Beware the Black Box

For my first post, I’ve chosen an opinion piece I wrote in 2009 that was published in The Times of Trenton.  Although the incidents cited can no longer be called “recent,” I believe that the gist of my essay remains relevant.  Do you agree?

Beware the Black Box

I discovered the black box the night I got caught acting black. As a white liberal who knew few black people, I’d taken a job at Trenton High School. I’d find out who black people were.

I noticed they dress up. I began wearing spike heels and Sunday outfits to work. Black people are loud and demonstrative. At a party at my house, to which we’d invited Princeton friends both black and white, I showed off my new insights. When the Trenton guests arrived, late because they’d had two parties that night, I greeted them boisterously and did little shuffles with my feet in appreciation of their humor. See, I was one of them. I glanced at my other black guests for approval. Their faces were blank; the sudden silence, deafening.

Like a tourist in the foreign land of black people, I’d noticed only differences at Trenton High. I’d overlooked the modest black teachers, just as I hadn’t counted my Princeton friends as black. And I’d made other assumptions. Remembering TV footage of the freedom marches of the 1960’s, I expected black teachers to be united in their dedication to black students. They weren’t. Black teachers were just like white teachers: some worked tirelessly; others came and went with only a newspaper tucked under their arms, had their TV’s tuned to the soap operas during afternoon lessons, or threw up their hands at “these kids.”

Trenton High had a reputation for being dangerous. Princeton friends called me a saint for working there. For a time, I reveled in the title. But it began to sound racist as my knowledge of the students broadened. Yes, I had a few tough kids, but no one ever threatened me. Most kids wanted to learn and appreciated that my TV was off. And there were students who could have been my own children. These students, and black and white teachers like us, fought for excellence. Administrators, black and white, resisted, saying almost proudly, “Trenton isn’t Princeton.”

Skin color and dress guarantee nothing about socio-economic status, ability, educational level or, most important, values. A Trenton High colleague, an elderly black woman, recounted the time three young black men in hooded sweatshirts had joined her in the elevator in her building. She was terrified, sure of being robbed. When the elevator reached her floor, the young men turned to her, “Can we help carry your groceries?” She was mortified.

So I learned what I should have known all along and what many others already knew: there is no black box. My well-intentioned mission to define what it is to be black was a racist, wasteful exercise.

Yet we keep putting people in boxes. For Cornel West, Princeton University professor and author of Race Matters, the box is the “blues people.” In a recent New York Times Magazine article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, black politics is defined as fighting racial injustice, unequal opportunity and poverty. Who’s looking out for the black middle class, the black upper class?

When Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for “talking down to black people,” he tossed responsible black parents into a box with the absentee fathers whom Obama had singled out. But when Obama recently shamed CEO’s for taking excessive bonuses in a time of recession, no one said he was “talking down to white people.”

I’ve been put in a box, too. A black colleague at Trenton High told me her first impression: “White lady. Here for the paycheck. Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” She soon placed me in the cubby hole of dedicated teachers, but I recently found myself back in the box when I exclaimed, “Obama is so articulate!” I was expressing my relief after eight years of George Bush’s mumble-mouth.

“That’s politically incorrect,” a friend told me. “You’re implying that you’re surprised a black man can be articulate.”

Good grief. Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr, were articulate. Besides, I wasn’t thinking of Obama as black. But Joe Biden and I got put in that box.

White people are usually cubby-holed. As voters we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Contrast the “black vote.” White people are Presbyterians, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “black church.” Our language seems stuck in an historical box. It doesn’t reflect the infinite variety among the people we call “black.”

To me, the most mysterious and dangerous term is “black culture.” Recently on NPR, black mystery writers rejoiced that their stories reveal “black culture.” They meant the lifestyle of black people in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. Dorothy Sayres described the lifestyle of upper-class England in her mysteries, but we don’t call it “white culture.”

Let’s abandon “black culture” and celebrate the specifics: African rhythms, the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, hip-hop, soul food, Toni Morrison’s storytelling, Alvin Ailey’s choreography…. Why? Because some people think “black culture” means an uneducated, urban poor.

Beware the boxes. We’re not in a post-racial society if politicians aren’t “black enough” to represent the poor, or if smart black children are told they’re “acting white.”

Sadly, Eric Holder’s call to talk about race merely flipped the boxes into soap boxes. If we’re going to respect our common humanity and our individuality, we should do as our mothers said and watch our language.

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