Black by Default

It’s hard being black. Especially when your degree of blackness is often quantified by other black people–who consider themselves blacker than you.  Frankly, I am not sure how the levels of blackness are measured. Growing up, I was told by other black children in the neighborhood that I sounded white, in other words, spoke as if I were a white person. Yet, I lived in their same Brooklyn housing project, attended the same inner city school and played in the same local park.

My mother was well read and kept her bookshelves stocked with a diverse collection of books. The manner in which I spoke was not due to an effort to sound white or even proper (another misconception), but the result of being immersed in a print rich environment with a parent whose advanced use of language was gained by the wonders of reading. Based on recent statistics on the achievement gap of black children, it would seem  that reading and the acquisition of a broader vocabulary is the 8th wonder of the world. The truth is, the more educated you become, the better grasp you have on what is known as Standard American English. The same SAE that is spoken in the professional world and taught in the American school systems. The same English that is read in most books, newspapers and magazines.

Ebonics is not good English

The stance that education holds the key to success is a mantra that African Americans must embrace and hold dear. It is the catalyst that will open doors of opportunity and unlock keys to a world that too often is a challenge for people of color to navigate. In this world, being able to communicate in the language of   what is deemed white america is not only necessary, but indicative of an educated person. Ideologies of people like Erika Gallagher,  a “white passing,” University of Wisconsin-Madison research student, become traps that prevent people of color from advancing in a white dominated capitalist society. According to Gallagher, the English language is racist and discriminatory towards blacks who speak Ebonics –a so called African- American vernacular. In her misguided research of 3 people, she determined  that being forced to speak SAE was “overwhelming and disingenuous” to black people. She concludes that institutions of higher learning and the overall educational system needs to overlook the deficits in the way African Americans speak to avoid the discomfort of code switching.  However, code switching is not a concept exclusive to people of color, marginalized folks or the like. It is a skill, if you will, that persons with an understanding of language in formal and informal environs adopt to adapt to the situation at hand. It would be unreasonable and unprofessional to go to a job interview and say, “cash me ousside, howbow dah?” the trending phrase of Danielle Bregoli–a white passing person- whose failure to enunciate simple words intelligibly has gone viral. What words of wisdom does Ms. Gallagher have for Bregoli whose behavior is often described as acting “black.” Is she also guilty of speaking Ebonics?

Black by Default

It is not uncommon for certain behaviors and speech nuances to to be associated with black culture. But too often those connections are negative portrayals that diminish positive and empowering influences that more accurately depict the black race. Even representatives like Rachel Dolezal, who identifies with being black, trivializes the black community. Yet for her, being black proved to be advantageous. So much so, that she gained a full scholarship to Howard University because as her father says,”she sounded black on the phone.” Her situational blackness is clearly a case of cultural code switching disguised as: relating to and supportive of the black community.  Her ability to sew in weaves, teach Black History, date black men and bear their children is merely a social experiment. But there are many who defend her actions and embrace her “blackness.”  But are you black by default? Does experience or upbringing determine the level of one’s blackness?

Despite being raised by a white mother and grandmother in the cozy isle of Hawaii, former President Obama is considered to be the epitome of blackness. His swag, penchant for hip hop, and basketball prowess exalts his status in iconic black culture. But it’s his upbringing and education at universities such as Harvard and Howard that aid in Obama’s ability to code switch. Imagine if President Obama applied Gallagher’s theory to avoid code switching because it’s too hard? His rise from lawyer, president to public speaker in demand may not have been possible or as easily embraced.

On an unlikely field trip excursion, I escorted a group of teenagers, pursuing their high school equivalency diploma, into the upper echelons of Manhattan’s business district.  Some had never ventured beyond their Bronx neighborhoods. Even the event’s coordinators were surprised to see these young people in attendance.  As I explained who we were and why we were there, I code switched or rather spoke as one professional to another. The students were amazed. “Miss, you speak white?” they asked incredulously.  It was a teachable moment that demonstrated how I, an educated person, aware of my environment and audience, can speak in a language that articulates my intended message without compromising my identity. I’m black simply because I am and  speak Standard American English simply because I should.

Combating Racism and Stereotypes with English

As an educator, it is my responsibility to teach and model the English language properly. Erika Gallagher’s lofty goal to encourage teachers to “accept any form of English that students are comfortable with,” will not equip young African American children to actively engage diverse groups of people in environments where Ebonics is not the norm.

