Black faces or Blackface?

Many thinking people of color have pondered the following circumstance: Being a minority, it is not often that you have members of your government who look like you. Usually, if/when one of your brethren is elected or appointed to public office, you feel a sense of pride. The question is, if that person does not have your best interest at heart, should you be proud of them?

The specific motivation for raising this question today is this story on Condoleezza Rice. She is not alone in being vulnerable, as many feel similarly about Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, and other prominent Black conservatives.

The goal of this discussion is not to argue whether or not these individuals have the “best interests” of Black people in this country. I would like to examine the merits of the notion that by simply being in prominent positions, these people are doing a service to the Black community.

On the surface, I agree that there is some nominal value in a Black person being in a visible position. The argument here is that the image alone is defeating stereotypes and opening doors for other Black people in the future to ascend beyond those heights. It may broaden the perspective of a young Black girl to see a Black woman serve as our nations chief diplomat. It may be inspirational for a Black boy to see a Black man on the Supreme Court bench. Black children can catch a glimpse of their possible future when they see Black professionals. Without these images, maybe children would see such things as unattainable. They would think that their only choice in life was to go the Hustle & Flow route. Seeing such things can give a person a lot more to look forward to.

However, this view is problematic because it does not take into account what it takes to transform possibility into reality. It’s one thing to see a Black professional, and a whole different thing to consistently interact with a Black professional as a child. It’s one thing to see a Black judge, but it’s a whole different thing to understand and observe how that judges decisions improve and protect your life and rights. I contend that there is little value in Black figureheads. They are no more than paintings on the wall: nice to look at, making absolutely difference.

Think about it. Why is it that we get pissed off whenever people speak of quotas? Two primary reasons. First, people see that the motivation for hiring/awarding contracts to/whatever-ing the “beneficiaries” of said quota is selfish and dishonest. Secondly, they realize that that selfish, dishonest motivation makes the act of hiring/awarding contracts to/whatever-ing MEANINGLESS!!!! That means that motivation and intentions must matter.

With that said, that is why it is important to be mindful of not only the motivations of the persons who are in these positions, but of the people who put them there as well. If the person in such a position has no motivation to at least care about or take into consideration the interests of his/her brethren, they might as well not be there claiming to be “trailblazing pioneers for their people.” Likewise, if the appointers of said position are doing so in sinister plots to divert attention from other actions and policies, I’d really rather they didn’t.

I’ll close by giving some examples. Please comment on the thoughts above and add to the list below.

Elected Officials
Black Face: Barack Obama
Blackface: Michael Steele

Media Moguls
Black Face: Oprah Winfrey
Blackface: Robert Johnson

Judges
Black Face: Thurgood Marshall
Blackface: Clarence Thomas

Rappers
Black Face: Talib Kweli
Blackface: Three 6 Mafia

Actors
Black Face: Don Cheadle
Blackface: Cuba Gooding, Jr.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

One response to “Black faces or Blackface?”

  1. Tone says :

    Wuddup G,

    I agree that having a person that looks like you in a position of authority and or status is not necessarily beneficial, case in point: plantation overseers.

    The problem is, however, that people don’t always agree on what is and isn’t beneficial. Sure, there are the easy ones like Ward Connerly and Uncle Ruckus, whom themselves don’t even purport to be driven by benefitting black people. But what about people who actually believe what they are doing is for the benefit of the cause for black folks?

    Booker T. Washington is one of the best examples of this. He firmly believed that his idealogy- famously at odds with W.E.B. Dubois’- was the answer to the “negro problem”. Depending on who you ask, opinions about him range from him being a sellout Uncle Tom to a visionary whose approach to the “negro problem” would have lead us toward black community with a better economic foundation. (There were even those in the 60’s that thought MLK was an Uncle Tom.)

    So, my point with all of this is this. When I don’t agree with the views and approaches of a prominent black person (which is often), I tend to (or try to) stop short of challenging that person’s blackness or calling into question how much he cares about the cause of his brethren.

    What’s to stop the other person from doing the same thing, and who is to decide who has the legitimate claim when they do?

    Looking at it further, the danger in doing that is that it forces black folks to think the same way and stifles lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is necessary for progress in that in provides self-criticism and innovation.

    -tone

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