If a white professional were to announce that, whenever she speaks, she does so as a representative of all of white America, I imagine that—from New England to Appalachia, from the Jersey Shore to Palm Springs—we would hear the response that no one person can speak for all America’s 197 million white people. The arrogance and stupidity of such a claim would diminish the claimant’s civic and professional reputation.
So why, when a black person claims to speak for all black Americans, is it accepted with so little pushback?
The idea that a single person could speak for all black Americans made more sense fifty years ago, when civil rights were not yet equally distributed. But even then, black people were not a monolith. Malcolm X spoke for a very different segment of the black population than Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as King himself noted, socioeconomic distinctions within the black race made for significantly different views of the world. Political, religious and social diversity among black people has grown substantially since then, rendering the idea of any single black spokesperson nonsensical.
Yet, black cultural essentialism—the belief that a particular ideology, mode of speaking or set of values, beliefs and attitudes is authentically black—is still paramount today. It is so common that presidential candidate Joe Biden has expressed this essentialism openly on more than one occasion. We saw it in action when comedian Chelsea Handler let her friend 50 Cent know that he was not taking on the proper role of a black man by voting for Donald Trump. And Jessica Krug, the academic who passed for black to enhance her professional clout, knew what kind of behavior would best fool students, colleagues and publishers.
But black people who want racial justice are not a monolith and not all of them subscribe to Critical Race Theory. They do not all agree wholeheartedly with the tenets of Ibram Kendi or Ta-Nehesi Coates, and they do not all agree that white fragility is a driving force behind interracial interactions. Yet, if you believe many black leaders, black people are all the same. We are so identical that black can be put in front of anything: black Twitter, black academia black designers, etc. The individual black person has been all but eradicated from social justice narratives.
But is the black individual a necessary casualty of the current culture war? If one sees black essentialism as a powerful tool for bringing about racial justice, the answer is probably a resounding yes. Gayatri Spivak calls this the embrace of “strategic essentialism,” the deliberate projection of a characteristic for rhetorical purposes.
But I bristle at the thought that injury or victimhood is the most essential black characteristic, in line with the Critical Race Theory tenet that America is irredeemably racist and all whites complicit (at the very least) in racism. Ideally, any strategically essentialized image of black people could be revisited once justice had been achieved—but how can justice ever be achieved if white people in America and America itself are irredeemably racist? Critical Race Theory seems to guarantee the perpetual essentialized victimhood of black people.
The dangers of this were recently articulated by British MP Kemi Badenoch: “The logical conclusion of what they’re saying is that people in Africa who are not discriminated against on the basis of their race are not really black. It is associating being black with negativity, oppression and victimhood in an inescapable way. It’s creating a prison for black people.”
I see prominent anti-racist activists as the wardens of Badenoch’s metaphorical prison. People like Nicole Hannah-Jones, Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo insist that racism is baked into the American way of life, part of America’s DNA. If we are not careful, we may bake victimhood into what it means to be black.
Whether this kind of group essentialism concerns viewpoints, behaviors or dialects, it is inherently fallacious. Groups consist of individuals with differing ideas and goals. Ironically, even as we champion diversity in America, we all but erase it within the black community.
Thank you for this article. One thing jumped out in the first paragraph: Isn’t the way di Angelo presents white fragility a way of speaking for all white people? The idea of a single person speaking for all white people is probably a more recent phenomenon than certain intellectuals speaking for all Black people but, rather than progressing past a monolithic view of Blackness we’ve gone towards a monolithic view of whiteness.
I’m on board with anyone who does not wish to define themselves as a victim, or become pathologized as a result. All these various theories (of which CRT is a sibling) are the product of an educational evolution which produced serious numbers of graduates who imagined themselves as such, to be in line for careers in an industry they were prepared for. Which means that in the case of CRT in particular, there needs to be racism in order for them to have a job. It is the very thing that they have been trained to process. It follows that if racism ever went away, there would be no need of their services. Therefor racism needs to to a sustainable resource in perpetuity. Even the oil, ivory, and all the rare earth metals used to manufacture the tens of billions of devices that humans now clamor for globally – will… Read more »
The US legacy of racism is real and disastrous. But no one can operate on a victim and turn him into an actor. It can only come from within. But damn to hell anyone who says the R word–responsibility.
Black essentialism says that not only is victimhood the most important thing about black people, it is the only thing. The experience of racism is supposed to be so catastrophic that it totally defines them. But I have known a black man who grew up the only black (along with his mother and siblings) in a small town in central Illinois and as such experienced no racism at all. By this definition, he is not black because he was not shaped by racism. A successful black neighbor used to laugh about the clients he had to deal with who were racist (he viewed it as a personal failing on their part). Another black couple can talk comfortably about how bad it used to be but say they don’t feel racism today. Are they not black? And even for those who experienced racism and were affected, they can easily disagree about… Read more »
The elephant in this whole room, into which Erec injects a breath of clear air, is this: race essentialism is pure racism. Race essentialism says, “If you’re ‘black’– which can be decided for you by any Woke black viewer or listener– you must vote like this, think like that, do the following things, and avoid these others.” That’s absolute racism.
I recall Coleman Hughes’ having said much the same in his congressional testimony regarding reparations. He denied being a victim. Similarly, as a white person, I deny having been an oppressor by virtue of my skin color. I agree with this author that blacks are not being treated as individuals; neither are whites. Grouping ideologically based on skin pigment is silly. One only needs to look at the composition of the pro-Trump crowd in DC last Saturday. I saw many black and Latino faces there, who may have supported Trump for any number of reasons (abortion and gender identity/sexual orientation being two very big issues here). Skin color alone says nothing about an individual’s behavior or beliefs any more than gender does.
Good call. I’ve agreed with this statement for years. My simple term that explodes heads is ‘Black Diversity’. I learned it as part and parcel of fulfilling and subsequently disowning my own Talented Tenth mantle as a college leader in the 80s. There is no such thing as black unity, although many desire such a simplifying and reductive concept. Similarly there is no singular ‘black community’ or ‘black experience’. It’s all racial traffic and all ultimately destructive.