Raven Symone’s attempt to clarify her comments about race get murkier and murkier. Recently, Raven appeared on “E” to set the record straight about her racial politics and identity. During the interview, Raven said, “I am from every continent in Africa except for one AND I’m from every continent in Europe except for one.” Really. This is what she said. Beyond the obvious error in her statement, what is exasperating about her comment is that it lacks the sophistication of even an elementary education. Raven Symone has the ability to access the best education in the world. And, unfortunately, it sounds like she hasn’t stepped a foot inside a real school, one that challenged her to think critically and thoughtfully articulate her point of view. So, in a way, what’s also upsetting is that it’s not only poor kids of color that are getting the short end of the educational stick; it’s also the wealthy ones. Ok, maybe Raven didn’t mean to say that she is from “every continent in Africa, except one.” Maybe, she meant to say “every country, except one.” Perhaps, Raven is hinting at the fact that human beings are “99.9 identical genetically.” And, I know that she thinks she is doing her part to add a refreshing voice in our current conversations about race in the United States. Unfortunately, her statements not only make her look foolish. And, more tragically, Raven’s statements reinforce rather than reject the ideologies that she is attempting to undo.
We all know that race is a social construct. In other words, our ideas of what connotes “black” and “white” are a product of social context. It is fluid. Race is subject to change depending on geography, social group, and culture. That is why a “black” person can be considered “white” if s/he has certain inflections in his/her speech and vice versa for a “white” person. It is also why in certain parts of Africa an African American person can be considered white. Race as a social construct is a historical truth. The concept has no basis in science. On the surface level, we are reacting to our features — skin color, hair texture, facial features, height and so on are a result of environmental factors. On a deeper level, it appears that we have abandoned our genetics. We are all Africans. Perhaps, in all her fumbling, Raven Symone is trying to get to this understanding
What’s fundamentally flawed with Raven’s assertion is that we are all one, but rather that asserting that is American and not African American will get us to a space of greater racial harmony. Raven asserts that she did not say she is “not black,” but rather that is not “African American.” The problem isn’t so much what she said, but where it appears she is coming from. What people are sensing is a need to erase, a need to fit in, a need to not acknowledge. Rather, it is the appearance of her desire to erase her “Africanness” while claiming her “Americaness” is what has people up in arms. It’s like, why can’t you be both Raven? We’re all African.
It appears that her desire to embrace her Americanness without acknowledgment of her Africanness is a slap in the face to what our African ancestors and their descendants have dealt with in this country. Her embrace lacks the nuance of a free thinker. It’s too absolute. It neglectful. And, hence we go back to the idea that her statement lacks true — and by true, I mean beyond theoretical understanding of African American history. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of US history knows that black people in America have had a tortured relationship with claiming their full American identity. US social, cultural, and economic mores created this dsyfunctional relationship. It’s hard to love someone, claim them into your full self, when at every turn your humanity is questioned. As a black person in the US, it’s hard to love this country with your whole heart, all the time. It’s hard to claim only your American identity when your obvious Africannes become the signifiers of ugliness, pathology, and just general wrongness. It is our Africanism, as Toni Morrison, calls them that makes America possible. People are giving Ms. Raven the side-eye because it appears that she does not get that. Raven may not have felt the harsh brutality of systemic racism. However, it’s her lack of solidarity with those who have that people are rejecting when she makes her claims about her identity. It’s all about where you are coming from.
Being black and African American do not have to be mutually exclusive. Saying you’re black is a political act of solidarity. The term connotse a certain understanding of history politics, identity, politics of identity, economics, culture and so on as it relates to people of African descent in the US and their relationship to whiteness, white America and white supremacy. The term “Black” is prideful, affirming political statement that came out of the Black Power Movement, Black Arts, and by further extension Negritude Movement etc. and extend to the hip hop movement. Think James Brown’s , “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” Brown’s song marked a pivotal moment in black identity, politics, and equally important the entertainment industry, Ms. Symone’s industry. Black became a way for US-born black people, who were just a few generations, removed from slavery and Jim Crow, to affirm their dignity, unique beauty, and accomplishment. When you say you’re black, it’s stating that you created an identity that is not based in subjugation. I want to believe that Raven wants to say that her blackness is rooted in global black consciousness movement. I want to believe this; yet, from what she says, it appears she nothing about these movements.
When you say that you are African American you are acknowledging a people’s long fight to 1) name themselves, and as the old people say, be called by their true-true names; 2) claiming your groups humanity, dignity, and rights of full citizenship granted to you by a power greater than any white person; and 3) you are grounded yourself in the commitment to make the US live up to its potential as a nation. Saying that your African American acknowledges that your “history did not begin on the boat ride over here” to reference Azalia Banks. Calling yourself an African American is simulatneously resistance and affirmation.
I don’t know what Raven is thinking. But, I suspect she too is trying to make some sort of political statement and wants to do away with race. Race will always exist. It will exist in the same way racism can exist without racist.
On a final note, I know that Raven believes she is some hippie, free thinker. But, she’s not. To be a free thinker, you must know where your thoughts are coming from, and honestly, to know where your thoughts are coming from, you have to have an elementary understanding of history and power. It’s worth being able to contextual your thoughts. Anyway, the first phase of becoming a free thinker is learning to unthink the propaganda, not just upsetting it.