When I was a senior in college, I experienced one of the most quietly humiliating moments of my life. I had just arrived in my adviser’s office, excited to go over the latest draft of my thesis, which focused on the racial dynamics of Brazilian sex tourism. The draft was over 100 pages long and involved research I had been doing for a year. When I sat down, my adviser handed me a printout and said, “Leah, I think you’ll find this immensely helpful.”
It was a Wikipedia page titled “History of Brazil.” Glancing over the page, I immediately got the point: I was posing all these questions in my paper that someone with even a cursory knowledge of colonial history would recognize as well-trod territory. I thought I was exploring uncharted waters, asking questions like, “Why is race so complicated in Brazil?” and then starting from absolute scratch to answer them.
My professor was basically saying, “Let me Google that for you.” Not because the answer to any of the questions in my paper were easy, but because there’s heaps of well-documented and easily accessible social and institutional history out there to start from.
I was reminded of this when I watched a video put out this week by BuzzFeed, called 27 Questions Black People Have For Black People.
Some of the questions raised in the video are harmless, silly fun. Others, many have pointed out, rest on seriously flawed premises. The video has been taken to task by Bossip, The Root and, of course, Twitter, which went nuts with the satiric hashtags #RealBlackPeopleQuestions and #BuzzFeedVideoQuestions.
The problem is that questions like “Why do we call each other the N-word, but get vehemently upset when a white person uses the N-word?” are presented as though they’re new, daring and bold, ignoring the fact that they’ve been taken up since time immemorial by black folks, white folks, scholars, historians, academics, activists, writers and others. The vast majority could be addressed by a 15-second Internet search or reading a Wikipedia page on structural racism.
It’s also that many of the questions seem to presuppose that blackness exists in a vacuum, and that the actions, beliefs and perceptions of black people haven’t been shaped by, say, housing segregation, mass incarceration, poverty, underfunded schools and the like.
So in the spirit of Let Me Google That For You, I’m going to take a crack at answering BuzzFeed’s 27 questions for black people with all of this in mind.
Here we go:
1. “Why is it so hard to be on time?”
The tsk, tsk vibe of this question rubbed many the wrong way. There’s history worth considering here, like the era when African-Americans were the first to be kicked off public transportation if there wasn’t space for white folks to sit down, which led to more costly and time-consuming travel. Or the fact that places like the Bay Area have spent millions of dollars on transportation systems that serve affluent white neighborhoods “at the expense of a bus system … for low income people of color.”
Then again, maybe black people being late is just a stereotype, and people of all races show up late in equal measure.
2. “If my dab is on fleek, am I lit?”
Nah, but here’s how you get lit.
3. “Why is it a problem if I like anime?”
Vice’s “What Black Anime Fans Can Teach Us About Race In America” might answer that for you.
4. “Why do black people look at your shoes before they greet you?”
5. “Why are we more likely to engage in the new dance trend than we are to get involved in politics or opening a business?”
The person who asked this question might take note of the facts that:
A) Black women voted at a higher rate than any other group in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
B) It’s incredibly difficult for black people to get loans to start businesses.
C) Dancing is accessible to everyone — and doesn’t preclude folks from participating in either of the aforementioned activities.
She might also take a look at this video, which I believe addresses all three points:
6. “How did watermelon become our thing?”
Take a look at this Atlantic article, which does a deep dive into the history of the watermelon stereotype. It turns out that after the Civil War, watermelon was one of the first products that newly free African-Americans were able to make money from, so it became a symbol of freedom for the black community.
7. “Why do you get upset when I don’t like a black celebrity?”
Black celebs get a lot of hate already. Also, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a study that found that black people are the most hated people in the country. So there’s understandable sensitivity and perhaps overcompensating when it comes to black folks cheering on their own.
8. “Why do we call each other the N-word but get vehemently upset when a white person uses the N-word?”
About a million really interesting articles and essays have been written about this, going back decades, but the broad answer is, perhaps, because white people generally use it as a slur, and black people generally don’t. (Feel free to vehemently disagree. But the point is, this is not a novel question.)
9. “Why is my natural hair, the hair that grows out of my head, seen as a political statement?”
In addition to stereotypes, there has been actual legislation designed to prevent black women from wearing their natural hair. The U.S. military is one of many institutions that have and continue to put restrictions on how black women can wear their hair. The truth is, black people haven’t really had a choice when it comes to whether their hair is politicized or not.
10. “Why do we think people with light skin look better than people with dark skin?”
This article talks about the fight against colorism in the black community but is careful to point out that one researcher who studies the phenomenon “has traveled the world and hasn’t found one place where colorism didn’t exist.” This is not a “black people thing.”
11. “Do you really believe that black is beautiful or it just something that you say because it sounds cool?”
For some helpful history, see “Black is Beautiful,” via Wikipedia
12. “Why do some black people say that you’re pretty ‘for a dark-skinned girl’?”
Refer to question 10.
13. “Why do some black men only date white women?”
Could be anything from personal preference to coincidence to internalized racial stereotypes.
14. “Why is it OK for black men to date white women, but not OK for a black woman to date outside her race?”
