By Ernest Ezuego
In the summer of 2012, I became a mentor in a program called Sooner Upward Bound (SUB). An installation of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRiO program, SUB serves low-income students from the Oklahoma City area by providing them with resources that help make pursuing a higher education an achievable reality.
I went into that summer with one main goal: Do everything I can to show these kids their value where their schools had not. To that end, I encouraged my students to be open and honest concerning any doubts or fears they had about getting into college so that we could tackle them together. The majority of SUB students during the summer of 2012 were minorities, and naturally a lot of their doubts and fears were race-based. After a lot of talks about how to fit into the higher ed scene, one of my students asked a question that framed the remainder of our summer: “Mr. E, you had to learn how to talk white to fit in here, huh?”
“…Huh?” I responded, not really knowing what else to say.
“You know… full words and stuff, all properly, uppity… you know, white.”
I didn’t know where to begin. The question was an affront to my identity. I spent the majority of my life growing up in the lower-income neighborhoods of the Twin Cities, but my mom moved us to Allen, Texas (arguably best known as the city that wasted $60 million on a high school football stadium… and these) to give us the chance of a great public school education. So being accused of “talking white” aggravated insecurities over my identity.
But then I stopped to think. Why was I so upset about being accused of “talking white”? Was I mad because I saw it as an affront to my identity, or did it have more to do with the subtle assertion that a man couldn’t be both black and well-spoken? Furthermore, what was the source of that assertion? What gave the notion merit?
It has now been two years since my SUB kids challenged me to think deeper about the self-demoralization that is all too common in the black community, specifically among the youth. In those two years, I’ve developed something of a theory for the source of the “white is intelligent, black is ghetto” mentality, and why this mentality persists. This is my attempt to break it down.
Africa is a Continent, not a Country
If we’re going to try and tackle the source of the demoralization of black youth, we really have to make sure that we can get down with the basics, and this is the most basic basic of them all:
I’ve noticed that something very odd happens whenever someone comes upon the opportunity to talk about a place in Africa. Rarely is a specific city, region, or country mentioned by name. For some reason, there is an affinity for using the word “Africa” as a blanket term to generalize every aspect of this multifaceted, billion-person-strong landmass of 47 contiguous countries and six islands.
(Brilliant satire on how to write about Africa.)
This phenomenon can be found everywhere Africa is discussed, from journalism to pop culture. A quick glance at social media during what I’m convinced has somewhere, somehow been coined “mission trip season” will show you that Africa, more often than any specific country or region in Africa, is a common destination for service. Even corporate PR executives mess it up.
The act itself is more often than not an honest mistake or misconception, but the reality of its implications are much more severe.
The Danger of the Single Story
Even those who know and understand that Africa is not a country have a hard time seeing the continent as anything other the labels that it is too often prescribed: helpless, poverty-stricken, AIDS and malaria-infested, violence-plagued. I would argue that the West has a perception problem; we generalize Africa in a way that is demoralizing more often than it is positive, and the way we see Africans in America (important distinction) is often affected as a result.
This phenomenon is known widely as the “Single Story mentality,” and there are few people in the world that explain it better than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did in her talk at TEDGlobal 2009 (which I strongly suggest you watch before continuing).
In her talk, Adichie shares with us her epiphany that demonstrates just how “Single Story thought” can affect the way we talk to and even see others:
“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
The Miseducation of the Black Child
And you know what does little to nothing to combat the dangerous of a Single Story mentality when it comes to Africa? Our classrooms. Care to guess what is the first event in history discussing black people (African, African-American) en masse that most students learn about?
Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with Timbuktu being the center of learning from the 13th to 17th centuries or the rich histories of several African empires.
Here’s another hint: it’s slavery.
We are literally teaching our young black boys and girls that slavery is the first time they are significant enough to come into the broader picture of history.
I don’t have statistics or data concerning the impact of this charge, but I don’t need it. I have personal experiences to support my claim. I have the experiences of the many young black students I have mentored since I got into the game, and with those experiences, I can tell you this:
When little black boys and girls are taught that the history of their people began with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they are taught that their people have a history of being less than adequate. No amount of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” or “now we are equal” can change that. (I will admit that Civil Rights is a prominent topic in the teaching of history that does empower people to believe that they can take steps towards overcoming oppression, but fast forward to the world that we live in today, and most people will prove that the struggle is still not over.)
When black students learn that our founding fathers omitted the denunciation of slavery (not passed on or never discussed, but included and then took out for the sake of making agreement/ratification easier) in not one but two of the nation’s most influential, most celebrated governing documents, they are coerced into being proud of our country’s “commitment to liberty” that institutionalized the demoralization of colored people.
Something isn’t right, here.
(Further reading for another time: The Miseducation of the Negro: History is a Weapon by Carter G. Woodson)
Connecting the Dots
It’s important to note that this isn’t about assigning blame or making excuses. At the end of the day, there are many more factors that contribute to the epidemic of self-demoralization in black culture. Not unlike most problems we face, this, too, is multifaceted, and I understand that. But quite frankly, this is real. Negative self-association is real. And it deserves to get the pedestal treatment so that we may begin looking at ways to tackle its catalysts.
The truth is that the generalization of Africa hurts far more than it helps. When something bad happens (say, Sudanese conflict, or the LRA), generalization causes all of Africa to be painted with the same brush. The same thing happens when, for example, your friend (bless his/her heart) tells you that he/she is going on a mission trip to “Africa.” The implication–that they are going somewhere that needs their help–is extended over an entire continent, whether or not you realize it.
The generalization of Africa helps perpetuate a Single Story. It feeds the tendency we have to generalize for the sake of making things simpler. Unfortunately, it enables us to generalize Africans (and in some cases, even all black people) as if they have less and mean less. It persuades us to look at the statistics (e.g. disproportionately high incarceration rates, ghettoes created in the aftermath of housing discrimination, etc.) instead of the individual people and their stories. Worst of all, it reinforces what our education shows us: a disproportionately large history of the black community enduring failure, suffering, and struggle rather than progress.
All of this makes it easier to self-associate with being unintelligent, while seeing white people as generally better off and more intelligent. It advances the theory that we have to “talk white to fit in.” And when our youth believe that it’s okay, that it’s the norm to find being well-spoken or intelligent as extraordinary rather than average, the prophecy fulfills itself.
It’s up to all of us to pay attention to how we generalize people, cultures, and ideas. To recognize the danger of a Single Story for any group, and work from there to make sure that our communities don’t perpetuate anything that might make another person feel comfortable with being less than.
Ernest is a Political Science senior at The University of Oklahoma and the founder of Thirty Eight Minutes.