Growing up in a multicultural environment presented me with a unique opportunity. I could adopt a worldview which differed from that of a person whose immediate environment is, for lack of a better term, homogenous.
I came of age surrounded by people from different backgrounds. In fact, my high school was broken down into a 65% Hispanic, 30% Black, 5% “other” demographic. There were more non-white “others” who attended my high school than actual white kids. That’s not to say that I didn’t have any white friends, because I did. I had three of them. Aside from them, every other human that I associated with was Black, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, and so on. I am happy to be able to make this claim as I believe that the most cognitively healthy, least-hateful people are those who come from diverse ethnic environments. If we are to purge the earth of the racist pandemic that continues to cripple it, it’s going to take more people from such backgrounds that possess compassion and a heartfelt sensibility for inclusion.
With my upbringing being so diverse, I came to develop a perception of culture as an experience that is shared cross-racially. As a child of the hip-hop generation of the 90s, it was normal for me to accept that hip-hop, and by extension African-American culture, was an experience that was crafted by blacks but championed by everyone else. I consumed just as much black culture with my non-black friends as I did with my actual people. I kicked around the use of the word nigga with my Hispanic friends just as much as I did with my black friends. This was my reality. There was nothing overtly wrong with it. The notion that there were any potential problems with members of other cultures appearing to infringe upon and perpetuate the African-American identity wasn’t something that occurred to me until I went away to college.
Fast-forward to my time at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. I learned that the world was much bigger than my original inception of it. Rich and privileged white kids were 19, 20 years old and driving brand new Cadillac CTSs. They dressed and talked in ways that I was unfamiliar with, and had experienced things in life that I had no comprehension of whatsoever, such as traveling overseas or going to Las Vegas for an 18th birthday celebration. I was willing to accept that this is what it meant to be white as I had not spent much time around white people beforehand, but I was not willing to accept that in addition to living such an opportunistic existence, they also got to benefit from the positive and enlightened aspects of African-American culture without having to be concerned with some of its more negative confinements.
They could blast rap music without having to worry about getting pulled over. They could call each other – as well as their black friends who they were comfortable enough with – nigga and not have to be concerned with facing an identity crisis over whether the use of the word was a self-defeating term of hate or a term of endearment. They could listen to hip-hop artists and not have to partake in debates that questioned whether the artists and their lyrics were responsible for the precipitous degradation of their own community. Beautiful white women could listen to and admire hip-hop culture but would refuse to cross the streams and date black men; a decision that was anchored either by an illogical and fabricated racial physical preference or the more likely explanation that they were too afraid to face potential scrutiny from mommy, daddy and their closed-minded circle of friends.
Right or wrong, I came to be increasingly disturbed at what I perceived to be a proliferation of African-American culture by outside groups, particularly whites, and how their participation in the culture stopped at the prospect of being concerned with how to help uplift it. This is what I came to term the “Black Allure” and the “Black Aversion”, respectively, and it is the crux of the anger for most blacks as it pertains to the situation with civil rights activist and former NAACP president Rachel Dolezal.
Granted, I won’t go so far as to say that Dolezal is not concerned with uplifting the African-American community. It is difficult to imagine that one could be appointed president of an NAACP chapter if they were not genuinely concerned with helping black people. Nevertheless, Dolezal, who in addition to being president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP was also the education director of the Human Rights Education Institute in Couer d’Alene, Idaho until 2010, personifies a quasi infiltration of black society by a member of a different ethnicity fueled by their infatuation with African-American culture as something that is cool and societally empowering. This may not be the mindset of Dolezal or others like her, but it is how it is looked at by a large group of African-Americans who have come to be outraged at the revelation that Dolezal has been pretending to be black. The allure of reaping the benefits of being black was something that was too enticing to ignore for those kids at FSU, Dolezal, and many other people of non-black origin.
This is all fine, but for African-Americans, the problem arises when the Aversion kicks in and our friends from different racial groups who bond and identify with black culture begin to distance themselves from some of the more harrier circumstances associated with it. This is when debates over whether one can say nigga despite not being black, or whether it’s cool for a white person to listen to rap even though they don’t relate to the content in any way enter into the fold. For as long as I can remember, African-American culture has been the predominant purveyor of what it means to be socially acceptable in American society.
No one is devoid of the desire to be socially acceptable, therefore more non-blacks have adopted aspects of black culture than those of their own culture, and that’s okay so long as we are ALL willing to accept responsibility for the betterment of that culture. We can’t have it both ways and be worry-free when it comes to benefiting socially from what the culture has to offer yet turn the other cheek when social responsibility and human decency become part of the conversation. Dolezal may be one of the few perpetrators willing to take on such a responsibility, but culture vultures have persisted for so long that even someone such as herself can’t escape the vitriol that is associated with being outed as someone who is “trying to be black.”
