A Black Man in The White House - Something the world can be proud of?

I am amazed at all the different reactions I got  here on my blog, in personal emails or speaking to people about my feelings towards race labellling.

Thank you all for participating and offering opinions! At the same time I am a little frustrated with how my - adimittedly slightly long winded - point of view gets reduced to a reluctance  to call my children black because I have an issue with their race or skin color (???). I accept that most people still think in traditional categories of black and white and I do not automatically see it as an insult to my girls if someone refers to them as black - depending of course on the context.

But why is it so difficult to accept for some of you that I simply want to move forward and away from labels that have historically been used to suppress and humiliate people (or set "white" people apart as superior) and into a future where we see race and color as something as individual and natural as eye color or hair color. Something you can refer to when describing a person but not their foremost outstanding characteristic. 

I understand that centuries of dividing most of the human race into black or white  make it somewhat difficult to move away from those stereotypes - but why the reluctance to do so? Why not describe people as caramel color or dark brown or light brown or whatever applies to the individual? And my question again: Why automatically call a person with mixed heritage black? Only because this is the traditional definition of a not "purely white" person with "black" genes? And do we really want to carry on in this tradition? Or can we give our children the opportunity to be  freed from those stereotypes and simply see themselves as unique and a part of many different cultures and races? As one of you suggested: how about we simply say  "human race" when describing ourselves? (ok, maybe a bit too Rudolf Steiner ... but an alternative)

I want to ask you this again (everybody who feels it is important to be calling each other black and white): why this reluctance to let go of these labels and firstly describe somebody as a human being, man or woman instead of a black man or white woman?

Hey, and sometimes let's even see the funny side of us struggling along to be politically correct when it comes to race and color:  How about, when you need to point out the little boy with brown skin who is standing in line with 15 little pale swimmers in costumes and swim hats (as happened to my friend the other day), and the swimming teacher clearly struggling to come up with a suitable description...
After many a stuttering attempts (hair was out because of swim hats, no clothing items to describe by except for uniform swimming trunks) my friend finally rescued him by saying: Oh, you mean the little boy with brown skin.

Relief and Yes!

So here it is again: The reluctance to say the little black boy. Some of you might consider this a bad thing. I think it is a big step in the right direction. People start thinking before they label. So what if we come across as awkward and sometimes even make idiots of ourselves in the process? At least we are trying. Change is always more or less awkward and hardly ever easy.

The swimming teacher did not say the little black boy, thereby avoided labelling him or making assumptions about his racial identity. And it did not come naturally to him. So? In my  book this is a good sign. The whole awkwardness of the situation is simply our residual baggage from a long history of racism - which we need to overcome one way or another.

And I see it happening everywhere amongst children (of all colors) already: My friend's 14 year old daughter (who goes to a school in Germany with many children from different countries) told me what happened in her class the day after Obama was elected president:

Her teacher came into the classroom all happy and excited and made a little speech about how the world has changed for the better now that a Black Man was in The White House.  One of her classmates stood up and said: The world will really be changed for the better if nobody notices anymore that there is  a "black" man in the White House. (everybody cheered and clapped).

And no, I don't think her classmate meant for us to be color blind nor was he embarassed by or in denial about his own brown skin - he was simply fed up with people being labelled according to race stereotypes.

So yes, I will continue describing my beautiful girls of many different races (in fact they are: colored/xhosa/white) as the little girls with the  afro hairstyle or the dreadlocks or brown skin. But I will not put stereotypes in their heads about being black. If they want to identify one day with that part of their heritage and call themselves black - I will also happily accept that and support them. But I think it is important that I let them make that decision as they grow up and in the meantime tell them what I think about Black and White and Human.....................
....and the joy of simply being alive in our  bodies!


Lana said…
Bravo Martina! I completely agree with this analysis.

I also feel uncomfortable with calling my children "black". I would feel just as uncomfortable calling a child of mine "blonde" if I weren't directly discussing their hair.

I do not feel the slightest negative emotion about the fact that my girls have very beautiful brown skin. I just don't see why the colour of their skin needs to define anything else about them. And I choose not to label them as anything other than South African.

