What does it mean to be black? Pt 2

Posted: February 28, 2011 in culture, global, multiethnic, social justice, Uncategorized

In my last and final post during Black History Month I want to talk about blackness in terms of identification with the group. Paul Hiebert’s theory of centered sets and bounded sets has been used alot in mission circles to define how groups operate. In thinking about what it means to be black I think this paradigm is helpful. Being black is a very fluid thing. This is because the original culture was stolen and destroyed and the remnant of it was given to hybridization and improvisation. The one thing that did galvanize black America was the civil rights struggle. Now that segregation has been abolished black America has been lacking a strong identity. Hence the book Disintegration.
The author of this book describes differerent types of African Americans: the ultra rich and powerful, the middle class, the abandoned ghetto dwellers, and the new immigrants and biracial people. I think these descriptions are good but they are lacking in one specific ingredient: identity requires identification. To put it simply if you do not identify with it then it is not your identity. There are some people (especially the new immigrants and bi racials who do not identify as being African American, There are even some who are middle class and ultra rich who do not identify as African American. The folks who can’t seem to escape this identity are the ones in the abandoned ghetto. This is what we mostly see as black in the media.

So enter Paul Hiebert’s centered set and bounded set model. In the bounded set people are part of the group by doing certain things and jumping through certain hoops. There are clear and established boundaries that keep certain people “in” and certain people “out”. This is what people do on a daily basis with blackness. Skiing-that’s not black! Surfing-that ain’t black! River dancing-that’s definitely not black!
bounded set

I think we need to change the way we think about blackness. I think being an African American should be defined as an identification with the community which leads you toward the center. If you identify with being African American that is enough to be included as an African American. It is not about how you talk or walk or dress or what kind of food you eat but more about your identification with the African American community. There are many utlra rich African Americans who do not identify with the African American community. They may do so verbally but their actions do not. There are others of the new immigrants and biracials who do not even identify verbally. They will say I am a Nigerian American or Jamaican American. No matter what the cops and their racial profiling might say this is definitely not identification with being African American.
centered set

So that’s my proposal. That we define blackness by willingness to identify with blackness. Would love to hear your thoughts. Is this a good definition? What do you think?

  1. I think improv is one of the greatest assets and inheritances (to us all) of black american culture…!

    in terms of identity, i think an added element to it for Christians – whose primary identity is in Christ – is how identity shakes down vis-a-vis priorities. For instance, Derek Webb had a great song that called American Christians to essentially answer the question: “What is primary in your identity – being Christian or being American?” to which lots of people were offended. but it’s the geat question to have to address, right? so, here, assuming Christ as primary to identity, how does being black/african american make that significant in a healthy way in your life? in other words, how does it play out to have Christ living in the through you by His Spirit – and the “you” being African American cultural identity?

    • mayotron says:

      @Steven H-The question of What is primary in your identity is actually kind of a trick question? Due to political and cultural forces Christianity has been considered a white man’s religion and so it becomes loaded with certain connotations depending on the context it is asked? In Derek Webb’s context I think it is a great question. I think your second question is much more applicable to a non white context especially an African or African American one and I still am living out the answer….

  2. Marilyn says:

    This topic is so huge. I applaud your efforts to put it out there in manageable ways.

    This sentence caught my eye: ” To put it simply if you do not identify with it then it is not your identity. ” I understand what you mean (I think), but not sure I agree. Then again, maybe I completely agree. The older I get, the more I discover things are part of my identity that I have not identified with at all in the past. I simply failed to see it as part of my identity because I had chosen to walk a different path or had enough distance between me and it that it it did not seem to be something connected with me anymore. Maybe for my parents, yes. Or my grandparents, yes.

    I hesitate to give an example, mostly because I do not want to dilute a discussion on blackness by making an analogy with some other key identity factor.

    But I’m wondering. Just because someone is not choosing to identify with something, that may not negate the FACT of it being part of the person’s identity.

    Ramon! You always distract me from what I’m supposed to be writing about! Hahahaha. But it’s all good.

    • mayotron says:

      I’m glad I am distracting you. I think if a person negates their identity in regards to ethnicity then that is enough to say it is not part of their identity. My readings in anthropology regarding ethnicity speak on this and talk about how outside of physical features ethnicity is very arbritrary and determined by both the insiders and the outsiders. So if the insiders do not affirm it then the outsiders are still at a loss in “pinning them down” I’m still working through my thoughts on this and will probably bring this up in class tomorrow night.

      Thanks for the pushback!

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