Did I ever tell you about the time that I was so close to being the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)? It was a moment on the track field and I owned that race. All the folks in the stands were crazy excited about being there during such an athletic feat. Well, it was my 2nd grade track and field day. And, the excited folks in the stands were my parents. But, I really did own the race. It was a 100-yard dash and I was so far ahead of the other kids that I did cartwheels at the end and still won. I was so excited to win that you would’ve thought I’d just won gold at the Olympics. Then, like has happened in most big moments in my life, someone felt the need to remind I was Black. When my teacher handed out the ribbons, a boy in my class said, “That wasn’t fair. She won cause Black people have an extra calf muscle.”
I was pretty sure I didn’t have an extra calf muscle, but still I went home and asked my parents. My parents responded. They helped me understand why someone might say something like that and shared with me other common ways that might happen to me in the future. They prepared me that this was going to happen to me all my life. They gave me tools for how to deal with this behavior of others that I would never be able to control or succeed enough to get away from. And then, they complimented me, gave me strong support and real feedback that grew me into knowing that Black is Bold and Beautiful and Brilliant. I could be Black and Proud.
This didn’t just happen in one moment; it happened over and over again as I experienced being Black. In my family we call it “getting the handbook”. In textbooks they call it being cultured. They passed on culture, traditions, values and common community knowledge. They helped me recognize the battles worth fighting, to find my voice and opinions and to discern the times to keep silent. I was cultured into my Black racial identity. It doesn’t come from my blood and genetics. Race isn’t biological, it is a social construct. It comes from people recognizing me as a Black woman and then treating/reacting to me based on that recognition. It comes from having strong ties to the history, traditions and values.
So, my dear friend, who sent Ancestry.com some money and some blood to then find out you are 20% Native American, or 12% Asian or that you thought you were Dutch and now you have found you are Norwegian. I am crying for you. How will you handle this newly found culture and community? The one you haven’t been prepared for or cultured into? How will you know how to act and react, what is appropriate and what is rude, when you’re exploring the new traditions? How will you fight internalizing the historic traumas and all the negative portrayals of your newfound people? Will you even have to deal with these things? Or, is your newfound identity just something you can share on a commercial; pick it up and put it down when it is convenient and beneficial? Will you give the culture all the respect it deserves?
These commercials, I think, are trying to celebrate the diversity of the United States. They are trying, I think, to make a point that the country is a mix of race and ethnicities and any of us could have a multicultural ancestry. For me, they instead, add to the color-blind racism and the cooptation of communities of color. They spread the idea that race is something that can be put on and taken off when convenient. And by extension, racial oppression can also.
The commercials, and the idea, forget that people of color are brought into the race by the social meanings put on them. By the experiences of being a person of color.