has not honoured the votes of the black people who voted for him, display a shocking disregard for equality, a lack of understanding of politics, and a yearning for some kind of racial/ethnic nepotism…which is not what democracy is about.
Why this attitude?
I’ve got a couple of theories on why this mentality still prevails today. The obvious one is that as a minority group (specifically focusing on the UK now), to see a black person in what looks like a position of influence and power in the media/politics/education etc is a great thing. But we get carried away and start expecting them to bear the cross of tens of years of frustration, hindrance and racial discrimination. We feel like anyone who has made it the top of the food chain so to speak, ought to show that we as a people are capable, that we are able, we are strong, we are fearless, we are intelligent, and every bit as worthy as our white counterparts to be where we are – at the top. I argue maybe controversially, that that expectation is unfair. Yes really. Because what these expectations neglect to take into account is that first and foremost, we are human, and as human beings we are diverse, individual, and representatives first and foremost of ourselves. How can one person be expected to represent millions of diverse and unique people? Who are we to put that burden and pressure on them if they did not ask for it? We cry out to be respected as entities in our own right irrespective of our race, but at the same time hold on to mentalities that can only perpetuate the perception that we need to be viewed within the construct and boundaries of race.
My other theory is that this mentality prevails due to the way we sometimes perceive the way others see us, and the terms by which they form an understanding of us. I believe this is a legitimate backdrop as there are countless examples in media where the actions of one black person (more often than not when misbehaving or breaking the law), has been used by bigots and racists as some sort of ‘proof’ of the ‘lower-class’ of our race as a whole. Furthermore, these perceptions have been continuously reinforced in media news reports in descriptions of crime where black people are involved, or media productions were the overwhelming majority feature black people in roles that are negative. Or in positive-negative examples, our race is used as an explanation as to why we excel in certain areas as opposed to other races. A really potent, recent and appalling example of this was during the 2012 Olympics when a broadcast by the BBC tried to explain the dominance of black athletes in sprinting in terms of eugenics and slavery; the implication was that our apparent dominance was due to inherent genetic predispositions with us. I wrote a letter of complaint. This was included in their reply back to me wherein they rejected the idea that the piece was offensive: “The item was intended to provide context and initiate debate with our leading athletics experts, including Michael Johnson and Colin Jackson”. You know what that means right? Translation: What are you complaining about? This was endorsed by your own people.
I couldn’t even deal with it.
Regardless of all that utter nonsense however, I still don’t think we do ourselves any favours in our attempts to be recognised as people with individual talent to offer to the world, by treating every black person that is in a place of prominence as an ambassador for the race. Everything is all fine and dandy when the person is reflecting something positive, but when they are reflecting something negative, the visceral backlash I’ve seen from some elements of the black community is irrational and counter-productive. That kind of reaction only further solidifies the idea that every black person in power or prominence is an example of all black people, which is obviously not true. Furthermore, who is coming up with these arbitrary rules on what serves as positive blackness or negative blackness?
I argue that the way we see ourselves, is the way others will see us. So if we see ourselves as a collective whose lives, loves, faiths, businesses, education, emotions, feelings, and physical statures are able to represented by a select few individuals who have a voice that is listened to, if we continue to see ourselves as a homogenous entity, our reward for that will be evidenced in the way we will be treated as such by other groups of society. I am not saying that there is no merit in unity on the grounds of race at all, I just argue that imposing that on one individual and expecting them to uphold the multi-faceted values, opinions and personalities of millions of people, is unreasonable, detrimental and non-progressive.