Activism / Identity & Culture

No hood pass required: The politics of class among racial justice activists

“When you can claim higher education along with hip hop, that’s when people really get to hatin’!”

On a recent trip to Columbus I heard this phrase uttered by a young man walking alongside me in a rally. I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain how he has spent the past five years of his life, including his entire college career, engaged in some form of activism or another for the liberation of Black people. By liberation, he meant freedom from police brutality, economic exploitation, and racist school policies. He had organized and/or rallied for these causes consistently for the past five years. And yet, he lamented, people that he met regularly in the rougher parts of his native Cincinatti, including people he was attempting to help, along with his own friends and family members, would often ridicule him for “talking White” or being into really unimportant “White” stuff, like science. He told me that he has actually been accused of “turning his back on the ‘hood” because he graduated from college with honors, and this accusation came from a cousin on whose bail he had just spent his graduation money.

Wow.

The young man went on to tell me that his friends and family say he should just go back to how he used to be, when he was a teenager content to hang out at malls with his friends, listening to rap music on the radio and chasing the girls with the biggest booties. Somehow that would be more real. That would be more, you know, Black. As it stands, he has had his ‘hood pass reneged and, with well-paying job offer in hand, is bordering dangerously close to being labeled a sellout, lost forever to the world of Oreos and Uncle Toms. All this while he marches in 40 degree rains towards the state capitol building in order to protest housing laws that unfairly target low-income Black families.

Can I just say: WTF?

Suddenly I understand what the brother meant. When you, as a Black person, have developed the ability (as millions of us have) to navigate both the world of oppression and the world of privilege, it really strikes a hatin’ nerve in some people. Some White people, yes. But, more painfully for those of us who honestly love ourselves, a lot of Black people! It is an interesting class dynamic that exists in our community, whereby those with higher amounts of income, higher levels of education (which presumes, not always accurately, higher income), or more middle-class/suburban value systems, are deemed to be less down, less real, less Black.

And the saddest part is that it’s not just our friends and family that feel free to whip out that Identity Cop badge. Those of us who have spent any time as activists, organizers, or social change workers know that it is sometimes our fellow revolutionaries who are the quickest to play that po-po role. Because (like all activists) they tend to be passionate about their cause (whatever it may be) and in a position to lead others into social action, they can sometimes create a “with us or against us” dynamic that devalues and dishonors anything outside of their mission. And when that mission is racial justice, when that perspective is race consciousness, too often the dynamic that gets created is, ‘If you’re not working on this, in this way, at this time, you don’t really love Black people.’

And let’s be real: it goes further than that. In my experience, the message that really ends up being transmitted is ‘If you are not working with these kind of Black issues, these kind of Black people, and this kind of Black experience (most likely related to poverty, criminal justice, drug involvement, violence, or illness), well then you’re just not Black.’ 

Yes, our own close-minded, limited notions of what constitutes Black identity, Black life, and The Black American experience even shape our efforts to make other people let us out of the box. You can’t get any more ironic than that.

So why is it that Black Justice workers, those dedicated to challenging the structures and systems that restrict the full range of our lives, so often fall prey to these very same notions that 1. ) Black=poor, under-educated, unemployed, disenfranchised, suffering, victim, etc. and 2.) anything else=Not Really Black? Why is it that these activists are sometimes so judgmental towards causes that don’t fit with their notions of “what Black people really need?” Black psychologists call this internalized oppression, a phenomenon whereby subjugated people begin to adopt and apply to themselves the prejudices and discriminatory practices of their oppressors.

I can remember a fellow Black Justice activist scoffing when he learned that I wanted to attend college after high school. He asked me why I thought I needed to “go learn other stuff” and I responded that I still loved and planned to continue the organizing work I was doing; it was just that I was multidimensional. He rolled his eyes, “Well, I’m unidimensional, and I’m fine. Why you gotta go be multidimensional?”

Then as a psychology student researching Black identity, I was told again and again that my work was not really relevant to the community, that I should focus on something like domestic violence, drug addiction, or youth violence. Yeah, okay, those are important issues on a practical level. But remind me again why all Black people studying psychology should study only these issues? I think such sentiments say less about the value of my work (after all, even victims of violence and drug addiction  need to know who they are at some point in order to get out of their predicament) and more about the assumptions of what constitutes “Black” issues. In my mind, if you’re Black and you have an issue, that’s a Black issue. Case closed. (Yes, even Black people are allowed to have First World problems.)

