‘How should negroes living in Europe dress? The natural reply to such a question to be, “Just like everybody else, according to the demands of the climate and social life.”….Well, in that case, the inquiry of the Review is pointless. Not in the least: for we must keep in mind that the sight of a Negro dressed in European fashion always provokes the laughter of the white man. Then must we reckon with the white man?’
Magd Raney, “Our Inquiry,” The Review of the Black World, 1931
I was both perplexed and saddened by a recent blog post in the on-line magazine, Clutch, by “The Black Snob.” The article, under the headline, “To Assimilate or Not: The Black Person’s Lament,” argues that in American society it is necessary but futile for black people to try to assimilate. Could the notion of assimilating, which the author characterizes as “speaking the King’s English” and straightening her hair for job interviews, really be a relevant one in 2013? Although the author mentions that her mother chose the name “Danielle” for her because “she thought I just looked like a Danielle,” the Black Snob also claims that her parents made a conscious choice to name her Danielle instead of “Keisha,” a popular name at the time of her birth, because “they wanted [her] to assimilate.”
I would not have given the article a second thought, though it is by prominent author who seems to be one of the mainstream media’s go-to people on things racial. It would have been easy to chalk up the simplistic definitions of “whiteness” and “blackness” that informed her piece to the social anxieties particular to someone who would chose the nom-de-plume “the Black Snob.” Is it really a serious cause for existential racial angst to realize that one speaks one way in a job interview and another when hearing one’s favorite Bell Biv DeVoe song come on the radio? But I happened to read this article the same week that I was reading articles about the Georgetown study, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege.” The findings of the report are reflected starkly in its title. As a professor who teaches at a highly selective, predominately white, private liberal arts college married to an educator who has worked at community college and open-access public universities, I have long had front-row seat to how the structural dynamics of American higher education reproduce white privilege and conspire to give even bright, ambitious students of color inferior college and university experiences and degrees. The report found that low-income black and brown young people are over-represented at open-access two- and four-year institutions and underrepresented at the most selective institutions. That’s no surprise~ but I was particularly interested to read that even low-income students of color who are well qualified don’t go to more selective institutions, thus missing out on the tangible and intangible advantages that such institutions have to offer. This includes not only better quality teaching, smaller class sizes, and more support systems, but also cultural and social capital that includes such enriching opportunities as travel, a breadth of social and intellectual experience, and door-opening contacts with institutions and networks of privilege that can be invested in educational and career growth for years to come. Low-income students of color are often deprived of access to cultural capital long before they enter their first classroom: lack of exposure to worlds beyond their own, either through books or excursions, and to adults with rewarding and satisfying work lives, handicaps smart, aspiring young people academically and socially.
I started wondering, after reading the Black Snob’s lament on the failures of assimilation, a notion that for her is predicated on a fundamental opposition between “blackness” and assimilation, if “assimilation” is a useful concept for understanding the relationship between American concepts of “blackness” and the dominant culture, and more importantly, for recognizing and advancing the participation of black Americans in the broader society.
What does it mean to “assimilate”?
In ante-bellum America, the concept of “black humanity” was, for the majority of white people, an oxymoron—otherwise, the systemic and consistent cruelties and degradations could not have been maintained. After the abolition of slavery, white recognition of the dignity of black humanity and citizenship were still difficult to achieve. Black activists, especially those of the educated classes, developed what the historian Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham calls a “politics of respectability”: for Civil Rights activists up until the late 1960s, this entailed always being well dressed, well spoken, and maintaining a sense of dignity no matter what humiliations and indignities were imposed upon you. Anna Julia Cooper, the pioneering feminist writer and education reformer, could thus make a call for black women, who had been both unsexed and sexually exploited by slavery, to be treated as “ladies” by train conductors—given the respect, assistance and small courtesies afforded to white women. At a time when many white women were shaking off the constraints of “lady-hood,” it was radical for black women to demand to be treated like ladies. This example highlights the difficulties of talking about black assimilation into white society without looking carefully at the historical context and what the alternative to assimilation might be. Until well into the 20th century, black American activists argued for white respect and recognition of human rights necessary to support claims for citizenship rights; equality in all realms of life; economic integration and fairness at all levels from laborer to entrepreneur. “Assimilation” (and terms such as “integration” describing similar and related concepts of supporting the entrance of black Americans into all spheres of American life with all of the rights accorded to other Americans) were usually juxtaposed to ideas committed to varying degrees of separatism or nationalism. A major tenet of black separatist approaches such as those advocated by Marcus Garvey has been that white Americans will never accept black people as equals, and that economic and cultural self-sufficiency is the only rational response to white refusal to recognize black people as humans and citizens. On the other hand, white arguments against assimilation have rested on the belief that blackness is so fundamentally and intractably different from whiteness that black people and white people can never coexist productively and peacefully as equals in the same society.
