How I Learned to Be Black (Part II)

October 18th, 2011

(This is the second of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)
Lesson Two: On not being black

One day, in a land far, far away, I realized that I was not black.

The pivotal experience for me was a trip I took to Shanghai several years ago. I led an MBA class abroad and that was the occasion of my very first trip to Asia. On my first day there, I was walking down a busy street and seeing the many Chinese people of all walks of life along the way. Some were curious to see me, others polite, but most were indifferent. As I walked, I noticed myself becoming mildly uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I just felt uneasy and the feeling intensified with every step. At one point, I came to a crosswalk and on the other side of the street I saw a tall white man standing there. He looked to be about 35 years old, around 6 feet tall with straight brown hair and pale chalky complexion. As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, “Look, someone just like me!”

In that moment I laughed in delight. At no other time in my life had I instinctively identified with a white man like that. Just like me? That experience shifted the way I thought about myself as a black person. So strong and unyielding was my sense of myself as black that I could not have conceived of viewing myself like a white person. Don’t get me wrong. I can understand intellectually the commonality I have with white people. Truth be told, some of my best friends really are white and I love them deeply and profoundly. And in my younger days, I may have tried to fit into white environments by acting like a white person. But I have never been under the illusion that I was ever one of them. In China, though, I experienced this instant of being the same as that white stranger and it captivated me. It spurred me to ask the question of what if my existential certainty that I was black was not as steadfast as I had thought. Hell, I was in China for one day and I thought and felt (if only for an instant) like a white guy. And by the way, I have no idea if that guy was an American. He was just a Caucasian from somewhere. Who knows, maybe I was identifying with a German white guy.

Prior to this trip, I had lived a life in blackness. Like being a fish in water, it never occurred to me that there was life outside of my color. Intellectually, I guess I could imagine it, but why bother, when it ain’t ever gonna happen. I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and to different parts of the Americas and everywhere I was in the middle of a race/color story of some kind. As the backdrop, all of those places had black slavery in their cultural stories. In addition, my experience in each region had a color-coded flavor. In Europe, I was the exotic black American, beloved for my creativity and my insights on oppression. In Africa, I was cautiously engaged by black Africans. They saw me as similar in skin tone and in experience related to it, but very different by virtue of my national origin (which was usually far more problematic for most of those I talked with).

In the South America, remnants of color bias were apparent, too.
But in China, I felt racially irrelevant. I was unable to tell if anyone cared that I was black and they really didn’t seem to. And in that moment when I lost my mind on the street corner when I was so very surprised I had to laugh? That was true liberation.

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