Confusion in the Come-on: Racial Assumptions in Random Places

confusion-newby Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

From the annoying “hey shorty” and vulgar comments about my pouty lips to the more polite “Good morning, beautiful,” catcalls are a nuisance. Much like stereotypes, even the so-called “positive” ones can be frustrating and equally as demeaning as they reduce one’s existence solely to the physical. In addition, they remind those on the receiving end of the comments or calls that they are there for the speaker’s visual—and in some extremes, physical— indulgence. Despite whatever clever or biting retort the receiver of the comments or calls may deliver, the person is still only reacting, not having delivered the initial blow that can have long term effects on one who is often subjected to engaging in such an unwarranted exchange of words.

Yet beyond catcalls and more public displays of adoration, there is the party approach. More intimate and certainly holding more potential, being approached at a party makes the stakes go up a bit. The possibility of seeing this person again or something real developing from a conversation, even if it just means a good friendship, is far more likely in this case than in an exchange with some stranger on the corner or someone ogling you on the train.

The negative side of this is that in the development that comes from this closer contact, there’s also more of a likelihood for things to get deeper in a way that is far less enjoyable. One of those uncomfortable topics for me is race.

I’ve written about this before— from being mistaken for other ethnic or racial groups to being mislabeled and forced to defend my own heritage both here and in other countries. In other words, it happens a lot. Questions like “What are you?” “Are you certain you’re not____?” and “Are you part______?” come up all the time, contingent on little phenotypic changes like my hair, my skin color, and facial features to even more superficial things like my makeup choices, my accessories, and my outfit. Going further, however, even things like my speech pattern, education level, and group of friends can contribute to the outside world’s determination of which ethnic/racial group(s) I belong for the day. As frustrating as this may be, it’s telling of something that extends far beyond a mistaken identity. It’s also a testament to the changing way we determine racial groupings in this country—particularly in ways we often attribute to other countries but rarely give thought to our having used in our own.

At a show/party I attended recently, someone used the ambiguous race topic as a segue into a compliment of sorts, if you want to call it that at all. After jokingly pointing out that I was the only black chick and one of the few black people at the party, noting that the exceptions were the bouncers and one of the performers, the person to whom I was speaking looked at me and said, “What? There is NO WAY you are all black! I mean, look at you.” And then went on to tell me how I pretty I was, not recognizing that following a comment on how I don’t look all black with a comment on my level of attractiveness was a little . . . poorly timed?

I often give people the benefit of the doubt, and I did in this case as well, recognizing that sometimes people don’t realize what they’re saying until after it has already come spewing from their mouths, now impossible to return to its rightful owner. I made my usual joke about being the end result of a long line of folks who fell under the category of “slavery era remix” (my nice way of hinting at plantation rape without all the historical baggage) in order to let my social suitor off the hook, knowing that if this didn’t happen ALL THE TIME I’d have been ill-prepared.

While there is certainly privilege that comes with looking a certain way and falling a certain place on the color spectrum between white and black, including but not limited to greater social acceptance, coming closer to the ideal standard of beauty, and even subsequent socio-economic benefits, these types of interactions make me wish that my place on race line were a little bit more defined in a visual sense. All the questions and classification guessing games get old. The reality is that despite being classified (and usually self-identifying) as black, many people of African descent living in the United States who possess lighter skin tones and features that veer closer to whiteness have historically been afforded greater opportunities and more of a chance at social mobility. This privilege has had its limits of course, but it does exist in ways we sometimes forget because we use “black” as such a blanket term, allowing for little statistical differentiation and thus analysis of the variance of opportunities between the subcategories among black Americans.

What also puzzles yet fascinates me is that the way people read my race is how much of a role class, education levels, and other signs of assimilation or association with whiteness, if you will, factor into my “not possibly being all black.” I wonder if my accent more easily offered to the listener my location of origin or fit into a stereotype of what black people supposedly all sounded like, would my race then be easier to determine (at least once I opened my mouth)? Or if I remained silent and dressed a certain way—less “hipster” and more “hood”— would I then all of a sudden gain more “black” points?

This issue has been drawn into the national forefront countless times with comments surrounding Obama’s success and its connection to his ability to string together potent sentences (wait, an articulate person of African descent, you say? GASP). Certainly, being well-spoken helps win an election, but so do many other factors, like personality (George W. Bush being a perfect example here—not well-spoken, but seemingly someone with whom you could go out for beers after work and catch a football game).  While such comments are overly simplistic and insulting, they point toward the greater issue of life opportunities and factors that have little to no relation to appearance lending themselves to an interpretation of one’s racial and/or ethnic background (many of those who hint that Obama’s success is assimilation-based are also quick to point out that his claim to “blackness” is empty as his mother is white).

We often attribute this social practice of whitening someone on the basis of his or her educational or class background, romantic partner, or occupation to nations that have long acknowledged their multiracial heritage (though with a clear preference for whiteness) for the sake of promoting national unity. The most notable examples considered in these discussions on racial classification beyond the United States deal with those that are closest—the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. However, this practice is one I have witnessed people in the United States utilizing more frequently in recent years, especially in their interactions with multiracial people and/or people who may identify as “monoracial” (for political purposes or otherwise) who do not necessarily fit the physical and personality-based stereotypes and expectations the observer may hold.

I find it to be a humorous phenomenon, particularly considering that where I grew up and within my family and many others, people who share an appearance similar to mine are rarely assumed to be far beyond whatever their monoracial category would be (in my case, black) simply because there is not enough racial and ethnic diversity in the area to assume anything otherwise. The human mind, in its attempt to categorize, to box, to create a neat space for a clear answer to its inquiries, is far simpler than it seems. People in the United States do not yet seem fully able to account for all those spaces of ambiguity without attempting to exoticize them. And on the opposite end, there is an equally limited ability to process information beyond the norm, the ready-made categories, even if said information may fit rightfully there (i.e. someone can identify as a member of one specific racial group while possessing a phenotype generally associated with another—an aspect of self-identification that seems to always be forgotten).

I wait in anticipation for a time when there is be adequate space for us to discuss the lines that are not so clearly drawn, the areas of identity that exist in boxes of dotted lines. Beyond discussion, I look forward to a societal realization that the racialized world in which we seem to be stuck—one that is constructed for us, by us, and that we accept and then go on to apply to others—is fabricated. Just as the guy from the party’s comment was rife with ignorance, then so too is our society’s relentless reliance on stereotypical physical traits and behavioral characteristics to pinpoint race. And as our population grows increasingly more diverse (and that diversity is to be accounted for in better ways during this year’s census), hopefully our society will learn to make more room for the otherness that doesn’t quite fit its expectations without accounting for it by way of racist assumptions on beauty, class, education levels, and other more superficial characteristics.