Ambushed on the Airwaves: When Black Nationalists Dictate Black Identity

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Soon after my For Harriet article was published, two women who’d just published a book on what it means to be Biracial contacted me to thank me for writing it. Almost immediately I became friends with Sarah and Bryony, and in October they asked me to collaborate with them on an academic book.

As new authors do, Sarah and Bryony are doing everything they can to promote their book. In addition to hitting social media heavily, they do interviews for radio and podcasts.

Sarah and I had the following harrowing experience on a radio show last week. The blog post will transition back and forth between our two voices:

 Sarah

I was really excited for the interview, because I first interviewed with this program in October and the host Marcus* asked me to return.

 The show focuses on race and I was the first Biracial person to ever be interviewed. So naturally I was thrilled when I learned it went well and they wanted me back. This second interview, I was asked to sit on a panel and discuss race. Again, I would be the lone Biracial representative.

 On the night of the broadcast I was informed that nobody from panel had shown up. I asked the woman whose name we never got, so we’ll call her Telephone Operator, if Shannon could to be on the program with me. “Sure! Why not!”

 Despite being so light complected, I vacillate between self-identifying as Black and Biracial, which depends on the current situation.

 My mom was Black and Japanese and my dad was White. Things were pretty different when I was raised. With Jim Crow laws still in effect in much of the U.S., it was pretty normal for interracial couples to raise their children to be Black. Of course today more of us have the freedom to self identify as Biracial.

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Sarah and her father, George Orick, in 1967.

 Almost immediately after Marcus introduces us, a woman who called herself something bizarre like Lady Self Pleasure came out swinging and declared, “nah, Sarah ain’t even Black.”

 As if on queue, Marcus immediately explained that it was his birthday and despite the fact that nobody showed up but Shannon and me, he promised it would be an unforgettable broadcast.

After, I introduced Shannon: Black father, White mother; academic writer and I tell them about her article.

Shannon

Both Marcus and the callers seemed insistent on defining me, often disregarding how I define myself. Instead, they used my answers to their questions as evidence of their definitions, which seemed to change every few minutes over the hour and a half interview.

First I was labeled Black, not Biracial, because my father is Black. An unnamed male caller asked if I immerse myself in Black arts and someone else asked whether I’m married to a Black man. I was also asked which race I would choose if I were forced to. Each of these questions felt like an interrogation that was meant to gauge my level of Blackness.

The listeners seemed more satisfied with my answers than Sarah’s, even though Sarah was raised to be Black and self-identifies that way more often than I do. The aforementioned Self Pleasure disregarded Sarah’s story and insisted that the way one is raised doesn’t determine one’s ethnicity.

When the conversation came back to me, “Telephone Operator” began discussing the one-drop rule as the “law of the country,” which in her mind determined my Blackness despite my upbringing. However, having been frustrated by the listeners’ dismissal of Sarah, I confronted her, as I thought she was she who had insisted that Sarah wasn’t Black. “Wait,” I asked, “If the one drop rule is law, how can I be Black but Sarah isn’t?” Marcus jumped in and quickly cut to a commercial break.

Sarah

 “Because,” says Self Pleasure, “Look at her. She’s White! She’s not Black. I’m Black!”

 “So you must not have heard what my racial makeup is or why I I self-identify as Black, did you?” I asked Self Pleasure.

 “I did and because your father is White, that makes you White,” she replied.

 “Huh?” I asked. “Where do you get that nonsense? I guess that made Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington White.”

 Things went downhill from there with Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and the unnamed man attacking me. Despite how I was raised, because I had never been DWBd, never been racial profiled or turned down for a job because of my race (as if any of them knows my life story), in their limited view of the world, I am not Black.

Hoping Marcus would actually moderate, he instead added his two cents by using mitochondrial DNA as proof for why I’m not Black. Now this went from insulting to downright idiotic.

