This is a post about African Americans. I begin with a caveat: I am white, Canadian and mostly clueless in these matters. I proceed with caution. But I will not honor the prohibition now enforced in some circles, the one that says, you may not write about African Americans unless you are African American. This is wrong headed. It creates excluded status, when we want to end excluded status. And that’s just stupid, a political correctness that accomplishes the opposite of what it intends.
There is, I think, a contradiction in the world of some African Americans who have undergone career advancement, higher education, upward mobility. I am not talking about the notion that says successful African Americans must "share the wealth," "send the ladder back down," and otherwise serve as facilitators and leaders of the African American community. (It’s not wrong to suggest the virtue of these activities. It is just wrong to make them obligations. Certainly, most non African Americans would regard this sort of thing as an unreasonable tax, something that looks, as an obligation, a lot like a punishment for success.)
No, I am talking about a different problem. This is the one that happens when an African American ascends the ladder of career mobility and suddenly hits that "jet stream" where wealth, experience, education, and opportunity conspire to expand the definitional possibilites at hand. Once people hit this jet stream, they can cultivate a new set of identities. Now a certain experiential mobility and certain range of selves becomes possible. This is not to say that the African American communities do not have mobility and range within themselves. It is to say that participation in the mainstreams opens up new mobilities and range.
Mainstream cultures are sometimes unconfortable with this. For there has been an inclination to suppose that the American African community is attractive, interesting, compelling as a cultural presence, as a cultural innovator, because it is untouched by the fripperies and arbitrariness induced in mainstream communities by the post modernist moment. The African American world, the argument says, has an authenticity, a groundedness, a rootedness. It is, the argument goes, a community defined with special clarity by hardship, racism, privation, exclusion.
Yes, these are racist suppositions. Oddly, they are made by people who would be really uncomfortable with the idea that they are being racist. (The notion seems to be that it’s only racist when you are generalizing in a negative way for derogatory purposes. If you are being laudatory, well, then, by all means, feel free to let fly and make up anything you want.)
I think it goes like this. At the moment that some African Americans undertake upward mobility, they are, on the one side, seen by some to have "abandoned their community" and on the other by others to have forsaken their cultural identity. "That post modern mobility of the self, that’s not for an African American!" says the mainstream. After all, African Americans are more forged by history and suffering and racism. If they take up the multiple selves of the post modern world, well, they would cease to be African Americans (as we have constructed this out of liberal prejudice.)
In effect, by insisting on who can and cannot exercise the postmodernist liberty of self invention, we create a new kind of racism. Even as African Amreicans break into professional domains once denied them, a new exclusion is put in place. How very, very strange.
These reflections come from data collected for other purposes here in Chicago. I can’t identify the larger project and I won’t identity the respondent who was gracious enough to give me a glimpse of her experience. I hope I have captured something useful here.