Saturday, April 11, 2009

Me, Myself and Every Other Black Person in the World

My wife and I have had some pretty heated discussions over the years.

Partially that's because of our mutual stubbornness, but mainly it's because I used to have a tendency to make people confront the world as I saw it.

My wife had been just fine for roughly 22 years before we met, but I was convinced that it was my job to get her to see the "real world." That meant constantly challenging her long held beliefs and forcing her to defend her position on everything.

Yeah, it's a shocker that we got married.

One of the most thorny subjects we discussed was race. My wife is black, but she was never really concerned with racial issues growing up. The way her life was structured she had a lot of protection from certain things, plus her sphere of interest didn't include many matters that involved race. In addition, we both grew up in a majority black city, which changes racial dynamics as well.

However, as my wife got older, she had to go into situations where she was one of a few black folks, or the only black person. She was then confronted with the unfamiliar feeling of being different, of having to explain and justify her difference and having to figure out the best way to live her life.

Those struggles caused some pretty rocky times in our relationship often because I'd already gone through some of those struggles and had already decided the "right" way to behave.

My wife and I recently dredged up one of those discussions. Back when my wife was in grad school, we had a discussion about how folks are defined through their race. She was struggling with the idea that she would always be defined first as a black woman when it came to her chosen field and she was looking for a way to break away from that. She and I went back and forth about the best way to handle the situation.

See, I've always been of the mindset that despite all the extra baggage it entails, nothing compares to being black. Sure, it means battling stereotypes and dodging police officers intent on violating your civil rights, but I would never trade in my skin for a lighter shade. Too many people suffered and died for me just because I was going to be their descendant. I like having that behind me.

However, it's not for everyone. My wife was tired of dealing with the extra hassles that came with her skin, and she just wanted everybody to let her live her life. She didn't want to have to be a representative of the black race every second of every day. She just wanted to represent the person in her own skin.

Unfortunately, when she told me about this desire, I viewed it as a betrayal of her blackness, and I responded accordingly. This led to a pretty nasty fight, that caused some serious hurt feelings in our relationship. So, when we discussed the issue again recently, I was very careful to tread lightly.

Thankfully, I've matured since our first discussion. My views on race and what it means to be "authentically" black have changed drastically. I'm no longer bound by the same hangups, plus I have a better understanding of how to articulate my feelings.

What I told my wife, is that there are two core issues in her dilemma. First, there is the issue of what she thinks in her head. See, when people constantly treat you like the spokesman for black people, you tend to take on that role in your mind. You start to put your actions and comments through a "What's good for the race?" filter.

That filter makes life so much more difficult because it's pretty much impossible to always live your life as a positive example of blackness. It just doesn't work.

I told my wife that the first step in breaking free from that straitjacket is to acknowledge that you DON'T represent other black people. I mean, you could argue you represent your parents or other relatives, but in an absolute sense, the only person you truly represent is you.

I told her she didn't have to worry about how people expected her to behave as a "black woman." She only had to worry about how she wanted to behave. Other people's hangups did not have to become her own.

That segues nicely into the second issue, which is other people's hangups. See, it's easy to tell my wife to be her own person, but that's kind of hard to do when people are constantly trying to force her into the little box they've laid out for her. The insidious thing about stereotypes is that even if we can train ourselves to no longer believe in them, other folks will keep right on fooling themselves. And, bless their hearts, those deluded folks love to push their stereotypes on us.

What I told my wife is that as tedious as this may sound, she is going to have to deal with folks and their hangups directly. It's not going to help her to constantly tell people that she doesn't want to be seen as a black woman, she just wants to be seen as someone practicing her chosen profession. The people who would take that advice typically don't need it, and the folks hell bent on viewing her primarily as a black woman are going to see that no matter what she says.

My wife, like all of us, has to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes of folks and let them know when they are treating her in an unfair manner. She has to force people to think about the comments they make, and the mindsets behind those comments. It's unfortunate that any of us have to bear that cross, but it's also just a part of life.

So, do y'all think I gave her the right advice?



Darth Whitey said...

Outstanding post, one of your best.

I speak fluent French and go to France a lot, and when I'm in France I do feel that I am representing Americans and when I talk to people I go out of my way to let people know that I am an American so that they can marvel at the fact that I speak French which might help y'all (Americans) look better up in there, shatter the stereotype of the dumb-fuck American who can't be bothered to learn anything but their own language.

However, they can't spot me as an American, they have to talk to me for a while and ask me what that accent I have going on is, so it's not like blackness. And I don't have to deal with it as a professional or on a daily basis so it's not the same but I understand. However if I lived there, I would carry that burden on a daily basis. And that'd be fine, I'd be happy to be a spokesperson for y'allz uneducated English speaking-only azzes (Americans not only black people.)

The big difference then is that it'd be my own choice whereas y'all don't choose to be black. Your wife doesn't enjoy being black like you do, she'd like the world to be colorless. So yea just telling her to "deal", but in more words like you did, sounds about right to me :-)

Big Man said...

Thanks for the comment Darth.

I don't know if my wife doesn't want to be black. In fact she likes the culture and history of being black. What she doesn't like is all the other stuff that goes along with being black, and she's often wanted a way to avoid that.

Personally, I think it's unavoidable, and the only way to avoid a little of it is to assimilate completely. But, that causes a whole 'nother set of problems.

Deacon Blue said...

Your advice seems sound to me. My wife has increasingly distanced herself from the "representative of blackness" role when people try to pick her brain about what all black people think about something.

Likewise, she's learned to politely (or not politely, depending on the person and the context) point out when people are being ignorant, such as calling her "colored" or trying to feel up her locs.

Mr. Noface said...

In my mind I agree with you, but emotionally I agree with your wife. Sometimes the pressure to be a "credit to my race" is simply to much to bear. It is at those times when I'm reminded by the little raving black lunatic in my head, that I just got to be me and deal with people (and their ignorance) on a case by case basis. As for wanting to be anything but black, I'm with you, I wouldn't change my hue for anything in the world.

the uppity negro said...

Great advice.

me and my friends all say the same thing. we dont represent our whole race. and if an opportunity arises to school whomever we're talking to, we do.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to both you and your wife's positions. I don't want to not be Black but at the same time, sometimes I do wish I had the luxury of just being me.

MacDaddy said...

Big Man, this is the best post I've read from you and perhaps the best post I've read so far this year. It's real. It's the kind of stuff that black couples go through, the stuff white people will never understand...

I know you said you went through a lot of the race perception stuff before your wife. Still, from what you said, it seems to me like you both continue to mature together on the race issue.

MODI said...

great post Big Man. As a matter of habit (even when qualified), I rarely give advice to others about their wives. It is hard enough to get my own stuff straight at home.

Beyond the specifics of this post, what I can relate to is that like you in your earlier days, I am often harder on my wife than anyone else no matter what the subject. It is kind of unfair and I have also since grown. If I had a strong view on race, religion, politics, etc., it would bother me more than it should if we didn't see eye to eye. Nowadays I pick my spots, and am a better listener.

Big Man said...

Thanks again for the compliments everyone.

And Modi, I think your advice on marriage is something everybody who stays together has to learn eventually.


You're right about how black folks have different pressure points on their relationships. Our lifestyles and worlds are different no matter how well we assimilate. And Lord knows I haven't done a good job of assimilating.

Anonymous said...

If I got it right, your blog provides two ways to help your wife break away from others' race hangups:
1) acknowledge who you you are.
2) deal with their race hangups directly.
This is excellent advice brother. I might add one more:
3) advice your wife to always look for and be a support for those co-race hangupees, and teach that understanding to the next generations.

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