Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Peril of Being Considered Exceptional

Photo with no relationship to the topic of this post. It's nice though isn't it?

Call it another kind of double consciousness, but a nagging question sits like a thorn in the minds of many Americans regardless of their race: Is it possible to be both black and exceptional? Whether in the occasional white embarrassment of acting just a little too shocked that a black American is "articulate" or the black "A" student being accused by his or her peers of "acting white", this basic question shows its face now and again. For many folks the answer is simply "no". For whites if a black person is exceptional they are "not really black" and for blacks if a black person is exceptional they are "not really black". I know these are generalizations, but if you think about it you've probably seen examples of this in your own life. I'll offer a few.

When I was ten, my school took a field trip to New York City to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As usual I was the only black kid on the bus. It didn't seem to be a problem though, we were all talking and laughing at this and that. But when the bus went through Harlem, something odd happened. The white kids all started talking about how many black people they saw through the window. They started to count them and make all kinds of derogatory comments. Looking through the window at the folks just minding their own business, I had the distinct impression that they were somehow on display for these kids. I also had the impression that these kids saw me as "different" than the people outside the bus.

When I was a teenager something similar occurred. I was on my way with some friends to a concert in Hartford. Once again I was the only black person in this group. We got lost and ended up in a neighborhood with lots of black people. The guys in the car started to get hysterical about being in an "unsafe" neighborhood. One of them muttered under his breath "scum of the earth". He said this as if I wasn't sitting right next to him in the car. I volunteered to get out of the car and ask for directions which got people even more hysterical. I compromised and waited until we saw some cops walking around and went and got directions from them. I never forgot that "scum of the earth" comment.

One summer I had the hilarious job of working at a shoe store (everyone should do this once in their life). A young woman I was working with started complaining about the black guy that her sister was dating. She then went on to explain to me how this guy was a nigger and how much she didn't like niggers (this is in the mid-90's by the way). She was nice enough to let me know that she did not consider me a nigger and described in detail her anthropology of who is a nigger and who is "just black". I listened to this with a mixture of amusement and resentment but held my tongue. She then topped off her lecture by saying "And you know, my sister has that butt they like."

And then there is the more subtle form of this phenomenon. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a basically mellow dude. When it comes to issues of social injustice however, my indignation burns bright and hot. Once I was at a Baha'i event and a white lady was talking with me. She was just glowing with praise for how wonderful I (allegedly) was. This was embarrassing but I heard it as an expression of her love for me. And then, she said it, "You know, you used to be so angry but you're not so angry anymore." Translation: Oh Phillipe, you're so much more domesticated now, not like those other angry black men.

The greatest peril of being considered exceptional in the way I've been describing is that you might actually start to believe it. You might actually start to believe the hype that you are somehow intrinsically superior to other black people. This is just as spiritually unhealthy as believing that you are inferior to white people.

"And among the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate. Those who have quaffed from the ocean of divine utterance and fixed their gaze upon the Realm of Glory should regard themselves as being on the same level as the others and in the same station. Were this matter to be definitely established and conclusively demonstrated through the power and might of God, the world would become as the Abha Paradise. Indeed, man is noble, inasmuch as each one is a repository of the sign of God. Nevertheless, to regard oneself as superior in knowledge, learning or virtue, or to exalt oneself or seek preference, is a grievous transgression. Great is the blessedness of those who are adorned with the ornament of this unity and have been graciously confirmed by God." (Baha'u'llah)