Friday, May 27, 2016


Somewhere along the line street culture became confused with black culture, which became confused with black (and, to some extent, Latino) identity, which created a set of expectations that dooms many young people to mediocrity, that makes them, in short, become the "knuckleheads" who get Cosby so riled up.
Ellis Cose Does Cosby Help? Newsweek. December 26th, 2004

(Now that Bill Cosby has fallen from grace, and is perhaps on his way to becoming a convict, one wonders if anyone will take up his crusade to separate street culture from Black identity, or if it will be indelibly tainted by the current public perception of him.)

Not having been brought up in a Black (or even really integrated) neighborhood, I grew up with an understanding of Black identity that was based entirely on skin - my Black identity was the result of the fact that people identified me as Black. The idea that you would need to actually do anything, or behave a certain way, to be true to that identity then, struck me as weird. It wasn't until my father decided that I was going to attend a Historically Black College/University that I began to understand there was a difference between being Black and Being Black. (Which is, to be sure, part of the reason why my father decided that I was going to an HBCU in the first place. That, and I wasn't a good enough student to have any chance at an Ivy League school.) Unsurprisingly, I wasn't any good at Being Black, and my classmates let me know that in no uncertain terms.

Not being terribly familiar with street culture or broader black culture, I wouldn't have told you that the two were converging. Instead, I experienced it as a rejection of things considered White. Which was something of a problem, because the way I spoke, the way I interacted and the way I looked at life in general had all been shaped by growing up in a nearly entirely White neighborhood in a predominantly White suburb. Predictably, there was conflict, and I viewed things in much the same way Ellis Cose did - the people who were so put out by my supposed Whiteness were dooming themselves to lives of mediocrity by rejecting the things that allowed people to be successful in life.

As I grew older, I came to realize that this was the wrong way to look at it. While many of my classmates viewed me as a sellout, there was a subtext there, that I don't think that any of us were self-aware enough to understand at the time. As far as they were concerned, I was the one destined for mediocrity, because I was insisting on playing a game that was openly rigged against me. The fact that I "spoke White" and "acted White" simply meant that I'd be allowed to have scraps from the table of people who, while they may have been flattered at my imitation of them, were never going to see me as one of them.

The "knuckleheads" that Bill Cosby referred to were people who looked at the world around them and saw people like him, and me, for that matter, as losers who didn't realize that playing someone else's game was a fool's errand. They didn't see themselves as mediocre, because they simply rejected the idea that the judgements were the same for all people. They'd created their own set of norms, and sought to be the best they could at them. Despite the charges of classmates, I'd never bought into "respectability politics." I simply acted in a way I'd become accustomed to acting; in the same way that they likely hadn't consciously bought into identity politics.

Looking back on it, although it was a miserable freshman year of school, I sort of wish that I could experience parts of it again, so that I could better see and understand the competing forces at work. And maybe better explain it to others. For while many people don't make a distinction between excelling at something different and being mediocre at the things that matter, maybe it's that very outlook that's the root of the problem.

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