Relationship-advice giver Edward Bowser makes the argument that “When black men — arguably the most stereotyped and subjugated minority group in the country — see black women dating outside their race, they, once again, feel shunned.” He adds, importantly, that this is something that black women also experience and that “complaining about who someone else is dating like it’s any of your business” is decidedly not dope.
15. “Why do you protest Black Lives Matter and then tear each other down in the next breath?”
This question is confusing, but here’s some food for thought. Black Lives Matter is an activist movement trying to address systemic and structural problems of racial inequality. As a movement, it represents a lot of ideas that people believe in.
That said, any given person who is part of the Black Lives Matter movement is a human with strengths and flaws and limitations, and sometimes other people find those flaws annoying. So they support the cause, but rag on the individual.
It’s very possible to champion someone’s work, believe in what they’re fighting for, and still not like the person.
16. “Why do we say that we don’t want to be seen as a monolith but then try to take people’s black cards away for not liking something that’s supposedly black?”
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman, well-known poet who both advocated for stopping the spread of slavery and also held views that many today would consider anti-black. That is to say, black people don’t have a monopoly on holding conflicting ideas in their heads at the same time.
17. “Why are we so quick to support a non-black-owned business, but then hesitate when it’s a black-owned business?”
I’m sure this is a thing that happens, though I’ve never experienced it or seen evidence for it. But as with anything, one person’s experience does not a trend make, mine included.
And that’s what’s frustrating about many of these questions. I’m sure the folks in the video have experienced or observed many of the things they’re asking about. But as the reaction to the video makes clear, it’s very easy to find black folks who’ve never had these problems or noticed these habits.
And that’s fine! Different people have different experiences, based on where they live or grew up, what kind of job they have, who they hang out with, etc. Black people are, indeed, not a monolith.
The trouble is, the video never acknowledges that. It poses its provocative questions to all black people, as though all of us need to sit down and get our heads right.
You could argue that the point was to “start a conversation,” but again, most of these conversations don’t need starting — they’ve been broiling for years, decades, even centuries in some cases. It’s really easy to find thoughtful, in-depth commentary on the issue of black folks shopping at black-owned business, for instance. But the video gives the impression that this is something no one is talking about, much less writing about or organizing around, and that’s just not the case.
18. “Is there a cutoff time for this whole homophobia thing in the black community?”
From a ThinkProgress piece titled, “New Survey Debunks The Myth Of Black Homophobia”:
“For many years, there has been a myth that African Americans are more likely to be homophobic and thus more likely to oppose advances for LGBT equality. Conservatives have even tried to leverage this supposed wedge to slow the progress of equality. A new survey, however, not only debunks the myth, but suggests that the black community is one of the LGBT community’s strongest allies.”
19. “Why is growing up without a father so common in our race?”
Here’s another instance where this video seems to exist in a vacuum, a vacuum in which decades of systemic racism and structural oppression never happened. Here’s Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in an interview with Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies, on the effect of the war on drugs on the lives on black men in America, millions of whom were arrested for minor crimes:
“[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.”
See also this article about ways in which the stereotype of the absent black father is overblown.
20. “Why don’t we like to confront our mental health issues?”
21. “Why is there a checklist for being black?”
Race is a social construct, and for that construct to exist, there need to be rules for fitting into one category or another. Scholar Peter Geller describes the process of both the media and the “state’s creation and maintenance of racial categories through law, policy, and enumeration.”
But again, there is zero evidence that this is “a black thing.”
22. “Why is being educated considered ‘a white thing?’ “
Let’s consider this Jamelle Bouie piece about racialized achievement, where he offers context and research to discredit the myth that black folks don’t value education:
“According to [several sociologists’] research—drawn from interviews with students across eight North Carolina schools—racialized stigma against high achievement exists. But it requires specific circumstances, namely, predominantly white schools where few blacks attend advanced classes. There, black and white students hold racialized perceptions of educational achievement, and black students are often isolated by stigma from both groups.”
“Across schools, the general pattern was this: ‘Acting white’ accusations weren’t attached to academic performance and rather were a function of specific behaviors. If you hung out with white kids and adopted white fashions, you were accused of ‘acting white.’ Smart kids were teased, but no more than you’d see in any other group.
Also, a 2013 Houston Education Survey found that African-Americans are more likely than any other racial group to value post-secondary education.
23. “Why do I have to be mixed in order to have long hair?”
24. “Why do you think well-off black people don’t know what it means to be black?”
Google “conflation of race and class.” There’s some good stuff out there.
25. “Why do some black people say, ‘Oh, I have Native American in my family,’ in order to feel interesting or more valuable than other black people around them?”
There is a very complex racial hierarchy in the United States that affords certain privileges to African-Americans but denies them many others. Currently and historically, some black people have sought to gain certain privileges by distancing themselves from negative stereotypes associated with blackness.
Also, falsely claiming Native American ancestry cuts across all sorts of racial lines. Slate digs deep into this centuries-old identity tic:
“Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a ‘princess,’ a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.”
26. “Why can’t we just acknowledge that there are a bunch of different types of black people walking around and they’re all amazing and unique and special in their own way?”
See question 21.
27. Why are we always looking for the discount?
The racial wage gap, for a start.