During the era of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, the idea of assimilation took on more cultural and social connotations. To “assimilate” meant to conform to white expectations of behavior at the price of sacrificing black identities and cultural values. Of course, “whiteness” in these conversations was juxtaposed in simple terms to “blackness”: for the Black Snob, “whiteness” is speaking the King’s English (does any American speak this? Or any English speaker?) and straightening her hair. But assimilation defined as a way of trying to disguise or ameliorate “blackness” so as to get ahead in America will always be a failed project: “You can name me Danielle, but you can still see I’m black.” The entire article has the air of the view of someone whose nose is pressed against the windowpane of “real” American life, forced to play a game which can never be won: “Assimilation is the greatest and most important waste of time any black person will ever engage in. Because it essentially means spending your life anticipating someone else’s prejudices, then trying to modify your behavior to prove you’re a special, different, extraordinary Negro….”
The Black Snob is accurate in her depiction of white people’s general inability to perceive black individuality outside of handy-dandy shortcut stereotypes, but I don’t think that the concept of “assimilation” is a relevant way to understand the challenges and paradoxes of “blackness” and black advancement in 21st century America. As we continue to struggle to gain access to meaningful and empowering education and political and economic power, we must also avoid internalizing racist, inaccurate, and disabling concepts of “blackness” as we seek to understand and combat the effects of racism.
For starters, let’s get rid of the assumption that to speak and dress professionally is to somehow be less black. As we emerge into adulthood, all of us realize that how we speak and comport ourselves depends upon the demands of the context. There’s no inherent conflict between being able to shriek, “That’s my JAM!” with your friends in the cafeteria and speaking grammatically correct English as you present a report to your boss. On the other hand, I believe that we need to combat messages from both within and outside our community that natural black hair is somehow unprofessional: professional hair is clean and neat. I’ll grant that someone might feel that she has to straighten her hair for a job interview, but if that’s the only reason she is straightening her hair, she should start a campaign to change the company culture as soon as she gets the job. On the other hand, if straightening her hair is the equivalent of putting on panty hose and heels when she usually wears pants, then the concession to the performance demands of job-hunting is not a high-stakes proposition.
The concept of cultural capital originated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and refers to the non-tangible assets that provide upward mobility in a particular society. Education scholars have long recognized that a lack of cultural capital in poor, non-white families in this country is a severe academic and later social handicap. It accounts for the fact that the achievement gap opens up before many children enter pre-school: poor children on average have heard millions fewer words than their middle-class peers by the time they enter kindergarten. Later along the educational path, low-income children who have little sense of the world and its opportunities beyond their own constrained and stressful neighborhoods are ill-prepared to take advantage of good college and university programs. They also have little sense of the realities of the black presence and contributions to American society, and so may not have the tools to advocate for themselves and their communities from a position of strength and dignity.
In my predominantly white community, I’ve too often seen both black and white efforts to limit all of our children’s access to cultural capital. For starters, African American history is seen as only relevant to African Americans. I once had a teacher from a Pueblo, Colorado, school tell me that her colleagues in the English Department didn’t think it appropriate to teach Frederick Douglass’s Narrative because they only had three African Americans in the school. On the other hand, a couple of years ago a white parent in Colorado Springs complained to the school district because her child was not allowed to go on a field trip to the local concert hall to see a show commemorating Martin Luther King’s birthday, while all of the African American children in the school were automatically excused and loaded onto busses to attend. Given this kind of thinking, then, perhaps I should not have been surprised that when I first attended a Pueblo Symphony concert a few years ago– the professor wife of the university president– that a white local businessman felt that he had to explain to me the basic composition of a symphony orchestra and start on a Classical Music 101 lobby lecture before a tactful intervention by my companion.
Cultural capital and cultural competency for 21st century Americans is not assimilating whiteness, though our history of white supremacist binary thinking may contribute to this habit of mind. A far more common lament I have heard from both black and white students in my college classes is that they have so little idea that African-descended people and their energy, ingenuity, and resistance have been, in W.E.B. DuBois’s words, part of the “warp and woof” of the United States since “before the Mayflower.” African American students don’t realize that, simply by virtue of being English speakers, that Shakespeare is part of their heritage as much as it is that of the middle-class Jewish kid from Shaker Heights. Pioneering black artists like Jacob Lawrence and Lois Maillou Jones were situating their work in artistic traditions that included Giotto as well as West African artists. It is dangerous to internalize the patently false and racist idea that blackness represents the outer limits of “otherness”~ the ultimate social and cultural “not-this”. If our children somehow get the message that there is white culture, and there is black culture, and that the two somehow cancel each other out, they are not going to be prepared for the complex cultural interpollinations that are occurring on both a national and global scale.
In our increasingly complex American society, which in these days of digital communities and mass media is not governed by one dominant code of appropriate behavior, all Americans must be able to read and, if it is consistent with their goals, adapt, to the rhetorics and codes of various social groups. We must all develop the skills associated with “code switching” as we compete for jobs, power, and self-determination in a world in which physical borders are becoming more and more permeable and irrelevant and micro-cultures aren’t necessarily consistently hierarchized. To worry about the myriad and multifaceted challenges of being black in what is still a white supremacist society in terms of either assimilating or remaining “black” is to doom yourself to sitting on the sidelines of a game that has moved on to other arenas.