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To Be Black in America Today: The Labels We CarryBy Awa Jangha
As human beings we naturally categorize and label things in order to understand them. Young children in the process of learning language will learn that a ‘car’ has wheels and for a while anything with wheels is labeled a ‘car,’ whether it is a firetruck, bus, or bike. This is a natural part of learning and occurs until there is more specificity in language development. Unfortunately, as a society, we often get stuck in that stage of finding a label for someone and overgeneralizing that label or term to anyone that may be similar or look like the original term.
The uniqueness and complexity of the individual can get lost in the application of a label. Whether it is race, age, religion, sexual identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or mental health and well-being… our brains tend to label others in order to give language and understanding. Comments such as “She’s old,” “He’s a Muslim,” “She’s Mexican,” “He’s from the ghetto,” and “She’s trans” can all be used to explain away the identity of someone. To extend the metaphor a bit: It is our responsibility to deepen that understanding and go beyond certain types of people as being ‘cars’ in order to appreciate the different make and models that reflects the variety of vehicles that exist. That being said I would like to put this deepening into practice as I discuss my own identity as a Black person.
What does it mean to be Black?
I will admit that I wholeheartedly embrace this label. I love being Black (some might prefer the term African American). More specifically, I love the color of my skin and the resulting culture that has manifested from that reality. Yet, I have to be careful that what I say, what I do, and what I feel does not get portrayed as something that is automatically true and universal for every Black person. I do not speak for my entire race. There is no way that I can represent every Black person’s viewpoint or perspective. While being ‘Black’ can be like that metaphor of the ‘car,’ the other complexities that make up the multicultural make-up of a person create the more adequate language of specificity that honors the uniqueness of each person. Unfortunately, in America, most persons labeled ‘Black’ are treated the same way… as if we were all the same.
What does it mean to be Black in America?
Being Black in America has come with generational trauma as well as generational survival and thriving. I recognize that there have been hardships birthed from others’ prejudice against people with brown skin color. I also recognize that these hardships have formed a resilient mindset of people filled with creativity, faith, and determination. We are a people who have had to deal with oppression.
Whether someone was brought to the States as a slave or immigrated from the regions of the Caribbean or Central America, the label of ‘Black’ is often applied to all once one is on American soil and the treatment is usually the same: ranging from microaggressions, outright racism, mistrust, and intrigue, to cultural appropriation and modern segregation (or acceptance, but at a distance). Yet, within America there are so many different Black experiences, whether it is distinguished by religion, nationality, region, education, or access to opportunity. Personally speaking, my faith in God has been an anchor and source of light and life that has enabled the ability to survive in 2 worlds (that of main stream White America and that of Black America) as W.E.B. Dubois discussed in his book The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. My deep spirituality and faith in Jesus has allowed me to bear the injustices that have occurred in the past and that still occur today.
What does it mean to be Black in America Today?
Today’s American culture for the Black person, while not the same as the cruel days of slavery or the terrorizing days of Jim Crow, still contains the element of danger, oppression, and injustice. It also includes an openness to embrace, love, and treat Black people equally. This can appear confusing, as there has been both real and apparent progress made in race relations, in interracial relationships, and in the fields of education and work. From the exterior, this progress has been seemingly disrupted by disturbing racial incidences such as White Nationalist Rallies, the deaths of Black men and women, and the lack of conviction of those responsible for those deaths.
From the interior, while heartbreaking to have happen, it often is not surprising for many Black people because the insidious, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) prejudice is still a part of everyday life. One major difference in today’s time is that there is technology available that not only captures the violence that occurs, but also is something that can be easily and freely publicized. Videos taken on someone’s phone provide a sense of empowerment to document events that have historically been hushed, hidden, or denied. In addition, recent documentaries, television shows, and movies have been created that are not only entertaining, but are also highly educational as they pull in research and expertise from those involved in the thick of injustice.
Personally speaking, at times there can be an underlying fear of not just those who partake in explicit racism, but also a trepidation of the hidden others who commit microaggressions that reflect secretly held racist beliefs. On the other hand, I am also greatly encouraged by those who do not look like me, who stand with the cause of justice, equality, peace, and love (such as those who were counter-protestors in Charlottesville, VA in August of 2017). It warms my heart to engage with those who are willing to participate in social justice and shine a light on dark places. I am also super proud to be Black when I witness the richness of the talent, faith, intelligence, wisdom, and cultural giganticness that we, as Black people, offer and continue to expand upon. The diversity in the gifts that individual persons bring to the table, helps us as a society to move beyond generalized labels, and challenges each person to inspire others to embrace genuinely being themselves.
What does it mean to simply Be (more than just a label)?
If I were to simply be me, of course it would include my racial experience as a Black person, but my identity would also be richly deepened by the meaning that comes along with the other multicultural factors of who I am. As children of God, we are combinations of our genetics, our environment, and our spiritual experiences/blessings. This combination informs the decisions we make which further shape who we are and makes us unique. At the basic level, we are human beings who want the freedom to simply be ourselves: to be known, heard, loved, appreciated, gently challenged to grow, held accountable, celebrated, valued, and given the gift of opportunity to offer all those same things to others (to know, hear, see, love, appreciate, and gently challenge growth in others).
Questions for Further Reflection:
What does it mean to be you?
What forces or components have come together to create who you identify as in this day and time?
What labels have defined you? Which do you choose to accept or reject?
Dr. Awa Jangha is Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Seminary of the Southwest. She earned a PhD from Loyola University Maryland in Pastoral Counseling (a Counselor Education and Supervision program). Before moving to Austin, Dr. Jangha served in private practice in Washington DC, where she integrated art therapy with pastoral counseling. Her research interests include multicultural competency, counselor training and supervision, identity development, and arts based research.
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