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.