I don’t know when exactly Raven-Symoné taped her now-infamous episode of Oprah’s Where Are They Now (according to Instagram, it was about two months ago,) but when it aired, there had been 58 days since 18-year-old Mike Brown’s life had been brought to a tragic end on a tree-lined street in Ferguson, Missouri. For those 58 days, his killer has remained free on paid administrative leave in an unknown location. And there had been 58 days of resistance from the people of St. Louis and concerned citizens across the country and the world. For that reason, among many, many others, it should come as no surprise that the former child star’s comments about her identity garnered exactly the reaction that Mother Oprah warned her they would and “set Twitter on fire.”
Most of Black folks us in the real world, detached from the detachment afforded to celebrities and the trappings of wealth, are less enthused than ever at the idea being “post-racial”/”new Black”/”colorless”—especially those of us who are consistently tuned into things like the killing of Brown, cycles of mass incarceration, school closings, racial profiling and other indignities which cannot be avoided by simply saying “I’m an American!” Who but a millionaire could afford to put their blinders on at a time like this? (And by “a time like this,” I mean “every moment from when the first enslaved African arrived on these shores to the current day.”)
I’ve yet to hear anyone suggest that the artist formerly known as Olivia Kendall must self-identify as “African-American,” but that she has rejected it on the premise that she simply doesn’t know where her African ancestry lies (when she, more than the average descendent of enslaved Africans has the ability to make a great run at answering that question) AND instead decides to talk about being “colorless” is problematic. Why “colorless” and not “colorful?” And calling her skin “darker”… darker than what? A White person? And as I tweeted yesterday, the term “grade of hair” can never lead us to anywhere good.
What bothered me most is the word that Raven never uttered in the first person, at least not in the edited version of the interview that aired: Black. She never talked about being a Black woman, or a Black person. She said her skin was “darker,” her hair was “nice” and that she connects to people of all races. But where was that pride, that sense of race consciousness that says “My Black is beautiful, good, enough.” Why the need to wash it away with “colorless?”
It seems fair to assume that “post racial,” “new Black” and “colorless” are imaginary islands to which people go in search of protection from the pain, the suffering, the indignities and the limitations that are readily associated with Black life in America. But, as a wise woman once said, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.” It isn’t identifying publicly as people of color that is holding us back. And the gains that we have made in terms of chipping away at racial inequality didn’t come from washing away our Blackness, but from owning it and demanding that our humanity be acknowledged.
(Aside: I don’t know if Raven-Symoné routinely turns down work, but I know that it seems curious that an actress of her considerable gifts should be a Hollywood A-list box-office staple. I can name 10 less compelling White women who have gotten roles that she would have turned OUT. Casting isn’t colorless yet, no?)
The racism that stifles generations of Black people, that leaves a Mike Brown bleeding in the middle of the street for over four hours, has become easier to ignore if you focus only on the brighter spots: The Cosby Show, the Obama presidency, those moments that make it look like if you really try hard enough, you, too can have everything that anyone else has. And, perhaps, sanity in a world of racial madness for some comes by keeping a thick, plush wool over their eyes to protect them from what they already know deep down inside: they are Black and they are always going to be Black and one day, that Black thing may catch up with them in a really terrible way.
We need someone like Raven to feel not weighed down by her Blackness, but to bask in its buoyancy. To say “I’m Black AND I’m American!” To know that she deserves the rights afforded to the latter, but acknowledge the challenges of the former. Most of us will never have the ability to sit with Oprah and talk about identity—imagine what a moment that would have been if she revealed that this gorgeous, wealthy Disney star, too, was connected to a struggle that isn’t so easily observed from the streets of Beverly Hills. That she was well aware and infuriated by the abuse that Black (and queer!) people encounter day in and day out, and that she had the courage to acknowledge it.
Post-race, New Black, colorblind attitudes are dangerous, especially when publicly declared by those who have any modicum of influence over impressionable young people (and full-grown White folks who are simply looking for any excuse to deny the obviousness of racism.) Rich or poor, none of us should have the luxury of ignoring race. Race isn’t a bad thing, racism is. And we can’t adequately address it if we are too busy hiding from labels and boxes and reality.
So to my beautiful, flower-child, rainbow-haired sister, I say this: WE NEED YOU RIGHT NOW, RAVEN-SYMONÉ. WE, THE BLACKS, NEED YOU ON THE TEAM, FULLY COMMITTED AND WITHOUT RESERVATIONS. We need you to use your enviable platform and resources to speak truth to power, to say names like Mike Brown, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Trayvon Martin and John Crawford. In the era of cultural appropriation and the criminalization of Black bodies, we don’t have time to go to Fantasy Island in order to escape our color. We need you to love it, own it and defend it. For a celebrity, that doesn’t mean joining the New Black Panther Party, but perhaps simply signing up for the Jesse Williams School of Thought.
Say it loud and proud, Raven. We’ll have your back when you do, I promise.
Jamilah Lemieux, proud Old Black, is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own.