Jesse Williams gave a thoughtful speech after receiving the BET Humanitarian Award about social justice and racial inequality, which was met by mostly applause from black people. However, many have been quick to point out that the actor/activist isn’t black, but biracial with a white mother and a black father.
While one could dismiss that claim as ignorant, especially considering the myriad of mixed-race and biracial individuals who self-identify as black (including, but not limited to Barack Obama — the Nation’s first black president — Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Frederick Douglas and many more), there are reasons why many make this distinction in an attempt to exclude black people who look like Jesse Williams. The politics of race and racial identity are such that they create divisions even among the disenfranchised. However, all of the disenfranchised are not treated the same. And that is what many are fighting to point out.
To get to the core of the issue, we need to highlight the fact that “black” and “white” are nothing more than social constructs with blurred lines, but being classified as one or the other does have major ramifications. Both classifications are also highly stratified. I highlighted that some time ago in this piece, which read:
“Whites” were originally Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). The definition of “White,” as a racial classification, has evolved to include “Whiter-skinned” minority groups who were historically discriminated against, barred from “Whiteness” and thus had little access to opportunity. Some examples: Italians and the Irish (who were frequently referred to as n***ers in the 1800’s), Jewish people and more recently Hispanic (George Zimmerman) and Armenian minority groups. Such evolutions, however, always exclude Blacks.
So a “white” Italian or a “white jew” is not socially ranked as high in whiteness as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, however both now reap the benefits of the classification. Historically, however, that was quite a different story. Many of these groups that have now come to be accepted as white were treated as black. Afterall, the Irish were called “niggers” upon their first arrival to american shores.
Similarly blackness is also stratified, primarily by proximity to whiteness genetically or socially. As we all know, this is how the birth of the terms “field nigger” and “house nigger” were born– distinctions of class among slaves, one group that worked in the homes of their white slave masters (often his offspring or mistress) and the latter group which was confined to the fields. This stratification bled into the history books of the Western black diaspora, where mixed-race, lighter-skinned black people were given more access than their non-mixed, darker-skinned counterparts. Whites actively put biracial individuals on a pedestal and afforded them more opportunities. And black people did the same, even amongst themselves, implementing a system of colorism that exist even to this day with #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin.
We all know this. None of this is new. So why the heck have we yet to reconcile this longstanding social issue?
Well, frankly, it is part of the fabric of the society, interwoven so intricately that it may simply be impossible to eradicate. Biracial/mixed-race individuals continue to reap the benefits of their genetic (and sometimes social) proximity to whiteness, even if they decry racism. While darker-skinned individuals are left with the short end of the stick and are rightfully indignant. And this is how the policing of access to blackness is birthed, especially when an individual is used as a spokesperson for an entire demographic by the white establishment.
It is an unsaid fact that a biracial (or lighter-skinned) individual pushed out of whiteness, will still be placed higher on the totem pole than other black people, especially in the black world. After all, the first black president is actually biracial. Biracial or lighter-skinned black women are overrepresented in media positions and in the music industry. This group is even overrepresented in black social activism– caught a glimpse of the Ebony Magazine’s 100th Anniversary cover?
So, with certainty, the need to police who is afforded access to blackness, especially to a “higher rung” of blackness is real. If it weren’t, nobody would have a problem with Rachel Dolezal pretending to be black and gaining entry to a high position in the NAACP, despite having absolutely no black ancestry or experience. Though Blackness is not a monolith, it is an experience, it is a circumstance. One shaped by facing harsh discrimination, a lack of access to basic necessities and constant psychological warfare. Those who have existed on the fringe of blackness (or were never even black at all in the first place) most certainly should not be used to represent others who are engulfed in it, and far too frequently, they are.
Some may believe that is the case in the example of Jesse Williams and his ascension to black social-activist media darling and they have every right to demand credentials. However, those same individuals should be open to reviewing those credentials carefully and considerately. A man from a working-class family of public high school teachers, a double major in African-American studies, teacher of African studies in Philadelphia’s, who sits on the board of the Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group and openly advocates for black women, it may actually be safe to consider that Williams has earned his place in the spotlight.