If you’re interested in testing the boundaries of how you view interactions between inter-racial groups, perhaps you should try being a white guy living in sub-Saharan Africa for a little while. A little over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to do just that. There’s a particular exchange that I’ve carried with me since that destroyed the construct of a human racial framework that I’d subconsciously built up in my head over the first 30 or so years of my life. It’s a common thing. We all have frameworks we build about the world around us. One of the best things you can do is upset them from time to time. This is what that looks like.
I was working with a group of African and American colleagues on the eastern coast of Africa about 13 years ago. One day, one of my African colleagues pointed to one of my American colleagues and asked me if he was “point five”, the term used by English speaking Africans for mixed raced people. The man he was pointing to was a friend of mine from Chicago. And as the son of an Italian American mother and an African American father he was in fact “point five”. Aesthetically though, my friend was what people in the casting business call racially ambiguous. He didn’t look particularly black or white. He had an olive complexion and coarse short curly hair. So did I. He could have been my brother. I’m Irish. So why did my African friend ask me if he was point five? When I asked him, he told me, matter of factly, “Because he is loud. Black Americans are all loud.”
My initial reaction was a naturally programmed level of disgust at the “racist” statement. But, as I began to tell my African friend that he ought not say things like that because they’re “racist”, I had to pause. Because it suddenly dawned on me was that what he just said wasn’t racist at all. In fact, what he had said was actually the least racist statement I had ever heard. It was stereotypical. And wrong, both morally and literally. But what he’d done as an African assigning a common stereotype to an African American was thrust the idea of cultural difference into the calculus of what in America, would be considered a racial discussion. He was an African from a self prescribed shy culture. He had never even considered the cause of his unfairly formed opinion of African Americans to be the African origin of those he formed that opinion of. In fact, he was living proof, in his mind, that it had nothing to do with his African, racial origin. Instead, he was convinced that the root cause was the cultural element of being American.
Now, let’s get one thing painfully clear. I’ll say it again. Viewing an entire people to be loud is wrong. And though the immediate reasoning differs, African or American, the underlying culprit is the same- a lack of familiarity. My African friend had never actually met a single African American in his life. But he’d seen many on television and in professional sports. And he’d made some assumptions about all of them based on what he saw. Because that’s what we humans do. We can’t help ourselves.
The important thing to take away from this jolting interaction was that there is a culture in America that has been created that has absolutely nothing to do with race. And everything to do with socio-economic boundaries.
If you Google the term White Lion, and you scroll down past the dozens of references, Wikipedia links and YouTube videos that include an 80’s Danish hair band, you’ll eventually get to something of cultural significance-beyond the towering power ballad, When Children Cry. It’s this: In September of 1619, the Danish ship the White Lion engaged in a battle with Spanish vessel somewhere in the Atlantic. The White Lion was badly damaged but victorious and captured the Spanish cargo, 20 recently bought African slaves. She found her way to the nearest port for repairs. That port was the newly founded Jamestown settlement of Virginia. The crew of the Danish ship quickly bartered their captured cargo, 20 African slaves, for services and supplies and went about their way when repairs were finished. And the horrors of the American slave trade began.
Our African American brothers and sisters have been here since the beginning. And their amazing culture is equal parts unique and American. In fact, you could make the argument, that the two uniquely American cultures that have been entirely created by our great country, are the rural midwestern culture that so many of us view as the heartland and the African American culture that exists nowhere else in the world. Just about every other aspect of us as a people existed before us and perhaps will exist after.
The African American culture is Motown and jazz and the peaceful resistance of the Civil Rights movement. Its the toughness of our urban psyche. It’s deep southern cooking and the bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s born out of the back breaking rural work of slavery that fueled the industrial revolution and our massive economic surplus that created our world relevance. Their culture is also the heartbreak and suffering that the surplus delivered on their strong backs has yet to find its way to them as an entire people. And it is every bit of America. Without African Americans, there is no America. And there never has been. So if your view of the great American future doesn’t include their prosperity, then you need to read a history book. Because once you come to the realization that We, America are them, and they are us, it gets a whole lot easier to celebrate their differences instead of indict them.
They are different. We all are different. In great and powerful ways. But their history is different in tragic and heartbreaking ways. And we all bear the responsibility of making sure our differences stack up into one great society. No more, no less.
–> Tomorrow: Part 5: The Permanent Class