How many black friends do you have, is a question a new U.S. “Late-Night” TV host, who is a female comedian says she frequently asks her guests, when the topic of racism comes up. I was watching an interview with her on the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
She said it was interesting that the “stock” answer, regardless of who the guests were, was 4 to 5. She interpreted that as a “middle-of-the-road”, non-controversial, non-thinking response, rather than any sort of truth.
It made me think about what my answer to the same question might be and, in an early morning discussion with my partner, I came up with an answer which somewhat surprised me.
My answer was, quite a few but, on reflection, none of them are American. The more I thought about that response, the more accurate, but more curious it was, since I live in the Western U.S. It prompted me to try and analyze my answer to that question.
I have to preface that analysis with a bit of history. I lived and worked in West and East Africa when I was much younger. I lived for many years in Puerto Rico and Colombia, and I have worked throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
One of the first results of my analysis was that the people I immediately thought of were, first and foremost, friends. Whether they were black, or not, was a question that was more difficult to answer than it at first appears. Certainly, many of my friends in the Caribbean were black but, in Puerto Rico and Colombia, drawing a line between black and white is impossible – there is an infinite variety of shades in all levels of society.
I remember, many years ago, when the “Black Power” movement arrived in Puerto Rico from the U.S. Mainland, and tried to establish a foothold and a chapter there. They were looked at with amazement, and not a little fear. What on earth were these people talking about? The Black Power proponents finally gave up their crusade and left the Island, pretty much never to return.
I think there might be a lesson here that merits discussion and thought.
If you think about it, the current atmosphere in the U.S. emphasizes and exacerbates the issue of black/white. When was the last time you heard the U.S. winner of an Olympic event, who happened to be black, just called an American winner? Political correctness demands that he, or she, be called a black American winner. Incidentally, you rarely hear any winner called a Polish American or, heaven forbid, an English American winner. Every time we emphasize the fact that an American winner is black, we make the situation worse, and more unequal. I think the same goes for many activities in the U.S.
Yes, the story of the U.S. has significant components of slavery, but so does most of the rest of the world. I’m not suggesting that it should be ignored. We must learn from it, and work towards equality and equal opportunity. Consistently referring to black and white only takes us backwards, not forwards. I understand the recognition need, but it is counter-productive.
I have to also say that many of the black leadership from the sixties and seventies have also exacerbated the problem by trying to create a counter-culture. The Jessie Jacksons and Al Sharptons, in their personal quests for fame and control, have widened the divide by their actions, whereas Martin Luther King and the older Andrew Young have attempted to close it.
Regardless, the U.S. is a nation of many different immigrant cultures fused together. There is no reason why the black population cannot be equally recognized, respected, celebrated. There are communities in Wisconsin and Michigan that only speak English when a stranger comes to town. They have not lost their heritage but they are not referred to as Swedish/Danish Americans. They are Americans.
In the case of the multitude of black communities, we just have to work on the real components that will bring about change and progress, such as equal education, and stop continuously emphasizing the divisive elements.
Am I naïve, yes. Am I right, perhaps. It is a controversial subject, to put it mildly, but honest discussion is the only way forward. How many black friends do you have might be a place to start.
I just know, from my analysis of the basic question posed by this blog, that there might be a reason for my qualification that none of them are Americans.
Maybe we have a lot more to learn from the societies of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Colombia and, in my experience, Sierra Leone and Kenya as well, where color is not the primary consideration when discussing friends. More on this later.