Race Talk: What It Means To Be Black in 2015

Black Lives Matter advocate Shaun King is the latest casualty to untangle a vicious web woven by conservative, right-wingers who tried to “out” him last week. Not about his sexuality, but about his race, saying that King lied about being biracial and is actually the child of a White mother and father. The move, clearly political in nature, caused King to rehash the personal, bitter revelation that his biological father (said to be a light skinned Black man) is not the same individual listed on his birth certificate. Once again, how Black is Black is questioned, especially when it comes to those advocating on our behalf. JET interviewed William “Smitty” H. Smith, Ed.D, founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College in Boston, MA to find out why we’re all so preoccupied with racial labels.

JET: Why is racial identity so significant?

Dr. William Smith: It’s important because the narrative, which has been written by White Euro-Americans, promotes a specific notion that has made its way into our culture and culture shapes societal values. Race is framed in terms of superiority and allows people to be categorized along specific racial lines. Unfortunately, for many of us, it has been the only narrative we’ve known. We’re beginning to think differently, but that thinking has to seep into the educational process and through the information that we are disseminating to young minds. Think about this, throughout the education system today, nowhere do we formally teach the notion of what it means to be a human being. Not doing so only reinforces these notions of race and cultural categorization and plays right into what happened to Shaun King.

JET: Speaking of Shaun King, was it right for these conservative websites to question the man’s race?

Dr. William Smith: Shaun King’s race was only a concern of a particular part of the white community that is trying to create this shallow mischief of the day. I was just in Martha’s Vineyard last week to see Patrisse Cullors, who started the Black Lives Matter Movement, Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl fame and actor Danny Glover speak on a panel. In a two-hour discussion including a Q&A from the audience, not once did Shaun King’s name come up. Our community is not even thinking about this. We know there is more serious business to tend to.

JET: Would it have mattered if evidence proved Mr. King was white?

Dr. William Smith: It’s really hard for well-meaning Whites to get access into support circles of Black causes. Black Lives Matter is in fact making a statement by trying to reach out and embrace and identify non-Black allies. To me, that is the answer— to create ways engaging strong, White allies so that everybody is on the same playing field in the movement forward.

JET: Do you think issues around racial identity are only important to people of color?

Dr. William Smith: People of color identify racially because it is a part of the pain that we relive through prejudice. You can’t help but to be constantly aware, but it’s not like we are consumed by it. One of the privileges of whiteness is that they don’t have to think about race. Everything is already aligned with their perceptions and outlook. They are only concerned with race when it becomes confrontational or when there is juxtaposition to their status. Really that’s when the conflict arises. As a generalization, most Whites in our culture have this inherent unconscious feeling of superiority. On the other side, most Blacks are occupied with suspicion and neither does anything for our human relationships.

JET: What’s your take on Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who did fairly good work for the Black community, until everyone found out she was posing as Black woman?

Dr. William Smith: The more I read about her the more I realized there were some deep seeded issues going on there. People got ticked off and I can understand that, even though I don’t agree with the reaction. I didn’t see her as sinister. What she did was completely off base, but you have to look more closely and realized it was shaped by her mental state.

JET: Do you see us ever getting to the point where race isn’t such a volatile issue?

Dr. William Smith: Yes, but no time soon. You cannot undo the dominant narrative of 300 years in just 20. Only through particular education, specifically teaching what it means to be a human being, can we start to see the elimination of racism.  A conceptual understanding of what it means to be a human being is the quickest and most effective way to correct racial bias.

Wendy L. Wilson is a New York based, award-winning journalist and former managing editor for EBONY and JET magazines. She’s a news junkie who has previously covered both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the White House.