Not to absolve ourselves of any accountability, African-Americans and those who ascribe to African-American culture have a few things to answer for with this issue. We confuse the concept of inclusion in African-American culture through our desire to transcend race and go mainstream with our various crafts one minute, and then say that hip-hop music is misunderstood and cry that the Grammys are racist the next. Rappers want to sell out shows around the world and be regarded as international icons yet distance themselves from the clear impact that their music has on the personal growth of those that listen to it, black, white or otherwise. We claim that we want to give consumers of the culture a piercing lens into the communities that we grew up in and the hardships that we endured, but then say that they don’t get what we’re trying to do because they aren’t black. With each swing of the “you’re not black therefore you can’t understand” sword, we further expose ourselves as hypocrites and contributors to the problem of black aversion.
White people don’t know which way is up or down. They can’t figure out whether it’s okay for them to be more comfortable with embracing black culture or whether it has to be subdued unless they’re around their white friends. They can’t deduce whether to use the N-word or not. They struggle with the decision to dress according to the culture that they admire or keep it strictly caucasian to save themselves potential embarrassment. As a result, they take their adoption of black culture only to a certain extent, averting what’s left of their innate desire to embrace it holistically because they are confounded as to how far they can take it. Black people are eventually going to have to make a choice: Either we want everybody in or we want everybody out. There are no grey areas.
Within-race generational divides also cultivate black aversion. White parents who hail from previous times and harbor previous states of mind are predictably not going to be warm to the idea that their kids have black friends, listen to black music, dress as if they were black, or God forbid, date black people. The minute they catch wind of the urbanization of their children through the conduits of music and entertainment, the whip is cracked and the kids are reprimanded, subjugating them to a mental prison in which they are subconsciously conditioned to believe that black culture is something to be observed from afar and even monetarily consumed, but viewed as culturally and societally reprehensible. iTunes downloads and buying concert tickets is one thing. Assimilation is entirely different. The great Jay-Z summed up this dynamic beautifully with his verse on Dead Prez’s “Hell Yeah”:
The first black in the suburbs/ You’d think I had ecstasy, Percocet, and plus syrup/ The way the cops converged, they fucked up my swerve, the first young buck that I served/ I thought back to block/ I never seen a cop when I was out there/ They never came out there/ And out there, I was slingin’ crack to live/ I’m only slingin’ rap to your kids/ I’m only trying to show you how black niggas live/ But you don’t want your little ones actin’ like this/ Lil’ Amy told Becky, Becky told Jenny, and now they all know the skinny/
This is just a small snippet. The verse in totality is the perfect commentary on the awkward tug-of-war nature that African American culture has had on proper American society if you’re inclined to listen to the rest of it. More enlightened artists such as Jay Z have noticed that while entertainment vessels have served as a platform with which to bring people who ascribe to different communities into the world of black culture, they have also served as a tool that can be used by the ignorant to cast aspersions upon it; to take the good and leave the bad. More than any other, African-American culture has always persisted despite simultaneously luring and repelling the general populace.
People really seem to want to be black at times, and there are those, both inside and outside of the black community, that have a problem with what that represents. This is the essence of the anger that the revelation that Rachel Dolezal is indeed a white woman has spurred. Whites are repulsed because they can’t stomach the notion that one would want to cast aside their birthright as a white person to be black. Blacks are turned off because they can’t reconcile the alluring nature of their culture to the extent that they would be willing to let a white person be black, regardless of that person’s standing as the president of an NAACP chapter.
Of course, this isn’t a broad generalization – at least not on my part. I believe that there is some good to be had with the intermingling of our different cultural ideals so long as the feeling is mutual. There are undoubtedly people of all races and creeds who embrace the notion of being culturally multifaceted. I happen to be one of them. With that said, I’m not suggesting that ALL white people are ignorant and ill-intent culture vultures looking to data-mine black society, take what’s good about it and leave what isn’t for the rest of us; and from what I can glean, Dolezal isn’t one such person either. I’m also not suggesting that ALL black people don’t want to be welcoming to the idea that white people can genuinely have enough of an appreciation, and more importantly compassion and education, for black culture to ascribe more to it than that of their own. After all, culture is a fluid concept, and it’s because of relational dynamics like this that colloquialisms such as “oreo” and “wigger” find their origins.
What I am suggesting is that Rachel Dolezal and others like her are representative of a perception amongst African-Americans that there are people who are actively attempting to steal the positive attributes of black culture, masquerade it as their own, and not be concerned with the challenges and issues that real African-Americans endure on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Until all parties can understand the complexities of the black allure and the black aversion, people like Dolezal will continue to have a prominent place in American society one minute and be relegated as a leper the next, with no real understanding of the two positions to be had in the aftermath.
Do you have firsthand experience with the black allure or the black aversion? Have you ever had friends from different races or cultures who you believed were irresponsibly perpetrating black culture at times? How did you handle it, or am I just seeing things that aren’t there? Let me know in the comments.
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current-but-not-permanent Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.