Like many Americans, I am not a white person. And like many non-white Americans, I do remember the substance of Dante de Blasio’s campaign ad for his father’s mayoral campaign. I remember Dante de Blasio claiming his white father as his own. I remember Bill de Blasio claiming his Black children as his own (something generations of white political leaders in this country have avoided). I remember looking at Bill de Blasio differently once I knew that he opposed Stop and Frisk not just as a so-called progressive but also as one of millions of parents of Black sons who fear for the safety of their children from the police.
I remember these things vividly, and with complicated emotions, because I am not white, and because I am not Black, and because I have a white mother, and because we live in a country where the prohibition of miscegenation remained in a state constitution until the year 2000 and even then 40% of the voters in Alabama voted to keep the ban. I remember because these are complicated and emotional issues. I remember because I can’t forget.
What’s both astonishing and completely unsurprising about Bruce Handy’s Op-Ed in the New York Times, “My Afro, Myself,” is that he doesn’t remember the substance or context of Dante de Blasio’s ad. Indeed, one could fill a volume with all the things Handy had to not remember in order to write this essay. He doesn’t remember that before Angela Davis’s Afro was a way to sell t-shirts, it was a political statement — a way to strike fear into the hearts of white people who viewed Black liberation as terrorism or worse. He doesn’t remember Black is Beautiful or how such a statement could be revolutionary and liberatory. He doesn’t remember Sally Hemmings or Essie Mae Washington-Williams. He doesn’t remember that Barack Obama, whom he quotes as saying “My Afro was never that good,” also had a white parent, and has explored his complex relationship with his own blackness at length. He doesn’t remember Stop and Frisk. He doesn’t remember Jim Crow. He doesn’t remember slavery.
Handy’s absence of mind is explained but cannot be excused by the condition he admits in his first sentence: “Like many Americans, I’m a white person.” It is his whiteness that allowed him to appropriate one aspect of Black identity without taking on the burden of institutional racism and state violence. It is his whiteness that allows him to write with unearned authority about that one aspect; to profit professionally if not monetarily off the fame of a young Black man; to offer advice to that same young man. (It is likely Handy’s gender that allows him to perform this act of uber-whiteness in the august pages of the New York Times. White women who want to engage in this practice are more likely to find a platform at the MTV VMAs.)
An Afro is not a “hat or ivory-handled white stick or whatever affectation” one chooses. It is not a “protracted, inertial wallow in self-abnegation.” It is not a variation on Donald Trump’s comb-over. Handy’s confusion on this point is a symptom of the affliction of American whiteness. In exchange for power, in exchange for supremacy, white Americans have for generations surrendered their cultural identities in order to assimilate into the default “American” culture.
I understand and, to a certain extent, empathize with the sense of loss that the children of that whiteness feel when they look at other peoples’ culture and other peoples’ identities. It’s not difficult to see how that sense of absence can lead them to adopt or appropriate pieces of other people’s cultures as if they were an article of clothing or accessory. Without awareness of their own roots, they become cultural magpies if not outright colonists. Some even yearn not just to put on the accouterments of another race or ethnicity, but also the struggle (or at least what Gawker calls “that sweet, sweet moral superiority" of not having privilege.)
I do understand, but I that doesn’t mean I don’t wish you all would stop. Whiteness is a construct that has been used as a weapon against people of color for centuries. The fact that it also does harm to the very people who wield it should be motivation for white people to move away from whiteness, not by pretending to be parts of other peoples’ cultures, but by learning about and embracing their own. You have to surrender the power whiteness gives you and find your own culture at the same time. You have to do this with the same sense of urgency Forever 21 applies to capitalizing on Black culture. Seriously: do it now.
Bruce Handy admits that he wrote about his pouffy hair because “on some level I must still crave negative attention,” so here’s where I will give him some. Bruce, this essay is inexcusably stupid. You know nothing about the topic you’re writing about, and your concern that Dante de Blasio will become defined by his Afro is entirely misplaced. Dante de Blasio will always and forever be defined first and foremost as a Black man, no matter the length of his hair. If you must share your “epiphany” with others, perhaps you should direct it toward Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and other white men trying to make a buck off the appropriation of Black culture. Writing about art and literature performed or written exclusively by white people seems to be your thing anyway.
Julia Carrie Wong