How does one define what it means to be black – and does it help anyone to try?
Acclaimed Baltimore author D. Watkins and Johns Hopkins School of Education assistant professor Wendy Osefo tackled these questions in an afternoon discussion on “blackness” in predominantly white realms. In an open discussion, the pair drew on their careers to explain why oftentimes, a well-intentioned attempt at boosting diversity or to appeal to a black audience may do more harm than good, and why it can be wrong to speak on behalf of other black Americans.
“I get really frustrated or offended when people ask me to define blackness…You’re not walking around saying, ‘define whiteness,'” said Watkins, a Salon editor, University of Baltimore faculty member and the author of the essay collection “The Beast Side: Living And Dying While Black in America” and the memoir “The Cook Up.”
Osefo said schools and businesses often try to compensate for low African-American representation by recruiting more black students or workers. To them, this may represent diversity, but Osefo said it only “means you’re just putting people into places…to say, ‘Yes, we can check off that box, we do have a black person here.’”
What’s better, she said, is to change the makeup of the board or faculty so that black people can help make those decisions. “It’s not about the individuals who you bring into that room, but it’s also about the individuals at the table who are getting to decide who to bring into that room,” she said.
Osefo said she’s been a member of otherwise all-white faculty committees that make choices affecting the student body. “I will be in the president’s board room making decisions about our students, and I will look to my left and right, and everybody looks the same except for me,” she said.
She recapped one recent discussion about private school vouchers in which an older, white, male colleague disagreed with a point of hers, and made a point to call her out in an email to colleagues – notably by citing a non-academic source, she said.
“At that time, if felt my blackness…was being challenged,” Osefo said.
Watkins considered how leading black figures sometimes attempt to speak on behalf of all black Americans. As an example, he used Ben Carson, the Hopkins neurosurgeon-turned-HUD secretary who recently took flack for comparing slaves to immigrants.
“He feels like he has the power to project what he thinks of blackness to all people,” he said. “It becomes a situation where all of our people aren’t being represented.”
Watkins said he wouldn’t be comfortable speaking on behalf of others, particularly by defining what it means to be black. After all, residents of a black community in Arkansas may very well feel differently than those who live in Baltimore.
“When we try to define blackness, we’re discrediting so many different people,” he said.
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