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Black and White in the USA

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia,1 USA, in the 1970s and ’80s, I was both fascinated and bewildered by the idea of Black and white people. As a young boy of mixed heritage, I understood black and white more literally as colors, so the idea of “Black” or “white” as a race was quite confusing to me. People across a great variation of skin tones and hair textures would all identify themselves as Black, even people whom I was sure could pass for European or “white.”

Early on, I was told by my mother that I was “of the Black race.” However, at school I was targeted by other young males of African heritage for being light-skinned. This was sometimes with the threat of violence, sometimes with actual violence. Often upon meeting me, someone might simply ask if I was mixed. There was usually a tone of resentment if it came from a male, and one of intrigue if from a female. Either way, my “Blackness” seemed so often in question. I soon learned from my mom and my uncle, who could empathize with much of my experience, that I should expect this and that I needed to be really tough if I was to prevent being bullied.

In retrospect, I realize that all of this was likely the aftermath of the historic enslavement of Africans here in the Americas. Grown-ups around me would often make references to “back in the day.” These were references to the days of slavery.

Being a person of African descent with lighter skin was generally an indication that you carried some mix of Black and white, which came with certain social implications:

1) You received better treatment from white people.

2) You were often thought to be smarter, probably because you were part white.

3) As a male, you were seen as more feminine by others of African heritage—until you could prove them wrong, and there was much pressure to prove them wrong.

4) Many thought of you as more physically attractive because, in a society driven by white supremacy, people held a European ideal in their heads.

It was much later, in my late twenties, that I actually learned of my mixed heritage: mainly African and Native American on both sides of my family. One of my grandfathers was even half European. By this time I had traveled to a few places in the world that held different perspectives about race and racism and was having the growing sense that something surrounding me was just a little suspect. There were a few pressing questions on my mind:

What did “Black” and “white” really mean?

Who decided that humans should be labeled this way in the USA, or anywhere for that matter?

Why had “Blackness” seemed to cancel out my other ethnicities and those of others who were of African and mixed heritage?

By the 1600s, after both Europeans and Africans had for some years worked as indentured servants, a group of aristocratic Europeans figured out that the social construction of a biologically based race would better serve to hold in place a class system similar to what they were accustomed to in Europe. It would “justify” the lifelong enslavement of people of African descent, whose labor was much needed in the “New World” we now know as the Americas. This enslavement would also be more easily enforceable, since Africans looked very different from Europeans and consequently could be more easily recognized and tracked.

As generations passed, the ideology of race and racism got reinforced over and over again. As people of African descent were born into slavery, they started to internalize the false notion of their own subordination. People of European descent were born into an oppressor role that all of society would train them for and coerce them into filling. “White” was now synonymous with “supremacist” and, from the perspective of many, with “racist.” “Black” or “Negro” was synonymous with a subordinate race. This ideology served to keep slavery legal for many generations to come.

Following the ending of legalized slavery in 1863, another hundred years of laws continued to authorize the oppression and hostile treatment of now Black Americans. These laws, often called “Jim Crow” laws, mandated the segregation of Black and white people in the South.2 The “one-drop rule” defined a Negro or a Black person as someone who had a Black ancestor as far back as a great grandparent. In other words, if you had Black/Negro in you, that was legally who or what you were,  as if it somehow canceled out all other parts of you—you who had been contaminated with “Blackness.” (I read an account of a Haitian woman describing Haiti as predominately white because she viewed whiteness in a way similar to how many people viewed Blackness in the USA. If you had whiteness in you, that was who you were, as if it somehow canceled out all other parts of you.)

Many Europeans who later immigrated here (Irish people, Italian people, Jews of Eastern Europe, and so on) became “white” in doing so. Many hadn’t identified themselves that way before coming here, and those who had, had understood race in a different way. Becoming a citizen of the USA often required assimilating to a white Protestant norm of “All American,” and the racial culture that was and is the USA.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gave rise to an awareness of racism and to the liberation of those who were oppressed by it. When I remember phrases like “Black Power” and “Black Is Beautiful,” I am proudly reminded of the African heritage I have in common with other Americans with whom I stand against racism. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Movement was about the ending of all oppression. It was a milestone in U.S. history. Because of it, we now have a president of both African and European heritage. 3

When I take into account the diversity of people in this increasingly global society, and my profound connection to it, I am inclined to identify myself outside of the historic racism that is Black and white in the USA. I am a USer of African, Native American, and European descent!

Moving forward, both as an RCer and in the wide world as a USer of African and Native American heritage, my personal liberation will require that I fully claim all that I am, especially that which was stripped away by oppression. In Co-Counseling sessions, I am finding it useful to look directly and transparently at the historic enslavement and genocide of my people, noticing how it has affected me. What have I internalized as a result of this history? What would a world without racism look like?

Greg Lipscomb
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


1 Virginia is one of the Southern U.S. States—states in which the slavery of African-heritage people was legal prior to the U.S. Civil War.
2 The South is usually defined as the southeastern and south-central states of the United States and Washington, D.C.
3 Barack Obama, the president of the United States

 


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00