Black Enough: An American Rejection of Cornel West and Ben Carson's Racial Purity Tests

"Maybe you don't come here because you think you're too good for us, because you're too Americanized." Someone once hurled this accusation at me once when I attended a Pride party put on by a South Asian LGBT organization some years ago, and by "Americanized", they of course meant "white". The truth is that I didn't then - and I don't now - attend a lot of parties in general, and my attendance to south Asian LGBT gatherings was, and is, in fact, sparse.

That comment stuck with me. What that person was saying to me was, in essence, that I wasn't Indian enough. Despite being born in India and reading, writing and speaking my native language fluently (my suspicion is I speak, read and write my native language better than the person talking to me did theirs) and speaking another Indian language, I wasn't Indian enough because I didn't hang out with Indian people all the time. That despite being exceptionally well read in Indian epics, cultural history and politics, I couldn't really be considered Indian. That regardless of the Indian stereotypes I faced - both good (we're good at math) and bad (we're cheap) - to really be Indian, I had to abide by certain subcultural expectations and keep a certain company.

Shortly thereafter, I came across a candidate for President: the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas, this skinny kid with a funny name had been raised in Indonesia and in Hawaii, the latter by his white grandparents. He chose to invest his immense talent in service and community organizing at the beginning of his career working with churches in Chicago. His electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention had brought the house down, and he was now running to lead the United States.

In his legendary speech on race, then Senator Obama opened up his own identity as a black man in America whose love for this country was deeper than any I had known.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

He went on to challenge two forms of racism: the pervading social stigma against black Americans and others of color, as well as the subtle stigma of litmus tests for determining ethnic authenticity.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ”too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

Then, with the command of oratory that only he has and the natural ability to connect a spectrum of experiences, Barack Obama described the black identity in America, in the terms of the black Church.

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

I identified with everything he said not because I'm black but because it captured the fullness, the richness, and the diversity of the experiences Americans - particularly Americans who embody more than one cultural identity - go through. We are not monoliths. Every ethnic identity inside the United States is filled with a broad set of experiences, sub-identities, works, and outlooks.

That we are not monoliths is enhancing, not degrading, our cultural and socio-ethnic identities. That we are not monoliths does not make us less American - it makes us more so. Because of this ever-evolving, ever-enhancing cultural and ethnic identities, our existence as individuals is enhanced, and our experience as Americans flourishes.

The president, speaking in 2014, rejected racial purity tests for this very reason.

And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. (Applause.) Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.
— President Obama on race, 2014

President Obama is not "less black" because he was raised by his white grandparents, and he is not "less American" because he'd seen more of the world before he was a teenager than most of his detractors do in their life. I am not "less Indian" because I have lived more than half my life in the United States, and I'm not "less American" because my American citizenship is the result of an oath rather than of a birth certificate.

It is why the rhetoric of Cornel West, a Bernie Sanders surrogate, and Ben Carson, a Republican candidate for president, claiming in unison that because Barack Obama had a white mom and two white grandparents, he is not black enough is so disturbing, painful, and destructive. It not only is a racist denial of identity to the president as a person and his commitment to communities of color as a president. It is, more perniciously, the denial of the American black experience itself, and more broadly it insults every ethnicity and culture that makes up the fabric of America.

To the extent this extends to people of color in general and even to immigrants - this is condemning us to a stereotypical existence. It says that the color of our skin and the culture of our parents are to limit our experiences rather than free our imaginations. It says that as human beings and as races and cultures, we are stagnant, that we are not alive. It says that we cannot both be proud of our heritage and proud of our country. It says that the human spirit is so limited that it cannot possibly hold a diversity of experiences within a common identity.

But they are wrong. I am not black, and I don't pretend to know the full black experience in America. What I do know is that I refuse to accept the epitome of cynicism that you cannot be my kind if you haven't had my exact life flow. I refuse to accept that the beautiful mosaic of America is made up of stagnant marbles with no life. I refuse the idea that my experience can be defined out of the Indo-American fabric, and that Barack Obama's experience can be defined out of the African American one.

And I detest the people who perpetuate this paradigm through the blacker-than-thou attitude, hiding it under pseudo-intellectual cover.



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