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October 17, 2014

Why Raven-Symoné’s Label Rejection Isn’t a Sign of Progress

Much has been made of actress Raven-Symoné’s recent comments to Oprah about her identity. In an interview initiated by her public coming out in a tweet grateful for the U.S. Supreme Court’s support of same sex marriage, she said that while she is in a relationship with a woman, she doesn’t claim a gay identity: “I don’t want to be labeled gay. I’m a human that loves humans.”

What got more attention were her statements about race: “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American, I’m not an African American. I don’t know how far back my roots go … what country in Africa I’m from. I do know I’m from Louisiana. I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person, ‘cause we’re all people, I have lots of things running through my veins.”

Oprah with her customary aplomb doesn’t rebuke Raven, but implies she’s going to be criticized for such statements.  “You are a melting pot in one body,” Oprah observes.  “Aren’t we all?” Raven asks. “Isn’t that what America’s supposed to be?”  Oprah responds “That’s what it’s supposed to be, for sure.”

Exactly.

On the surface, Raven’s comments sound like evidence that the Obama-age post-racial society that many of us yearn for is finally here.  But to Oprah’s point they obscure what is, and are therefore dangerously naïve, superficial and deceptive when it comes to the real and unresolved issues of race and identity in the USA.

I’m a staunch believer that every individual has the right to identify themselves and claim any identity label they please free of the judgment, criticism, or approval of others.  In that respect I applaud and admire Raven. And I also believe, based on my observations, that choosing particular language to name one’s identity impacts a larger community and has real consequences beyond the namer, especially when that person is a public figure.  We don’t live in a vacuum, and none of us is the product of a vacuum absent of history or context.  Our personal choices have public impacts which occur regardless of our intent, desire, or belief that our choices don’t – or shouldn’t – affect others.

Others more fit than me to comment on Blackness in the USA have already written about the impact of Raven’s comments on the African American community.  What I want to highlight is how Raven’s statements actually reinforce and perpetuate the problem she seems to want to avoid or change.

Acting as if something exists when it doesn’t is a powerful way to make visions and dreams come true.  Acting as if race doesn’t exist, identity labels don’t matter, and a USian of obviously African descent is nothing more than human and an American impedes progress because it denies the facts, supported by the latest research:

  • Human beings are a category-and meaning-making species. It’s what our brains do.
  • Human beings need language to think, communicate and make sense of the world. Language orders our reality and informs our interpretation of sensory data that come to us from the outside world.
  • Human beings categorize other human beings unconsciously by race in .2 seconds, carry vast unconscious databases of assumptions about groups of people, and often behave in automatic ways driven by these unconscious databases that can contradict our conscious intentions and values.
  • People of color, particularly those of African descent, and LGBT people are among the groups whose members have been dehumanized and mistreated for hundreds of years based solely on their group membership. This history, which is ongoing, is part of our collective and individual unconscious databases.

Given these facts, for Raven to say, “I’m proud to be who I am and what I am … I don’t need language for it, I don’t need a categorizing statement for it”, and then identify —emphatically – categorizing statements for herself calls out that she does need this language, and wants to have control over what that language is since the default language disadvantages or diminishes her.  The fact that Raven wants to go on record about her identity is evidence that this identity affects her life in material ways, and that to claim certain labels is to also claim their real, negative in this case, consequences.  When was the last time you heard a White person assert their Americanness or colorlessness the way Raven does? When was the last time you heard a straight person emphasize that they think of themselves as just loving humans, and not as straight?

To say “I’m not African American, I’m human” implies that there are only two choices, and one must choose.  It implies that African Americans aren’t human.  To say “I’m not gay, I’m human” is to reinforce the notion that one is either gay, or human.  One can’t be both.  Such binary thinking is limiting and reads right from old scripts that keep us stuck in false “either-or” dualities.

I don’t know Raven-Symoné.  I don’t know her intentions, her heart, nor what is’t like to go through life as Black and LGBT.  What I wish for her is that one day she can claim both her Africanness and her Americanness, both her lesbianess and her full humanity, all of her roots and multiple identities. I want her to claim “both-and”.  I want her to celebrate her colorfulness, not colorlessness.  I want more of us to commit to creating a world where it’s safe and advantageous to do so.

Maybe she just wants to be Raven.  But just like her actions, who Raven is – like it or not – didn’t come to be outside of our collective experience colored (pun intended) by hundreds of years of past history and the current day-to-day experience of millions of people of color.  Americans are not colorless.  People are not colorless.  People do see color.  Colorblindness is neither current reality, nor possible, nor a path to full inclusion and humanity for everyone.

For a person of color to reject any labels beyond their humanity makes it too easy for us White people. It lets us off the hook in a way that impedes meaningful progress.  It fulfills our dream that the “race problem” will eventually go away by itself or that people of color will finally get over it.  It makes us believe a lie that the work is over and race is a moot point.

I wish it were a moot point.  But it’s not.  And until it is, to pretend it is is to perpetuate the problem.

Pointing out divisions doesn’t make one divisive, it makes one honest.  Calling out racial inequities doesn’t make one a race baiter, it helps clearly identify the problem so we can solve it. Divisions and inequities don’t spring into being just because they’re named.  Naming isn’t the problem – the problem is the not naming.  To not name, point out, or call out what is is to continue the status quo, to do what has already been tried, and to be a complicit accomplice in our country’s still unresolved and increasingly undiscussable heritage and current reality when it comes to race and identity.

So let us be mindful of what we language we use, claim our identities from a place of “both-and”, and stay focused on what is while maintaining a vision of what could be.

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