To Know Market Segments, Know the Many Shades of Black Identity
Toure, now a journalist, writer and MSNBC contributor, shares the pain of that moment in his recent book, "Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black in America Now." It's one of the bold stories he tells to document the black community's self-inflected burdens from the "black gaze," in which blacks measure each other based on 1) "Are they black enough?" and 2) Are they abiding by the unspoken obligation to bring the black community along and not shame it in the process? The flip side is America's "white gaze" -- society's embrace of black stereotypes (Hello Newt and Rick) and the belief that black anything -- experience, neighborhoods, education , consumers, marketing, men, women, children -- or a black president -- has little or no value.
The book reminded me of a time when I too was judging others for not being black enough.
It was a few years ago, when I was working on a study for Essence magazine. At one meeting of our team, composed entirely of black women, we were joined by Margo, an African-American woman and fellow researcher. Margo's crisp enunciation and rhythm mirrored that of a California "Valley Girl." She made her recommendations and left the meeting. There followed a few seconds of total silence, then we continued. The team decided to eliminate one of Margo's ideas that was a bit off base, and following that vote, I finally said out loud what many were thinking: "Well what do you expect, she ain't no real sistah." We all snickered.
I thought about Margo after reading that not one black person at that Emory college party had come to Toure's defense. In many ways the onlookers believed the linebacker was right. They judged Toure harshly for his early years on campus, when he had hung out mostly with white students.
Toure quotes Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies at Harvard and editor-in-chief of theroot.com, who said if there are 40 million black folks in America, then there are 40 million ways to be black. Toure describes different dimensions of blackness: those who have a private relationship ("I am American, I am human"); those who embrace blackness, but let it be known that "black" doesn't totally define them; and those who have a strong black association.Margo and I had a drink weeks after the meeting. She had noticed the look on the team's faces at our meeting. She was used to it. I listened to her story. Margo didn't "talk black," but she is black. I felt stupid but didn't connect the dots until I read Toure's book. Improving one's African-American cultural IQ is critical to understanding the differences among segments.
Toure teaches us that you can be black and . . . a scuba diver, a world traveler, president of the United States and, yes, even a Valley Girl.