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Black Culture: No One-Size-Fits-All

Occasionally, I’m asked this question:

“What do Black people think about _________?”

Fill in the blank – with anything.

I won’t answer the question.

One obvious reason is that I’m not Black!  More importantly, the question presumes that all People of Color think alike!  I’ve come to view this presumption that all Black people think alike as another consequence of our segregation from Black people, and the racist notion that “they” operate more as an undifferentiated herd than as individuals.

I just listened to a talk show (Rochester residents will recognize “Connections” with Evan Dawson).  The immediate topic was a debate about the wisdom of a decision by Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren to impose a curfew (11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.).  This was prompted by a spate of shootings that had occurred in the City over the past week, a tragic phenomenon recently witnessed in a number of cities nationwide.

The panelists were four Black people*, all of whom are devoted to eradicating racism in all its forms.  They shared a passion and dedication for this work, and their debate was both lively and respectful.  AND it revealed the differences that exist within the Black community.  Here is a brief sampling of the main points for and against the imposition of a curfew, and about policing in general:

In opposition to the curfew:

  • This is sure to be enforced almost exclusively in so-called “hot spots” where poor Black and Brown people live. It is part of an inherently racist narrative, an anti-poor, anti-Black measure.
  • This is reminiscent of “sunset laws” used for years as an excuse to arrest Black people.
  • The police don’t come as peace officers; they bring tension vs. safety.
  • Fifteen years ago a curfew was tried in Rochester and the courts declared it illegal – an infringement on free speech and on the right to assemble.
  • If we criminalize the act of gathering, these people then become part of the criminal justice system, with a record that attaches to them and brands them.

In favor of the curfew:

  • Gun violence is a public health issue. Since 1980, 300,000 Black people have been killed by guns.
  • We must take extraordinary measures, at least temporarily, to slow this senseless killing.
  • Older Black people especially want the police. They look for them to keep a lid on the violence.  They’re tired of the shooting and sirens.  This is about saving Black lives.
  • The mayor is not trying to silence protestors.
  • We need the police – better trained and not racist – but we need the police.

While all agreed that underlying issues (poverty, mental and physical health issues, poor housing, etc.) need attention, the debate revealed sharp differences in strategies, expectations, experiences, and principles.

Here is another example of the sometimes stark differences in perspectives among Black people:

A group of us white people have organized a series of sessions designed primarily for white business leaders.  Exploring Racism Groups guide participants through a year-long process of study, discussion, and moving into action to dismantle racism in their spheres of influence.

Most often, when I’ve described this effort to Black folks, I’ve been met with thumbs-up affirmation:

  • “Yes!! That’s exactly what needs to happen!”
  • “You’ve leaned on us too often to do the work for you, to lead you through it!”
  • “Good!! It’s about time you stop asking us to open up all our pain and trauma so you can learn something.”
  • “You’ve expected us to do this educating for free!! You should at least pay us for educating you!!”

But occasionally, other Black people will give me just the opposite reaction:

  • “How can you possibly learn anything about race by pulling together a roomful of white people?”
  • “You’re just creating a white echo chamber!”
  • “You have absolutely no idea what you’re doing!”

I’ve also found that some Black people just might not react at all.  Some are poor listeners.  Some are skeptical.  Some laugh.  Some are indifferent.  Some are pre-occupied and inattentive.  The reactions are all over the map.  Like white folks.  Hmmm.

So my advice:  don’t presume unanimity.  Get past the notion that Black culture is monolithic, that there is a “Black” way of seeing things.

One possible exception:  research has shown one cultural trait that is prevalent in Black communities, and far more prominent than it is in white communites in general:

As Dr. Joy DeGruy’s research reveals, “Relationship is primary” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Personal connections are treasured.

So to ask a Black person to speak for their race is to give the message that you are seeing that person as one of a herd.  You’re looking beyond her/his/their individuality and lumping them into a racial category.  Understand the insult and dismissal and diminishment that’s inherent in that kind of inquiry. Take the time instead to get to know this person, this unique individual, this gift.

*Participants were:  Rev. Lewis Stewart (United Christian Leadership Ministry), Stanley Martin (Free the People), Iman Abid (NY Civil Liberties Union), and Kerry Coleman (United Christian Leadership Ministry.

 

Action:

This is time for action.  So many have found a new or renewed desire to become part of the solution to racial injustice.  We need to convert the desire to concrete action, since the desire itself accomplishes nothing.

Census 2020 is a critical opportunity for Black people to be counted.  So much Federal, State and local funding of important programs depends on the demographic data.  There is a push on within communities of color to boost the participation, to allay the fears that many may have about the implications of registering.  Here is one local effort that can be done from your home.  It involves easy texting (without revealing your phone number).   Or it can be done from your computer.  See this 30-second video.  And get volunteer sign-up info here.  (Thanks to Rebecca Johnson for that information!)

General Census information here.  Note that this cycle’s deadline is extended to October 31 due to COVID-19.

AND:

This election cycle will be significant for many reasons.  Two efforts are spearheaded by the local League of Women Voters to boost voter participation.  These are non-partisan efforts to ensure the right to vote (and combat voter suppression) and to increase voter registration.

Choose, and act.

6 thoughts on “Black Culture: No One-Size-Fits-All”

  1. Labels that describe all the people in a large group as the same are bad. Each of us needs to develop individual relationships that will help improve equity for all. Relationships and policy changes are critical to achieve equity.

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  2. This was really good.

    Is it a fair question to ask is, are there cultural differences between white and black Americans? That has been touched on a little. If one thinks or accepts or presumes cultural differences, does that mean one is racist?

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    1. Carol, consider this: the experience of being an American has been vastly different for these two races – from slavery to the present moment. How could there not be cultural differences. To NOT recognize cultural differences would be a denial of reality. To see the differences certainly does not merit being called racist. That label only comes with actions that bias white people over Black people. I would add that many who profess to not see any differences are very capable of racist actions – or silent complicity.

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  3. Frank, that you ended with action is a cut above! Much love and appreciation for the attention to the many ways in which Black Lives have expression. It is good to learn that White folk are putting in the work and while I’m torn, I land with those glad to be relieved of the responsibility for growth for the skin-priviledged though it may turn into an echo chamber.

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    1. Well thanks for the positives! We do have prework for each session that includes articles from Black writers and videos by Black folk. We don’t pretend to be experts, but send participants out to connect and learn and begin to act in their own spheres.

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