Says Who?

In a scene from the movie Freedom Writers (2007), a character named Victoria is the only dark-skinned student in her high-school English class. The teacher starts a discussion of the The Color Purple by asking Victoria to share “the black perspective” on the book.

Erin Gruwell
Erin Gruwell, teacher of the original Freedom Writers

This episode was inspired by the real Freedom Writers’ Diary (1999), in particular one entry by Joyce Roberts.

When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people… “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”

How the hell should I know what the black perspective is on Affirmative Action or The Color Purple? What is it, magic? Black people read, and poof, we miraculously come to the same conclusion? The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own.

Let’s go over that last sentence again: The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own. Unless they’ve done some solid, long-term, in-depth research, no one can claim to express other people’s views (and even then, it’s limited to the topic at hand).

You know that politician or activist who you never agree with but who relentlessly claims to speak for “the people?” You know that they don’t, because they don’t speak for you. Or what about celebrities? Someone like Pamela Anderson might make a valid point here and there, but that doesn’t mean she represents a consensus among all animal activists or Vancouver Islanders or 48-year-olds or people with breasts or Russian ancestry.

So why is it that we sometimes think a shared “racial” status confers legitimacy on a spokesperson? No matter how appealing their ideas are, they only speak for themselves and maybe a few of their direct supporters.

The notion that shared skin colour equals a shared perspective is ludicrous. An elderly, urban, wealthy Jamaican woman with a doctorate in physics and a transgender child will not have the same worldview as a single male Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with a hefty student loan debt and a love of physics.

Yes, they both like physics and they both have dark skin, maybe even exactly the same shade. But they can’t speak for each other and everyone else with those characteristics, as if their minds and experiences are interchangeable. Also, who’s to say that their shared skin colour – or even their similar (or dissimilar?) experiences of discrimination – are the key elements that form their identity and relationship to the world?

A black (white/Latino/Asian/aboriginal/etc.) person is a social type, much like a politician, an entrepreneur, a public intellectual, a feminist, or an activist. There is no essential quality of “blackness” that is shared among all people with dark skin, just like there is no essential quality of “politician-ness” or “activist-ness” that lets us know right away what that person is like and how they see things.

What’s the exact shade variation that determines when a person is no longer “black” but “brown” or  “red” or “white” or something else? Or maybe ancestry determines your race. How many ancestors do you need to belong to a certain category? What if you have five different ancestral lines (or even two)? How do you choose which one is your race, let alone someone else’s? How far back can you go to justify your inclusion in a racial category? How far back do you need to go to justify your ancestors’ inclusion? Have we encountered the infinite regress fallacy again?

“Whiteness” is generally the unmarked racial category, meaning that when we think of race, we often think of “non-whiteness.” This difference means that most people don’t assume that a person with light skin speaks on behalf of all other people with light skin. But as soon as someone with dark skin speaks up, we have Joyce Roberts’ situation above, where they have become the spokesperson that “hold[s] the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans [or whatever] are.”

There’s so much wrong with this notion that I can’t elaborate on it all here. But the crux of the matter is that we need to challenge “the conventional presumption … that any black individual’s participation in public life always strives to express the will of the racial collectivity” (political scientist Adolph Reed, Class Notes, p.81) – as if a “racial collectivity” could even be delineated in any kind of concrete way.

And of course this applies to all groups, not just racialized ones. A male and a female Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with student loans and a love of physics probably have a lot in common with each other, even though their gender doesn’t match up. Class lines, experiences of inequality, personal interests, family relationships, type and level of education and many other factors intersect to shape a person’s identity and outlook.

So instead of assuming that we know (or don’t know!) something about a person or group based on one thing, let’s stop prejudging, whether the judgement is ostensibly positive or negative. In either case, it’s probably off base.

As an extension of this stance, let’s stop supposing that a “First Nations leader” or a “black intellectual” speaks on behalf of everyone who gets lumped into the same racialized category or labelled as the same social type. Their view is no more or less representative than that politician you dislike. Let’s examine their merits on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, let’s just get to know people on a human level and see what we have in common and what we can learn from one another. Surely it’ll be more rewarding than the divisive essentialism that “race-ists” would have us believe in.

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