Coffee Rhetoric: Colorless is the New Black: Does Wealth Misinform Black Celebs' Views on Race?

October 08, 2014

Colorless is the New Black: Does Wealth Misinform Black Celebs' Views on Race?


Recently actress Raven-Symoné caught up with Oprah during a segment of Where Are They Now? Where she talked about how she’s been spending the bulk of her time from under the scrutiny of pop-culture’s critical eye. 
Raven discussed the ways she’s been able to side-step the pitfalls of fame many other child stars succumb to, how excited she is to be enrolled in college, and reflected on the things that make her So Raven. But it was when the star started rambling about eschewing labels while addressing questions about her sexuality (and then, her racial identity), that the masses heard the sound of a record screeching to a halt. 

While Raven did concede that she’s in an “amazing, happy relationship” with a woman, she reiterated the need to maintain boundaries around her private life, while professing to be proud of who and what she is, and having come to grips with her sexuality at 12 – the age she noticed her attraction to girls and boys. Fair enough. 
When Oprah asked her how she framed the language to define her sexuality, Raven insisted that she didn’t need language to categorize her love life and that she doesn’t want to be labeled as gay. Again, fair enough. As a Black woman who identifies as heterosexual, it’s not my place to qualify someone else’s relationship, sexuality, or LGBTQ experience. I realize sexuality isn’t simply a gay or straight issue for many, that sexuality is fluid, and that no one is obligated to subscribe to heteronormative ideas of relationships and sex. So I’ll gladly defer to members of the LGBTQ community to parse Raven’s refusal to identify her sexuality.
However, for me, Raven’s clumsy statements about her racial identity, struck me as odd and misguided. 
In trying to drive home her point about not wanting to be labeled, Raven ranted that she’s an American – not an African-American – but an American, pointblank-and-the-period, and with a wry smile. 
Oprah, taken aback, shifted uncomfortably in her seat and offered Raven a chance to clarify her statements and even implored, ‘Girrl… you sure you want to do this? Stop. Girl, stop.’ 
But Raven – born of two visibly Black-American parents – persisted, 
“I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from [a conundrum for the majority of Black-Americans]. But I do know my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person; because we’re all people. I have lots of things running through my veins.”
Oprah warned her about impending backlash and, again, extended an opportunity to Raven to offer a bit more nuance to her statements, but she was emphatic,
“I don’t label myself. I’m an American. I have darker skin, I have a nice, interesting grade of hair, I connect with Caucasians, I connect with Black, I connect with Indian; I connect with each culture.”
Um, girl, OK…
As I mentioned once before, I’m not a gatekeeper to Blackness. But I'd be remiss if I didn't note how much effort Raven-Symoné seemed to exert drawing a line of demarcation that separates her self-described and preferred colorlessness from her American ‘Negro-ness’; which seems par for the course for affluent (New) Black-Americans (especially celebrities) who insulate themselves in a bizarre alternate world where institutional racism no longer exists, being 'colorless' is all it takes to stamp out anti-blackness, and being Black is a state of mind anybody can vicariously sheathe themselves in (with your faves' co-signage) like a costume, when they want to live footloose and fancy-free sans the burden. 
Even more interesting annoying, were some of the comments I read on my social media timelines from other Black folks, and unsolicited opinions from white people looking for any opportunity to cudgel Black people with colorblind propaganda, professing to know where Raven is coming from and offering equally awkward breakdowns of her comments, many which I considered to be more problematic than Raven's statements.
I relate to the opinions many Black-Americans forge about self-labeling as Black-American as opposed to being categorized as African-American, and there's nothing wrong with that. I, personally, self-identify as a Black-American; because I harbor no shame or complex about being descended from slaves. But, I'm not entirely clear on whether or not this was the crux of Raven’s point, because she seemed adamant about being a colorless American.
A comment on a friend’s Facebook timeline charged that Black people are “the only ones hung up on race.” And that myopic view was the impetus that prompted this 'think-piece' I said I wasn't going to write but, alas, here it is; because even cursory glances at the headlines (and history) indicate otherwise. Particularly since Black folks didn't create racial hierarchies or the system of white supremacy that propelled a colorless Raven to coo about the “nice, interesting” grade of hair growing out of her scalp. What's also glaringly obvious is that there’s a segment of upwardly mobile Black-Americans preoccupied with distancing themselves as far away from the Black experience as possible, to placate the white gaze. 
When one’s personhood is the default and one is descended from an institution that pedestals their humanity and ensures their safety and security above others', of course they’re afforded the privilege of being free from racial hang-ups and browbeating everyone else into a color-blind discourse to such a degree, Black folks feel compelled to create terms like "New Black" and flounder around in tone-deaf ideologies like colorlessness, even as tensions continue to stew over injustice in Ferguson and Black men, women and children fall victim to racially charged police brutality, income and education gaps and housing discrimination
Other non-black communities of color, and even first generation Black folks, are allowed the space and agency to be proud of their cultural identities, traditions and heritage while moving ahead with their careers and navigating their everyday lives. But Black-Americans are expected to forgo our identities (we're either Black or American), lest we come across as being divisive or monolithic. 
There's room to embrace Blackness, be American and stand out as an individual. Raven – who doesn't like labels but rose to fame performing for and hocking her merchandise to a predominantly young, Black audience – and celebrities of her ilk seem to have missed that memo, and fail to realize that the gilded cages with which wealth has enabled them to shut out the rest of the world, can be just as insidious as the imperialism that seems to inform their newfangled colorlessness.