NPR logo Who Gets To Be Black? Honor The Struggle, But Don't Forget The Jokes

Who Gets To Be Black? Honor The Struggle, But Don't Forget The Jokes

The story of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has been living as a black woman, offers a 20-in-1 construction kit of ways to be offended. A popular one is the seemingly unimpeachable complaint that Dolezal hasn't paid her dues: She didn't grow up black, in a black family or a black neighborhood, so she got to sidestep the stressors and razor-thin margins for error that come with all that. The over-policing. The inferior schools. The lack of generational wealth. A cloud of skepticism and suspicion that tails you into the wider, whiter world.

If these are the costs of admittance to blackness and the attendant "cool" it's supposed to confer, the thinking goes, then Dolezal's been eating for free — she got everything but the burden.

That argument carries so much weight because we tend to think of The Struggle as an elemental feature of black life. And it's gotten increasing amounts of screen time in the past year and a half, when so much of the news about black lives has been about their tragic ends. But there's something really depressing and just plain unfair about the idea that one's blackness is rooted in disparately crappy life outcomes, or proximity to them. The Struggle isn't everything, but it sometimes becomes all we see.

That's what made this past Friday night such a relief. Thousands of people flocked to the Twitter hashtag #AskRachel to hilariously rib the idea that Dolezal was so successful in her racial subterfuge because she'd been insufficiently vetted. ("Nobody tried her potato salad tho?") They imagined what the #BlackLivesMatter version of the SATs might look like: "Which Frankie Beverly and Maze song is traditionally played at family cookouts?" "What was the best flavor of Now & Laters?" "Where did Mary J. Blige not want any hateration and/or holleration?"

Friday night became a nationwide #AskRachel marathon that spilled into the weekend, spawning over 300,000 tweets and dozens of "best-of" roundups around the Internet. Because of course #AskRachel exploded on Twitter, which has become singularly adept at this very kind of amplification — black people are overrepresented on Twitter, and among its heaviest users. Black Twitter helped make the issue of police violence a national story, and it made the stories of Renisha McBride, Michael Brown and Walter Scott national headlines instead of barely registered local news squibs. It made massive hits out of Scandal and Empire. It's the hair salon and the stoop and church revival and Spades tournament and community town hall meeting and book club, all at once.

And as #AskRachel snowballed, Rachel Dolezal herself became an afterthought amid all the jonesing. Beneath the snark and nostalgia, something else started happening. Lots of people started saying they found the conversation strangely comforting.

The jokes were an affirmation of shared identity. To be sure, this is a group identity whose core features, as the whole weird Dolezal affair reminds us, are not one-size-fits-all or easy to articulate. And yet here were all these strangers from all over the country reliving childhoods they didn't share, but also did. They bonded over a constellation of in-jokes. It was hilarious. It was cathartic. It was even kinda joyful.

And that feeling, that thing right there, is the part that's had to tap out during our many sober conversations about what it means to be black in America right now. And we shouldn't let it. It's what Paul Butler, a Georgetown professor, was getting at during a segment on NPR's Morning Edition about being a black man in a world that looks on black men with great suspicion:

One problem with conversations like this is it doesn't get across that I love being a black man," Butler said. "I feel connected, like when I see President Obama's swag, I get that as a black man. When I hear Jay Z's cool ... I kind absorb and relate as well. Sometime we don't talk about the joy of this identity, and how proud I am to be African-American and a man."

Of course, no one is saying we shouldn't have The Talk. But as I've written before, growing up black can feel like you're caught in a sticky pit of depressing statistics, trapped there by people with the best of intentions who're trying to fix you because they can't fix the rest of it. If you're going to go about defining blackness, then yes, The Struggle absolutely belongs somewhere in there, and probably pretty high up.

But it's also got to include going to the Candy Lady to buy a pickle and some Laffy Taffys on a summer day. Games of roughhouse after school till the sun went down and everyone's mom hollered for her kids to get in. Diligently watching Martin because you knew everyone would be quoting it in school the next day. It was sitting for hours — and hours and hours — while my sister got her hair braided at the hairdresser, except for those blessed days when Ms. Pat from around the corner came over to our house on her side hustle to do it. It's impromptu renditions of entire scenes from The Color Purple, the way arguments and trash-talking about Spades break out at the mere suggestion that perhaps folks should play spades, the way Stevie Wonder's cheesy "Happy Birthday" for Martin Luther King functions as the actual second movement of the "Happy Birthday" song: all this is blackness, too. It's not all of it — because nothing is all of it or can be all of it — although it's possible I may just be saying that because I somehow never learned how to play spades, my ongoing, secret shame.

It was nice to be able to sit in all of that for an evening, to spit-take and blast out tweets full of tear-streaked emojis and "DEAD. JUST DEAD" with thousands of others. This was the other part of the story we need to tell ourselves about ourselves. Sometimes it's important to remind ourselves that blackness isn't just a parade of calamities and disadvantage.

Sure, #AskRachel started out as jokes about a weird-ass story involving a white woman with floor-length dreads and a lot of bronzer, but it evolved into something more. In its own bizarro way, it was part of what Jelani Cobb calls "a community's quest to be recognized as human in a society that is only ambivalently willing to see it as such." We all deserve to live in a world where being human entails wrestling with The Struggle and all its implications, but also has room for losing your mind over Webbie and Boosie memes.

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