"If a white professional were to announce that, whenever she speaks, she does so as a representative of all of white America, I imagine that—from New England to Palm Springs—we would hear the response that no one person can speak for all America’s 197 million white people. The arrogance and stupidity of such a claim would diminish the claimant’s civic and professional reputation. So why, when a black person claims to speak for all black Americans, is it accepted with so little pushback?
Black cultural essentialism—the belief that a particular ideology, mode of speaking or set of values, beliefs and attitudes is authentically black—is widespread today. From 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah Jones arguing that “there is a difference between being politically black and being racially black” to Joe Biden claiming that if black Americans didn’t vote for him then they “ain’t black.” These beliefs insult the diversity within the black community.
Even 60 years ago Malcolm X spoke for a very different segment of the black population than Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as King himself noted, socioeconomic distinctions within Americans with African ancestry made for significantly different views of the world. Political, religious and social diversity among black people has grown substantially since then, rendering the idea of any single black spokesperson nonsensical. Just as many black people disagreed with X or King back then, today, many black people disagree with Nikole Hannah Jones, Ibram Kendi, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many black people do not subscribe to the principles of Critical Race Theory. Yet those of us considered “the wrong kinds of black people” for not accepting such principles are often treated worse than problematic whites by those who do.
Our refusal to toe their line is seen as a betrayal, and they often even dare to accuse us of internalized racism or “multicultural Whiteness”. Most “wrong” blacks expect pushback from black proponents of such views. However, I will never forget the incredulous look a white university president gave me when I told him that black people are diverse in thought, politics, aesthetics and so on.
As a black man, being called a white supremacist by white people caused a cognitive dissonance that induced both laughter and horror. The absurdity of the accusation is coupled with the historical taboo of being called “uppity,” a trope commonly heard in the Jim Crow South when a black person acted as an equal of whites. Ironically, the idea that whites know what is best for blacks is central to much of contemporary so-called “anti-racist” activism. Robin DiAngelo, the author of New York Times bestsellers “White Fragility” and “Nice
Racism,” has made a name for herself by presenting black people as powerless, fragile people without agency. Her popular reception suggests that many think it is okay for whites to perpetuate this narrow conception of blackness.
The attempt to erase and replace blacks who disagree with these positions should not be understood as a reality, but as a political tactic. The existence of independent thinkers like us present a threat to their narrative. Instead of engaging with our arguments on the merits, the very purpose of erasing and replacing is to forego engagement. And when a prominent figure in a social justice movement chooses to erase and replace a perceived foe, sympathetic audiences may be motivated to comply. But it’s impossible to be an ally to the black community without doing the work to understand the true range of opinions that reflects the actual reality of who we are. Ironically, even as we champion diversity in America, we all but erase it within the black community.
Black people are not a monolith. To assume that we are is the definition of prejudice; it is to flatten and stereotype us based on a falsehood. The most anti-racist thing you can do is to see us as the unique individuals that we are." - Erec Smith