IN 1772, PHILLIS Wheatley was interrogated by a roomful of white Boston men who refused to believe she was whom she claimed to be.
The Boston family that enslaved the teenager wanted her poems published as a book, and had arranged for Wheatley to verify her authenticity as an author. Few believed “an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa,” as these men called her, was capable of writing elegant, thoughtful poetry.
And even though the tribunal was ultimately convinced, no American publisher would touch Wheatley’s work. (Her first collection was published in England a year later.)
Still, what resonates for me is that Wheatley, because she was black, had to prove herself at all. Centuries later, this remains a burden carried by people of color in America. Always, we are compelled to justify ourselves.
These days, it’s not just our skills that are called into question. It’s our very existence, a kind of racial purity test. We are asked to prove not that we’re black or brown — but that we’re black or brown enough.
Identity is weaponized as a means of delegitimizing and silencing black and brown people who live outside the arbitrary lines of cultural authenticity. This is how Rush Limbaugh ends up yammering about whether Senator Kamala Harris is an African-American.
“Her father is Jamaican and her mother is Indian. How does that equal African-American? Same thing with Barack Obama,” the right-wing blowhard recently blathered on his radio show. (Among conservatives, all rants lead back to former president Obama or former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.)
Limbaugh wasn’t done. “And Rashida Tlaib is Palestinian, for crying out — that’d be like calling a Jewish person a person of color. How is Rashida Tlaib a person of color? She’s not! This is all about making them victims.”
This was a right-wing bonanza. In one fell swoop, Limbaugh tried to undermine Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate, and Tlaib, an outspoken anti-Trump representative from Michigan — all while downplaying the president’s racism because, in Limbaugh land, Trump’s “go back” comment wasn’t racist, since Tlaib isn’t a person of color.
It’s not up to white people to decide who qualifies as a person of color.
A contentious election season, combined with a large, diverse group of candidates vying to defeat President Trump, is leading to many scurrilous accusations. Julián Castro, a Mexican-American and the only Latinx in the Democratic field, does not speak fluent Spanish. Of course, Steve King, the racist Republican congressman from Iowa, chided Castro and his twin brother, Representative Joaquin Castro, for taking Spanish lessons to “qualify as retroactive Hispanics.”
Not all Hispanics speak Spanish. It doesn’t make them any less Hispanic.
The illogic fueling King’s tweet is even worse when black and brown people use it to attack their own. On Twitter, a man with more than 96,000 followers questioned how Harris, a Howard University graduate and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority, didn’t “end up married” to a black man. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff, is white. In this man’s narrow mind, that’s a knock against Harris’s authenticity as a black woman.
Black and brown people who follow this rancid line of thinking play right into the ugliest instincts of white America. We know that we teeter everyday on an unlevel field, the ground beneath our feet always shifting. And really, it’s not even a field. It’s a trap door.
Either we’re too black or we aren’t black enough; either Latinx are condemned for speaking too much Spanish (or English, with an accent), or for not speaking Spanish at all.
“When I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with. . . which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created,” Harris told The Washington Post earlier this year. “My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
People like Limbaugh and King don’t care about racial authenticity. They are racists, and their only goal is to mock people of color and keep us second-guessing as to how to be the right kind of black or brown person to curry favor with a volatile white America.
Of course, nothing we do ever will. That’s the point. And that’s why we should neither take the bait, nor bend to anyone else’s cultural standards and identifiers but our own.