We live in a society that is obsessed with race - to the point where we add racial descriptions to conversations that really don't require them.

So I will continue struggling to move away from these labels, and I look forward to the day where a man of any skin colour can walk into a shop and be noticed immediately for his charming smile, rather than for the colour of his skin.
Diane Corriette said…
There will always be labels and there will always be people who want to define us by our labels. Put a group of white people together and they find a reason to dislike each other - religion - think about the Christian & Catholic hatred of Ireland. Put a room full of black people together and they find a reason to dislike each other - some are a very dark shade while some are a lighter shade.

Even if you put a room full of people from different parts of the UK - the South and the North - they find reason for labels, dislike and even hatred.

Big nose, too tall, too fat, too skinny, too poor, mega rich - if it isn't colour there will be some other label to try and define people into our world of limited boxes.

All we can do is choose not to engage at it one person at a time. I have no control over how you think and what you choose to do but I can control my thoughts and actions. As more people choose to move away from definitions maybe we can make something more positive happen.

Unfortunately for all of us who move away from it there is another child being raised in it.
gunnagirls said…
Thanks Diane and Lana for your insights! I completely agree with you Diane - it's all we can do: change the world one person at a time.
Heidi said…
I agree with your point of view. I do hope that one day the enormity of the struggle black people had to endure and overcame will eventually be so far back in the past that it is irrelevant who sits in the oval office or white house.

I do however embrace a broader view. I read the work of William Cross, Shades of Black, about the development of black identity and Janet Helms’ work, Black and White racial identity development: Theory, research and practice. It is through this work and the many stories I read of transracial adoptees, which helped me to accept a shift in my perspective, without getting defensive.

Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall writes in their book, Inside Transracial Adoption: “Transracial families are pioneers. Our lives are miracles. We share a respect for difference and appreciation for diversity that are models for all people and communities. Life provides us with opportunities every day than most people get in a lifetime. One such an opportunity is to address our differences and celebrate our sameness.”

I do not refer to my friends by the colour of their skin. I do not answer a question when it aims to categorises, excludes, label or to discriminates. But I do acknowledge race and culture, the latter more than the former, when it is relevant. It is mostly relevant when it uplifts, empower and embrace.

I don’t think it should be seen as an attack either, when someone questions your issue with black. Neither do I think people who truly embrace black, white, coloured, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, African use these attributes as labels. I do believe they see them purely for what they are, attributes (qualities, strengths). I also do believe, at least where transracial families are involved, most of what we say and do are in search to equip us to deal with the many issues (not problems) we face.
Heidi said…

The true experts, and from whom I take my stance in this matter, are transracial adoptees themselves. I can highly recommend the book, In their own voices, transracial adoptees tell their stories by Simon and Roorda. It is a difficult book to read and I have only read half of the stories as it necessitate me to view and review my own way of seeing things. I like to add the words of two transracial adoptees, (black adoptees with white adoptive parents) to emphasise my point of view.

“When a white person says to me, ‘it doesn’t matter if they’re black, white, brown or green...’ or ‘there’s only one race, the human race,’ a shudder goes down my spine. Those sentences erase a history of oppression and survival against enormous odds, as well as a legacy of courageous resistance and struggle. They also set us up to fail. As we grow into our teens, transracially-adopted children discover that being ‘human’ is simply not enough.”

Donna Francis story also stood out. She is the transracial adoptee with the strongest black identity. She says, “not only is my pigment black, by my thoughts, the way I relate to other people, and the way I talk and dance and socialise are black. I consider the issues facing the black community, my issues. She adds, “I never felt out of place or uncomfortable in my house and have never doubted that I was fully their (her adoptive parents) daughter. I really like the person I am, and I attribute that to my parents. They helped to make me very independent, strong-willed and determined, compassionate and loving, accepting and understanding, all the things parents hope to pass on to their kids. Their ‘whiteness’ had less to do with it than that they were Mom and Dad and loved me completely. I know my parents would do anything for me and my sister...They never worried about whether I would doubt my love for them or turn on them because they are white. They stepped back and let me do what I had to do to understand who I was as a black woman living in America in 1997. They listened to me when I talked, as we talked about race and gender”

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