Last week I was at an event celebrating National Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Los Angeles (I’m from Haiti). At one point, one of the evening’s performers, V.S. Russell, a lively and entertaining storyteller from Jamaica, encouraged guests to participate in a call and response. He entreated us to join in the fun with words to the effect of, “When I say this, you say that.” That was spoken in the patois of his native Jamaica, and was unintelligible to all but a bunch of people in the crowd, who shouted out the phrase. Laughs all around. And then he said, “And if you’re Caucasian, you can say it like this.This was spoken in English. No one made a peep. Honestly, who wants to be Caucasian?
It’s so unhip to be white! I am often loath to do it, but I occasionally have to remind my white friends that sorry, but, we can’t all be black. That’s just the way it is. I know you desperately want those cool moves down on the dance floor, but you’re stuck following your own unfortunate beat and looking like what one of my [white] friends calls a “noodle dancer.” I’m sorry. Not my fault. Take your lack of rhythm up with You Know Who up there in the sky. I know you want an afro and full lips (you can pay for those, but, warning: you may end up looking like a freak, instead of a black person); and who wouldn’t want Lester Holt‘s and Oprah Winfrey’s jobs? But let me remind you: just because black is beautiful doesn’t mean you’re not. Go write that down ten times in your journal.
Don’t tell my white husband I said this, but I think his greatest source of pride is, not his proficiency as a sculptor, furniture designer and photographer, but being christened an “honorary negro” by some of our black friends, and a “white dude, who may as well be Haitian” by some our Haitian homies. I see him puff up and try to repress a smile whenever someone speaks such words to him, and, what can I say? I understand! We’re so down with our bad selves. He was also very happy when someone told us the other day that, like many long-married couples, we’re beginning to look alike. I said, “Yes, he’s black now, and I’m white. My name is Rachel!” Sorry, Rachel. Just messin’ with you. As you say, you’re not really white.
In fact, this observation used to be lobbed at me a lot by white people. “You’re not really black!” That’s because I’m light-skinned. They meant it as a compliment, although they would never admit it. My favorite pronouncement was from a visiting Frenchie. Upon hearing me say something about being a black woman in America, he announced, “But, you’re not black.”
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I come from a black country,” I explained to the idiot. “Just go to Haiti and look around, and then come back and tell me what I’m not.”
“But you’re not black,” he insisted patiently, as if to a fool, who must be taught her own ethnicity.
“Ok, then. If I’m not black, what am I?” I demanded.
“You’re exotic,” He said. This too, is supposed to be a compliment.
“Oh! I didn’t know there was an ‘exotic’ race,” I said.
Clearly, you couldn’t be attractive and black.
But you know what? Nobody says that kind of thing anymore. Don’t tell all those black men being shot to death, but everybody wants to be black now. These are the kinds of conversation snippets you hear at parties nowadays: “I’m 1/16th Cherokee.” “I’ve always suspected he wasn’t wasn’t my real father. Look at my nose!” “I just had my DNA profile done, and, guess what? I have North African roots!” Let’s face it, being white is so passé that no one admits to it anymore (I totally get it, white males). Especially when you hear that by 2043, the United States will no longer be considered majority white. Gotta start blending in.
To my never-ending annoyance and eye-rolls, my husband, who is not racist, argues this “not really black” thing with me too. “Your great grandfather was white! Of course you’re not all black. My response? Who cares? I am black, period. Plus, I identify as black, not as mulatto, half and half, or anything in between. So, if we’re going to get technical about it, maybe I shouldn’t claim to be black; but since I identify as black, and I live in America, where one drop of black blood makes you black (ask Obama, he’ll tell you), I’m sticking to my story. I hear you, Rachel!
Oh, wait, the only problem with Rachel is she doesn’t even have that one drop. Unless she can prove her parents are not her real, biological parents, of course. What is wrong with people? Why hasn’t someone ponied up for her genetic profile? Such apathy in the world. This is important! So, forgive me, Rachel. Although I totally understand your identity appropriation, until that happens, we’re stuck with the way you looked before your tans and weave, and what your parents say. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t all be black. That’s just the way it is.