Issues of racial disparity and injustice are obviously serious, urgent, and extremely important to address. No doubt. But they are not the only important issues that Black people deal with, nor are they a calling for every Black person that walks the Earth. Black rights, human rights, are an issue that we should all pay attention to. But the breadth of Black experience in this historical moment requires us to be broader than our basest problems, to grow beyond oppression even as we are still struggling against it. That does not mean that we abandon our efforts on basic issues such as housing, criminal justice reform, education, and other crucial causes. On the contrary, we must continue fighting for these until we’ve created a truly equitable society. I’m not naive on this point, which is why I’ve spent a lot of effort advocating and fighting for the basic needs of Black people. However, we must also acknowledge that many Black people have their basic needs already met. They’re facing a whole different level of dilemmas, and they need help on those too.

When our own social change leaders police our Blackness, and (by extension) the type of work that we view as supporting that Blackness, they play into the hands of those who would have us all facing west as the sun rises in the east. There are some things we need to do, not just as Black people but as humans, that have nothing to do with our oppression. It is hard to address issues of meaning and purpose when you’ve got The Man on your neck, I know. That’s why activism and sociopolitical engagement is, and will always be, necessary for Black people. We cannot sleep on that, because we cannot sleep on our responsibility to our brothers and sisters whose very existence is constantly under threat. Our people are still more likely than Whites to end up poorly educated, incarcerated, unemployed, and prematurely dead in this society, and that’s real. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t all (at some level) serve as targets for oppressive forces in society. The System exists.

But we also can’t sleep on our growth, on our full development as individuals, on our collective blossoming into something bigger and better and broader than our problems. Meeting Black people “where they are” means acknowledging a wide range. Black people in this country span the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy, and if we are to serve Black people then we must honor that truth.

That young man in Columbus had outgrown his ‘hood box and was stepping into a bigger self. He still loved hip hop, still liked the mall, and definitely still liked girls with the biggest booties. But he also liked electronica, and science, and an occasional foreign film like the ones he had watched in his Humanities class. And he loved Black people. That’s why he was there, braving 40 degree rains while his oh-so-real cousin sat on his living room couch back in Cincinatti playing PlayStation. Keepin’ it real?

We’ve got to stop doing this to ourselves. You don’t need a ‘hood pass to help Black people, you just have to love Black people. And if you’re from the ‘burbs or the ‘hood, great. If you went to college after high school, or to prison, great. If you read The Wall Street Journal or barely read at all, great. And if you want to help build clinics in Black communities or help Black housewives feel better about their hips; help crack dealers, help college students, or help crack-dealing college students, that’s all freakin’ great. Help “the least of these,” help the most of these, help whoever the hell you can. Because really, it’s hard enough being Black without being told how to do it, how to help other people do it, and exactly how to walk that fine line between higher education and hip hop.

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One thought on “No hood pass required: The politics of class among racial justice activists

  1. As I know this wasn’t written for me, it is powerful. You have a strong voice. I really appreciate this paragraph:

    And the saddest part is that it’s not just our friends and family that feel free to whip out that Identity Cop badge. Those of us who have spent any time as activists, organizers, or social change workers know that it is sometimes our fellow revolutionaries who are the quickest to play that po-po role. Because (like all activists) they tend to be passionate about their cause (whatever it may be) and in a position to lead others into social action, they can sometimes create a “with us or against us” dynamic that devalues and dishonors anything outside of their mission. And when that mission is racial justice, when that perspective is race consciousness, too often the dynamic that gets created is, ‘If you’re not working on this, in this way, at this time, you don’t really love black people’

    As I can relate to this paragraph a lot. I very much agree with you. With the small amount of activism I have had involvement with, this has been revealed greatly.

    Also remember that, being uneducated/unable to read or write is a criteria for poverty or being impoverished. That is why many people in 3rd world countries go to great lengths to get it. Higher education is a means out even if it is a small means. But because of the history of our eurocentric country the educational system lacks to serve and teach the majority of it’s population (by that I mean the mixed children and children of color). And the education which is received does not come without compromise.

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