Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Other One Drop Rule

First I have to say hooray, for having reached the milestone of the two year anniversary of Baha'i Thought as of today. Can you believe it? It seems that only yesterday I was making my first post in the first of several different designs of this blog. I hope you will join me in celebrating this modest achievement.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I've been thinking very hard for some time about a phenomenon I call the "other one drop rule". For those of you who are not familiar, the original one drop rule is a great American tradition springing from the pseudo-science of racial "bloodlines". Simply put, for a period of time as a matter of law and today as a matter of belief, a person with any African ancestry would be considered, "black" even if the ancestry represented a mere "drop". Interestingly enough the one drop rule does not work in the reverse. For example I cannot claim to be white even though I have more than a drop of European ancestry. I know it doesn't make sense when you think about it, but in my experience this idea is not questioned very deeply.

The other one drop rule works like this: If you are a black person and have even a drop of talent or capacity, you are treated as if you are extraordinary, especially by whites. You may have encountered this in your own journey as far as race goes. Perhaps it is someone in your workplace or school or faith community. People, usually white people make a tremendous fuss over the person and you find yourself thinking, "So and so is not all that. In fact they are pretty mediocre if not incompetent." You may wonder if it is right for you to be thinking this way, especially if the person in question is afflicted with the social disorder called "the only syndrome". For instance they may be the only black faculty member, or the only black administrator or the only black person who owns a business in your neighborhood etc. You get the feeling that there is something very wrong with the level of praise being given to this person, but you're not quite sure what bothers you about it. You might even feel a little sorry for the individual in question as it dawns upon you that they believe their own hype! I've had this experience several times in my life and chosen to hold my tongue, but wondered what this was all about. This is what I have concluded, the other one drop rule is at heart about the low expectations that both whites and blacks have of blacks. If a white person is mediocre, they are mediocre. If a black person is mediocre, they are extraordinary. It's sort of like when people praise someone about how wonderful their English is believing that it is a compliment. Translation: Most people like you don't speak English well. I'm sooooo amazed and relieved you are not one of those people. In the case of blacks, it goes like this: Most black people are incompetent, immoral and stupid. I'm soooo amazed and pleased to know that you're not like that! The irony about how the other one drop rule operates is that the black person in question may very well be incompetent, immoral or stupid (not because they are black but simply because they are human), but relatively speaking they are considered less so than other black people so they must be "special". The attitude represented by this kind of thinking is breathtakingly patronizing and I believe that it is the 21st century version of what Shoghi Effendi was talking about in the Advent of Divine Justice:

"Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds."
(Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 526)

One of the things that I love about the Baha'i Faith as a black American is that it holds the highest expectations for me, the same expectations that are held for every human being. My experiences of "grievous and slow-healing wounds" do not earn me lowered expectations or exaggeration of my capacities. How refreshing, in a society that confuses low expectations with love and mediocrity with magnificence. I'll close with a quote I often refer to, but I find healing and empowering whenever I read it. It is an excellent antidote to the poison of the other one drop rule:

"As we neither feel nor acknowledge any distinction between the duties and privileges of a Bahá'í, whoever he may be, it is incumbent upon the negro believers to rise above this great test which the attitude of some of their white brethren may present. They must prove their innate equality not by words but by deeds. They must accept the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh for the sake of the Cause, love it, and cling to it, and teach it, and fight for it as their own Cause, forgetful of the shortcoming of others. Any other attitude is unworthy of their faith. Proud and happy in the praises which even Bahá'u'lláh Himself has bestowed upon them, they must feel He revealed Himself for them and every other down-trodden race, loves them, and will help them to attain their destiny.
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, February 9, 1942)