Tuesday, October 25, 2005

On Condoleeza Rice & the Troubling Way We Define "Being Black" ...

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's recent piece on Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is compelling and provocative, to say the least:

Like a lot of African Americans, I've long wondered what the deal was with Condoleezza Rice and the issue of race. How does she work so loyally for George W. Bush, whose approval rating among blacks was measured in a recent poll at a negligible 2 percent? How did she come to a worldview so radically different from that of most black Americans? Is she blind, is she in denial, is she confused -- or what?

Though this blog is sometimes wrongfully accused of being somewhat "one dimensional" and "pro-Democratic Party" in its past assertions, we have to respectfully and, on some points, strongly disagree with Mr. Robinson.

It's not that we don't think Rice should be challenged on her policy positions or political affiliation. In fact, we're finding her somewhat lacking in some areas and too eager to maintain Administration status-quo. But, we are troubled when individuals such as Rice, or Powell or others we'll pass naming at this moment, are challenged based primarily on the degree of their perceived "Blackness" rather than on the merits of the policy. Shake her down because you disagree with her stand on, say, Kazakhstan. Engage her breadth of knowledge with yours. But, the I'm Blacker Than You rhyme gets tired, and frankly, looks foolish. This always sets a dangerous precedent. Robinson implies that Rice may be less Black because her foreign policy stands and career choices stray from some sort of unwritten covenant on what it is "to be Black."

How then is "Black" defined?

Based on Robinson's article, he seems troubled that Rice took up piano lessons and a brief stint at ballet. But, we have to ask, does that make her less Black. Serena Williams learned tennis (and plays it rather well) while growing up in a hard urban area not known for churning out tennis pros - because she didn't play basketball like many urban Black kids, does that make her less Black? Again, it depends on individual perceptions of "Blackness"? Is it typically associated with mainstream views of how we should be and act? Or, do we allow the "dumbing down" of our people, discouraging us from engaging intellectually stimulating activities considered culturally radioactive or "White"? Not to say basketball or football isn't - but, it certainly would be encouraging if there were more brothers and sisters in a science lab rather than on a sports field or an entertainment stage. Mr. Robinson works for a White-owned mainstream, Big 5 newspaper. Is he less Black for knowing how to write well and have his writings placed on the front page of a major international publication? Again, that doesn't make him less Black - but, what makes him more Black than Rice?

And, if we can questions Rice's "Black" qualifications (perhaps, as Robinson does in his column, force her to pull out her "Black" passport), then what's to stop us from questioning every African American's degree of cultural affinity. We can agree that Black people, in general, have a common bond through history, collective aspirations and struggles. But, the experiences are vastly different on many social, economic, regional and demographic levels. You may be Black and grew up in North Philly with one set of experiences, but you could also be Black and grow up in Denver with a set of experiences, expectations and goals that are less or more dramatic. It varies ...

Being Black, since its inception and use, has always been more of a political statement than a cultural term. Yet, the range of that statement is going to dramatically vary based on the many complexions, traditions, neighborhoods, islands, continents and income levels that make us "Black." We are a Diaspora - or did Mr. Robinson conveniently forget that detail? Which makes this article troubling. Let's not continue falling in the trap of our own hypocrisy. We get vexed when White people think we look and act alike. What makes us better when we do it to ourselves?