Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Blackness Visible, Part III (“You’re Black, but You’re Not Really Black”)

February 20th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

“You’re Black, but you’re not really Black.”

If you are Black person in the U.S. and you have spent time as a student on a predominantly white college campus, you are probably familiar with this all-too-frequent observation. It is most often expressed by a white or otherwise non-Black classmate/roommate/teammate to a student of African descent who somehow seems to exhibit qualities, speak in ways, and/or demonstrate interest in things that the non-Black speaker associates with whiteness. The text-to-subtext translation of this phrase is: “I have an idea in my mind of what Blacks are like, and some of the things you say and do seem to contradict some of the things I thought I understood about you people.”

The following is only a partial list of the qualities, ways of speaking, and interests that might invite such a comment from the non-Black observer:

Qualities/Characteristics: courtesy, sophistication, nerdiness, conservatism, open-mindedness, clumsiness, grace, industriousness, contemplativeness, modesty, intelligence, ingenuity.

Ways of Speaking: with a midwestern accent; with a “valley girl” accent; with a southern California surfer accent; with a Boston/Rhode Island/Southern New England accent; with a British accent; with a French accent; with a Cuban; Dominican, Puerto Rican, or Brazilian accent; in a language other than English; in English — but with no discernible ethnic or regional accent; using no particular form of ethnic or regional slang; using skater slang; using San Fernando Valley slang; using Canadian slang; using Cockney or any other form of British slang; in Latin, in ancient Greek; using a large standard English vocabulary.

Interests: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history (including Black history), art, literature (including African American literature), any type of music that is not contemporary hip hop or R&B, ballet, modern dance, musical theatre (strangely enough), drama, traveling, hiking, cycling, skiing, golk, jai alai, crew, field hockey, squash, any sport that is not football or basketball, journalism, philately, spelunking, scuba, chess, Dungeons and Dragons, archery, the Society for Creative Anachronism.

One of the most recent public declarations of the “you’re-black-but-not-really-black” variety occurred when presidential apsirant Joe Biden described fellow candidate Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” So, I supposed you could add to the list of qualities and characteristic cleanliness and beauty.

As you can see, it would be easier for me to list the limited range of qualities, ways of speaking, hobbies and interests that are associated with Black people than for me to list the range of items and activities that are suggestive of NRB status (NRB = not really Black). Unintentional or otherwise, the effect of this long-standing practice of locating certain activities, interests, and styles of communication in the realm of whiteness is that when Black people display these behaviors, preferences, interests, and characteristics their visibility as Black is suddenly compromised.

It’s not that they look less like African Americans from a physical perspective. The many wonderful characteristics that function as bodily signifiers of your African ancestry will remain in place no matter how many times you listen to the Dead Kennedys’ Bedtime for Democracy album.

No, it’s not that Black people look physically less Black when they manifest those interests, qualities, or styles and modes of communication that whiteness has claimed as its own. Rather, it’s that whiteness — as a socially constructed identity — depends heavily for its meaning on the location of Blackness as its opposite; and thus it is less challenging to the meaning and position of whiteness to interpret the Black student’s expression of so-called “white interests” as marking him/her as somehow less Black than it would be to recast said activities as less white.

Stated more simply, the total abandonment of the binary system that defines some interests and behaviors as white (usually those associated with intellect, erudition, morality, normalcy, and dominance) and some as Black (usually those associated with physicality, sexuality, violence, abberation, and submission) would threaten the socio-political and cultural power–and, therefore the very meaning–of whiteness (as center and norm). Thus it is safer — so to speak — for white people to label Black people who manifest those interests and behaviors associated with whiteness as somehow less Black than it would be to label those interests and behaviors as not particularly white.

On college campuses this trend has had a very curious effect. Simply by virtue of his engagement in an intellectually-based enterprise, the Black college student is always already a challenge to prevailing definitions of whiteness. His or her engagement in the everyday activities that define student life — attending classes, studying at the library, taking exams, etc. — constitues a challenge to the self-perception of all those who identity is dependent on the understanding that white people are intellectually superior to people of African descent.

Rather than embrace the notion that erudition and intellectual curiousity are evident in all ethnic groups, some white students act out against African Americans and other Black people in their on-campus community, publishing songs, cartoons, and other “comic” material (like the affirmative action carol “O Come All Ye Black Folk”) that reinforce their association of Blackness, not with the stately buildings and well-manicured grounds of the college campus, but with the perceived squalor and violence of “the ghetto.”

Similarly, white students’ gangster- and ghetto-themed parties undertake to reinforce the meaning of Blackness as anti-intellectual, impoverished, hypersexual, hypermasculine, and violent as defense against the challenge to whiteness leveled by the presence of Black students in their classes, their dorms, their libraries, and their dining halls.

White students have long decried the tendency of Black students to sit together at the campus dining hall, asserting that such behavior is segregationist and a manifestation of  “reverse racism.” I believe that the unacknowledge and, in many cases, sub-conscious objection to Black students sitting together in the dining hall lies in its particularly pointed challenge to the longstanding association of the college experience with white (intellectual and moral) supremacy.

Despite the personal annoyance that Black students experience whenever they are labeled as NRBs by their white counterparts, the greatest danger posed by categorization of some behaviors and interests as white and some as Black is based far away from the hallowed halls of academe, in those editorial meetings, on those film and video sets, and at those recording studios where the image of the Black as hypersexual, anti-intellectual gangsta, pimp, thus, welfare mama, or ‘ho’ is created and disseminated.

These images pose a threat to increased Black access to and success in higher education, not because of the ways that they shape white perceptions of Black people, but because of the ways that they distort and limit Black people’s perceptions of themselves.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black Students, Higher Education, race, racism, Stereotypes

No Responses

  1. just passing through...

    I always have white people acting surprised that my sister and I can speak, people asking me why I would take certain classes, white professors acting all amazed that other professors think I’m an “amazing student.”

    And why do so many people get offended when black kids sit together, anyway? I see nothing wrong with it.

  2. Alter perceptions

    It has been my experience that both Black and White people refer to certain charasteristics as NRB’s behavior. As a matter of fact, everyone (black, white, American, French etc…) seem to buy into that concept that to be “really black” or “really white” in America you have to exhibit certain behavioral patterns. Perceptions need to be altered because the way you speak, the music you like, your affinity to classical music or reading are NOT a definition of your race but rather a product of your personal preference AND sometimes your background (cultural and financial).

  3. MDgal

    Very interesting article. But it brings up the issue of stereotyping again and oddly enough the author who sways those to not label blacks labels and groups all whites into the category of white people.
    I will not say I do not occasionally fall into stereotyping all cultures/ethnicity at times (i try not to). I believe that we should boil this article down to be even more general in that we need to avoid prescribing behaviors as belonging to just one race, ethnicity, culture, religion, political view, etc. More often than not, people do not fall into the category society has wriiten for them (and this causes cognitive dissonance for those who have not come into contact with someone different than themselves and only have these “prescribed labels” to rely on).

    In the end, our generation needs to break these narrow attitudes and views to create something better and perhaps see people as innocently as children do.

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