Don’t be fooled by what you see. Mia Love, the conservative Republican political candidate for Utah’s new fourth congressional district, might look black, but she ain’t like “us.” Despite the well-known racist notion that “all blacks look alike,” there is more to being black than looks alone. Black people generally share in common African ancestry and specific alleles that control for variations in skin color and other physical features; besides that, black folk are as rich and diverse a group as they come with many distinct cultures, languages, and dialects. To most Americans, however, what the casual observer typically categorizes as a “black person” is not always someone who identifies as “African American.” By African American, in this sense, I mean those individuals whose African ancestors where enslaved and then transported to the Eastern shores of what is now the United States, and through natural increase, became the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of former slaves. With that history comes a bloody and violent past replete with pain and suffering at the hands of white power and privilege. Africans enslaved in America centuries ago were forced to shape new relationships with former rival tribesman out of sheer necessity, thus developing into a culture that we know currently as African American. With that rich tapestry of African culture forged through a record of struggle and long-suffering, African Americans survived the onslaught of white supremacy by producing rich and vibrant Black communities, tight knit in personal connections, where knowledge was gathered and disseminated about how to survive and agitate for social justice that had long been denied.
This is not to say that Mia Love and others of more recent immigrant lineage are not American, but the category of “African American” illuminates a particular heritage, enticing a certain frame in our minds. Haitian Americans, on the other hand, as well as other black Americans of different emigrant origin and history have their own unique chronicle. Mia’s parents, for example, emigrated from Haiti to the United States in the 1970’s, some 170 years after their homeland gained its independence. With them, then, they brought received wisdoms unique to Haiti from its history of French colonial oppression. But also with them, they brought wisdoms, sensibilities, and frames associated with a history of black rule and sovereignty.
After arming themselves under the direction of military leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and, subsequently, Jean Jacques Dessalines , Haitian slaves fought for their freedoms in the revolution of 1791 and finally gained their independence in 1804 after trouncing Napoleon’s forces for the second time. Mia’s Afro-Haitian ancestry is very similar to that of North American Blacks with equally violent and complicated interactions with Europeans. It differs from U.S. slavery and emancipation in that Napolean and his white army were forced out of Haiti, leaving a predominately black country to govern itself as the second democracy in the Americas. Haitian citizens were now in control of there own destiny, but not before they inherited many of the same European racisms that plague the U.S. mainland such as colorism, which is discrimination on the basis of skin tone. Since then, Haiti has been a predominantly black nation with unprecedented high levels of illiteracy, poverty, government instability, and other challenges. However, Haiti is the only black nation in the Western hemisphere, which means that despite its problems, they are free from white supremacy (within their country at least). Mia’s parents come from a culture that was literally created by a black majority who has experienced two hundred years of freedom and black command.
In contrast, African Americans have only been “free” since the passage of civil rights laws some forty-five years ago and continue to experience discrimination in housing, education, health care, and other forms of civic life in a white dominated culture. In fact, black Americans have merely lived an illusion of freedom. The richness of the African American culture is deeply rooted in social justice and a tradition of fighting against the absurdity of white supremacy that persists even today. From 1619 when 20 Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch frigate to 1968 when the last civil rights law was passed, African Americans endured 350 years of slavery and near slavery-like conditions. In this country where white privilege and power is the norm, racial and ethnic immigrant groups of lighter, white appearing complexion (mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe) have consistently and inevitably been able to assimilate into the American culture and come to be considered “white” in American context. Immigrant groups of darker skin have not had that opportunity. Instead of being granted government succor in both the guarantee and upholding of justice at every corner of life as our constitution promises each American regardless of their station, African Americans have continually been denied or had limited access to decent and affordable housing, a world-class education, and low cost, high quality health care. And as society’s income and wealth gap widens, systemic racism continues to pervade every facet of American life.
Although weak legal strides have been made to redress some our most pressing racial vexations as a nation, serious deprivations remain for too many Americans of color. These deprivations are centuries-old and fly in the face of our universal appeal toward “go it alone” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitudes, questioning the validity of these metaphors. The image of successful people who rose from the ashes to make something of themselves is an enduring theme in U.S. society and enough to reinforce the idea in popular culture. Because white America is the architect of these improbable white frames of success, scores of immigrants came to the Americas in hopes of better days ahead. Yet, African Americans whose ancestors were involuntarily brought to this country do not follow a similar life trajectory and, thus, feel differently about race than one whose family voluntarily immigrated here for opportunity sake. Where Mia’s experience is one of hopes and dreams, albeit largely reinforced by popular stories, images, and myth-making of the American propaganda machine, the mass media, African Americans’ experience as a group is one of despair.
Mia’s history and challenges are not so different from other African Americans. What is different, however, are the philosophical tools by which Mia interprets her experiences; put differently, the way in which she buys into the notion of the American dream and individualism as well as how she views herself as a black woman through the prism of a U.S. white lens. As all “races” in North America view themselves through a white lens, Mia’s hair style, diction, cultural orientation, friendships, mannerisms and habits, nevertheless, are an extension of her degree of acceptance of white supremacist norms and values which induce her unconscious hatred for all things African American. This behavior should not be seen as strange, but instead an effect of living in a white world that has historically devalued black people and their accomplishments. All black Americans do this to some extent. The difference with Mia Love is that her upbringing, stemming from a more recent immigrant state of knowing and being, causes her to continue to believe these “norms” of whiteness without questioning their basis and origin. African Americans, on the other hand, have developed counter frames to protect themselves against white supremacist notions, creating an alternative way of “viewing” their position and circumstance. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett detail in their book, The Spirit Level, only once we correct the widening income gap will we see improvement in every major social indicator from health and crime to education and jobs. Such opportunity comes from community as well as a greater sense of fairness and justice.
This tradition of fighting and struggling against systemic racism is distinct for African Americans, something that recent immigrants of African descent cannot completely comprehend. Because Mia Love and others like her have not come from an institution of perpetual battle for their freedom, voice, and right to exist in a supposedly egalitarian society, they have the luxury to be unconscious of the white-black paradigm in this country. However, this much is true about U.S. racial understandings about blackness, it doesn’t much matter if you where born in America or immigrated here, the one-drop rule is still alive and well in contemporary America. No one person of color is free from discrimination in this country. With even the slightest hint of “black” (African) features, white America still sees that person as black. And with that comes the white centered frames of what it means to be black despite the cultural variations of blackness. Mia Love has the unique opportunity to learn two distinct histories and cultures. It would behoove her to understand and embrace the African American social-cultural history because the reality is she looks like “us.” We are all the sons and daughters of former slaves; we share this fight together.
Cross-posted from http://www.darronsmith.com