Shannon

By this point, Marcus and the listeners emphatically listed reasons why Sarah and I were misidentifying ourselves. Everyone, including Marcus, seemed to subscribe to essentialist thinking that left no room for cross cultural understanding or blurred lines. But even with their “evidence,” the reasoning seemed to fall short of true clear-cut definitions.

We were told that race comes biologically through the father, which made Sarah White and me Black. Self Pleasure said she and the others weren’t “feeling” Sarah, and Sarah therefore wasn’t part of the Black tribe. Marcus insisted that he could speak with authority since he had been racially profiled. Various speakers referenced a Black “curriculum” that was necessary for true Blackness but couldn’t define what this curriculum was. We were told that if races were separated on two sides of a room, Marcus would be one side and we would be on the other. Even though they had first decided that I was Black, not Biracial, my allegiance to Sarah had evidently changed their minds.

In my final attempt to stand up for Sarah and me, I questioned how four people could decide who was part of an entire race. I asked how I, as the daughter of a black man who worked for the NAACP, could be considered not Black. Loud guffaws emerged at this statement, as the listeners said no true black person would reference the NAACP.

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My father and me when he worked for the NAACP, in approximately 1987.

At this point, I decided that it would be best for Sarah and me to leave the conversation. I needed to work in order to eat the next day, which took precedence over convincing someone that I was part of his or her “tribe.” As Sarah and I hung up, wishing the moderator a happy birthday and politely excusing ourselves, we felt confirmation in the necessity of our voices. Even though halfway through the radio show I had expressed frustration over the comments on my For Harriet article being largely focused on how I should self-identify, the moderators and listeners fell victim to the same narrow focus.

It occurred to Sarah and me that we were dealing with Black Nationalists.

Sarah’s Take on Black Nationalism

 Although it would seem a logical reaction to the obvious lack of equanimity in the U.S. between the two races to embrace Black Nationalism, in reality it is actually illogical. Separating Blacks from Whites in an effort to create a strong Black economy, thus making Blacks more autonomous and creating more Black wealth, while romantic for those who live in big cities with heavier concentrations, is to forget that the U.S. is actually vast. Large swaths of the country have almost no Black presence—now what?

 And given the fact that Blacks comprise only 13 percent of the country’s population, it’s inevitable that when stuff continues to hit the fan, riots like Baltimore’s will become more commonplace, and Blacks are outnumbered. If Black Nationalists think they alone can elevate the status of Blacks in the U.S. without the help of other racial groups, in particular Whites, who hold the economic power, they’re living in a fantasyland.

 With a couple of days to let the whole thing soak in, it’s becoming clear that I was ambushed. That I brought Shannon along made things sweeter for them. Telephone Operator told Shannon and me that all members of the panel canceled at the last minute. However the next day when I was thinking more clearly, I checked the radio program’s Facebook page and Lady Self Pleasure became a co-host of Marcus’s two weeks after I was interviewed the first time.

 Our guess is that she worked on Marcus for weeks about how he went against the Black Nationalist code by giving me an opportunity to promote inclusiveness and my (our) belief that we can all get along and work toward one race … the human race.

Shannon

There was so much that could have been discussed on the radio show. We could have come together in understanding and discussed real issues that are present in the Black community. Instead, Sarah and I were roasted because of our mixed race identity, disenabling us from being able to discuss real Black matters.

Sarah

 However, with four days to think and do more digging into them, it’s becoming clearer to me why Marcus, Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and Unnamed Man have no real interest in discussing real issues that could lead to healing and inclusiveness.

 I couldn’t wrap my head around what these three things have in common:

  1. The one-drop rule being the so-called law of the country
  2. One’s race being determined not by upbringing and the race of both parents but only taking into account race passing from father to child
  3. Mitochondrial DNA

 And what I unearthed throws insulting and idiotic out the window. What we’re dealing with is deeply disturbing.

 Stay Tuned.

 

*The name of the radio program has purposely been redacted and names of people have been changed.

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