Ordinarily, when I hear mention of Raven Symoné, the mere thought of her brings a warmly nostalgic smile to my face. I think of her precocious sass in those delightfully witty back-in-forth sparring sessions between Olivia Kendall and Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
I recall her role as Raven Baxter on the seminal That’s So Raven; a show that basically redefined how the Disney Channel creates, markets, and packages teen idols. Raven Symoné was one of the few child stars that gave us no controversy; no rumored tales of bad behavior or salacious drug use.
That’s why it pains me to watch her recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.
In it, she details that she does not wish to be defined as an African American… just an American. Such a declaration is particularly troubling, especially considering her part within the most iconic Black family on television. She also distances herself from this rather awesome tweet which seemingly revealed her sexual identity. I define myself as an African American woman and a Black feminist. I have yet to completely decipher my sexual orientation, but it can closely be identified as heterosexual. However, the labels I choose to describe my humanity are labels that I’ve considered for myself. I put the onus on others to consider their own. That’s why I’m not angry with Raven for disregarding her perceived African American and/or Black identity. Such an identity is fluid and interpretative.
But I have no qualms in sharing my discomfort over her refusal of Blackness, and embrace of allegedly colorblind distinguishers; a form of respectability politics that buttress the tragedy of Black denialism. Black denialism is an extension of respectability politics in that it conforms to the mainstream fiction of colorblindness. Colorblindness is a dangerous myth that, in the most extreme circumstance, enables institutionalized “race-neutral” legislation that disproportionately discriminates against people of color.
In her highly regarded, The New Jim Crow, legal scholar and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander details how seemingly race-neutral and colorblind policies translate to racist and prejudicial practices; practices which are undermined by preconceived racial stereotypes and reinforced by mega media.
Aside from the systematic end, culturally, colorblindness disallows for necessary racial context within “polite” conversation. We’ve all been in these situations; the hesitancy to overtly mention racial descriptors such as “Black” or “African American,” but the relative ease, if not enthusiasm, when mentioning covert racialized terms such as “ghetto,” “ratchet,” or “thug.”
Colorblindness has thoroughly entered into racial discourse, with some (if not, most) hailing it as a victory in post-Civil Rights fervor. But, because it’s a myth, colorblindness has done little but shield racism and prejudice from public awareness, and impede racial justice initiatives and actions. Suddenly, it’s no longer politically savvy or socially acceptable to be pro-Black. But it’s okay to be for drug reform, criminal justice reform, and economic equality.
When talking race relations, one must be exact in the terminology they use. This burden is especially heavy for Black and Brown authors, bloggers, journalists, and academics. While white commentators certainly receive backlash when pushing a pro-Black agenda, they’re relatively free to express their pro-Black politic to widespread praise from white audiences who view them as bold for daring to make such “drastic” proclamations.
Olivia Cole, a white blogger, details how her privilege gives her insurmountable leverage within the space. Black people are not afforded the same luxuries. While whites with pro-Black agendas are viewed as vanguards, Blacks with the same pro-Black politic face immense reprisals if appearing too radical, or too … Black. For example, in writing my blog posts, I edit and re-edit my words so they aren’t charged with “reverse racism” (another fiction.) I’m also mindful of how my writing comes across to potential employers or other socioeconomic stakeholders. I’m also careful about how my pro-Black politic coincides with my white relationships.
On most occasions, those we herald as pro-Black leaders are viewed within a historical scope; their pasts whitewashed to fit into those two darling paragraphs in that outdated American History textbook. Self-policing, when fervent and frequent, leads to Black denialism. Out of fear of retribution, or in an intense desire to appear mainstream and socially acceptable, some Blacks adopt the colorblind fiction to such an extreme that they deny their own existence. And such is the case here. To me, Raven’s Black denialism is a hollow substance; one that speaks to centuries of oppression that’s been redesigned into decades of fictional racial progress. White supremacy has coerced her (and other non-whites like her) into believing that acknowledging racial heritage is an insult to American values; when, in truth, it’s the fabric that not only defines such values, but validates the very essence of what it means to be an American. Arielle Newton, Editor-in-Chief. Get at me @BlackMusings. Get at us @BlkMillennials.