Tuesday, November 5, 2019


One of the most glaring holes in the logic of current “authentic” black thought is that one is to revile the old one-drop rule as racist, and yet to tar as a self-hating elitist the person who is of only partially African genetic ancestry who declines to classify themselves as “black.”
John McWhorter
I’ve read this statement over and over, and I'm not sure that the logic is as flawed as Mr. McWhorter makes it out to be. From where I stand it’s simple; Whites are to consider those of mixed-race one of them, but those of mixed race are to reject them. Maybe in that sense, it’s as straightforward as demanding that everyone play a part in people wanting something they can’t have.

In this, perhaps, it’s designed to invert what Martin Heidegger called “the dictatorship of the They.” If “authentic” Black people resented aspiring to the social acceptance that came with “Whiteness” and constantly being denied by the exclusionary power of racism, perhaps they sought solace in the idea that they could take the affections of the mixed-race from Whites’ desiring grasp.

While to be “biologically” Black in America is to have visibly sub-Saharan African genetic ancestry, cultural Blackness, especially “authentic” cultural Blackness is a different kettle of fish. Whether that’s Paul Fussell’s “class sinking” as described by Thomas Chatterton Williams, or the observation of a Black youth in New York that “Your African identity has to be defined by ignorance,” “authentic” cultural Blackness has less to do with anything related to Africa, and more with opposition to perceived cultural Whiteness. And to some, the fact that this puts it at direct odds with the promoters of Respectability Politics is a feature, rather than a bug.

As Mr. Williams quotes Albert Murray, “Critics? Man, most critics feel that unless brownskin U.S. writers are pissing and moaning about injustice they have nothing to say. In any case it seems they find it much easier to praise such writers for being angry (which requires no talent, not to mention genius) than for being innovative or insightful.”And that anger is often the thing that people search for when determining “authenticity.”

But anger isn’t the same as the power to create change. Conflating street culture with broader Black culture, and invoking “the dictatorship of the They” for peer pressure to conform to it isn’t making things better. Not that I can honestly say that it can’t or won’t, but as long as it doesn’t, demanding that everyone live within that paradigm is unproductive. When people say that an individual mustn’t allow others to define them, that goes for all others. The motives and the impacts may be different, but a person can chafe under the demands of “their” people just as easily as they can others. “The dictatorship of the They” doesn’t care which “the They” sits on the throne.

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