Gallagher’s research is rooted in racism and perpetuates the illusion that her experience and findings teach society to be more tolerant and accepting of African-Americans. “Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart,”she says. Fortunately, black folks don’t need her help to realize how smart, capable or accomplished we are.  Young black people need more role models like President Barack Obama, educated and well-spoken, or Oprah Winfrey– educated and well read.  They need teachers and communities that refute the narrative that says, “feel oppressed by standard, grammatical English,” because only white people speak well.

Demanding that minorities speak Standard American English in formal settings is not biased or discriminatory.  Schools should not make accommodations for black students that do not meet universal standards of excellence. Teaching should be rigorous and learning met with robust challenge– without apology. Standard American English should be expected and not excused for people of color. Anything less is an insult.

So, Ms. Gallagher, how about that?

Black China

I’m Black in China. For some of my counterparts who share my skin tone, whether a darker or lighter hue, their experience is rife with difficulty. Chinese people stop and stare, gawk incredulously, sneakily snap pictures of you or boldly ask to pose beside you. Surely it can become tiresome defending your right to privacy and securing your personal space. But I have decided to liken the attention to celebrity status. From the Kat’s Eye, it’s all about perspective.

I remember telling my godfather that I wanted to go to China in my younger years. His response was, “I am glad you said that. Most Black people want to go to Africa.” Interestingly enough, the majority of Chinese people readily assume that if you’re Black you’re from Africa. For example, while sharing the elevator with an elderly man, he freely spoke Chinese to me as if I understood. It wasn’t until a Chinese woman, who spoke perfect English, entered the elevator that his attempt at communication became clear. The man just wanted to say “hello,”she said and tell me that he had spent 2 years in Africa. I smiled, said ni hao and told the woman to tell him, “I am from America.”

I would be naïve to deny any tracings of African descent. But I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, USA and South Carolina and Alabama is the farthest my parents, or grandparents sojourned from. To say that I am African-American is a disservice to the true Africans who embrace, live and celebrate their culture. I am American and I strongly identify as such. My godfather’s quip, while harsh on the surface, has far deeper meaning. In essence, he was saying go beyond your comfort zone, explore someplace where the faces of the people are different from your own.

Throughout the years, I accumulated books on Chinese history, customs, religion, Feng Shui, and Chinese cooking. These books gathered dust on my personal library shelves as my desire to travel to China lay dormant beneath familial and professional obligations. So it was a no brainer to fulfill one of my long term goals when presented with a job opportunity to teach English in China. Prior to my departure, my brother supported my decision by reminding me that I had a desire to travel to China since he was 16. He is now 28.

The beauty of living abroad in China is that the locals recognize your nationality above all else. Your skin color is incidental. I am not alone in this sentiment. I met a Black woman named Rachel in a local Latin bistro who has lived in Asia for several years. She parroted my thoughts… “In China, I am American and nothing else matters.”

But in America, the Black Lives Matter movement champions the belief that Black people are victims of racial inequality, racial profiling, economic disparity, educational deficiencies, and discriminatory practices to the brink of dehumanization. But who are these Black people? What country, nation, region, even state do they identify with outside the fact that their skin is Black?

I grew up in the projects, low income housing in a crime and drug ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn. Yet, there was never a phase in my life that I felt powerless or incapable of rising above my circumstances. I lived in America, the Land of Opportunity, the home of the brave, the Land of the Free. I understood that as an American, the civil rights once denied men and women of color did not embody my existence. Slavery days were over, I had been set free.

But in 2015, the climate of America is one of racial pain and anguish suffered by black people at the hands of (what’s deemed) oppressive systems of organization such as law enforcement, government and education. Instead of spreading a message of triumph and overcoming adversity, generated by the civil rights movement there is a new clarion call that sounds like “let my people go.”

Riots, looting, murder and criminal mischief is not representative of the entire Black community. Yet the media images depicting such dreadful acts become the global face of Black people everywhere. Should we be surprised then when non-black people draw back in fear, hold their purses or their women close or think and act disparagingly towards us; especially if their only encounter with Black people is that which is shown on television?

China is a homogenous environment. Pretty much everyone looks the same. I don’t view their stares, comments or behavior as racist as we would be quick to do in the U.S. I view it as a child-like curiosity, a sense of awe that someone unlike themselves, a person with different hair texture, skin tone, and body shape is walking among them in their native country. Now that I am here in the Sichuan province of Chengdu, I am delighted that China was a destination on my life’s journey.

The Chinese call the USA “mei-guo,” which means “beautiful nation.” I embrace the beauty that is the USA along with its scars and wounds. Although I understand the underlying drive behind Black Lives Matter, on a global scale, its intent is miniscule. I’m Black in China but I’m American. Here, my nationality speaks volumes, and that is all that matters.

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