THE COLLECTIVE IDENTITY

collective identityby Attorney Pam Keith     (formally US Senate Candidate)
Often, on the campaign trail I mentioned the fact that I was about eight years old before I finally understood that I was, in fact, an African American person. Up until that point I only understood that i was an American, and that being an American was very special.

To this day, American remains my primary identity, largely because I have spent so many years living

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outside this country, and in uniform serving in the Navy. Americans abroad can attest to the fact that the divisions we feel here at home have little application when we are strangers in a foreign land. There, any American is a friendly face and a comrad.

What I failed to explain while campaigning was WHAT, exactly, I came to understand when I was about eight. I always knew I was brown. That was not news. But what I learned at eight was that I was part of a collective. I came to a consciousness and understanding about the history of African Americans in this country. I came to understand that people who looked at me when I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, had NO IDEA that I was the daughter of a U.S. Diplomat, a person feted and treated with great dignity and honor overseas. In Kentucky, I was treated as any other black little girl in 1977; in short, like I wasn't much of anything special. Indeed, I was treated by some (not all), as if I was to be ignored, distrusted, marginalized and scorned.

At eight, I came to understand that WHO I was meant very little to most people I encountered. It was WHAT I was that determined for them how I was to be treated. It was also at about that time that I learned about the history of slavery and Jim Crow in America. I actually went to a public school that had just been desegregated. My teacher conducted the class as if the black students in it did not exist. So it was then that i learned that being black was a bad thing, an undesirable thing. It was because I had such a strong sense of personal identity BEFORE I received these negative messages, that I was able to resist internalizing them and allowing them to shape how I saw myself.

I bring this up because there is something FUNDAMENTAL about African Americans that needs to be explained and understood, and that is that we are FIRST AND FOREMOST viewed as a part of a collective, whether we wish to be in one or not. The bond that weaves the collective together is EXTREMELY STRONG. It is cultural. It is historical. But more than anything, it is INESCAPABLE. Those whose physical features identify them as part of the collective are NEVER able to escape from the collective because it is the larger society that places people within the collective. Men like Tiger Woods, or even Colin Kaepernick, may have mixed genetic background, but they are treated as BLACK MEN, because that is how this COUNTRY sees them. In this country, the rule is, and has ALWAYS been, if you have one drop of African blood, you are Black. That wasn't just custom, it was LAW. That rule applied no matter whether you chose to personally identify as mixed, mulatto, bi-racial, "Ca-Bla-n-Asian," as Tiger does, or any other variation. In this country, if you LOOK black, you ARE black.

The consequence of this reality is that nearly all of us Black folk, no matter our financial circumstances or opportunities, experience similar incidences of disrespect, marginalization, injustice or harm. And even if we haven't, we know that it could happen at any moment. It also means that harm suffered to one in the collective is felt more keenly by the others in the collective. Just like triumph experienced by one is felt more keenly by the others, than those outside the collective. No doubt. many Americans felt great joy when Barack Obama was elected President, but I am quite certain that African Americans felt that joy and elation far more keenly than others. Similarly, when Tamir Rice, or Philando Castille were summarily killed, African Americans felt the pain more keenly. Not just for the loss itself, but for the realization that if it could happen to those young men BECAUSE of their color, it could happen to us for the very same reason. If these young people died because different policing rules applied to them, it means those different rules also apply to EACH OF US TOO. I reiterate, THERE IS NO ESCAPING THE COLLECTIVE.

Importantly, the converse is NOT TRUE! I ask my white, male friends and readers to please STOP FOR A MOMENT and ponder this. When a white man in Louisiana is shot by a police officer, I doubt that the white man in Manhattan thinks "Oh, Snap! That could happen to me!" And the reason is because THERE IS NO COLLECTIVE bond, no tie, between white men. Not like there is between and among black people. Women feel a part of a collective based on gender. And lets be clear, it isn't because they are women, but rather because of how society treated people BECAUSE they were women. Sexism, like racism, befalls the victims whether they choose to identify as part of the collective or not. In many cases, Jewish people feel similarly, BECAUSE of how society treated Jews. White men made and controlled these societal rules for generations, and therefore were seldom the victims of them.

I cannot overstate how much of an advantage it can be to NOT BE A PART OF ANY COLLECTIVE THAT IS NOT OF ONE'S OWN CHOOSING. When people talk about "white privilege," THIS is what they are talking about. The privilege of sitting in the position of the actor, rather than the acted upon. This privilege exists, even if the beneficiary is unaware of the benefit. If a white man has a bad life, it is hardly ever BECAUSE he is male or because he is white. The same cannot be said for the many who were born into circumstances that created checks again them from the very start. And in this country, female is a step behind, and black is certainly a step behind. These disadvantages can be overcome, but they nevertheless exist.

In response to Colin Kaepernick's protest, there have been some people who have pointed out all of the opportunities and advantages he has had, the millions he makes. That completely misses the point. On any given night, in any given alley, Colin is FIRST AND FOREMOST A BLACK MAN. Not because he chooses to be, but because that is how the officer, the passer-by, the witness will see him. Surely he knows that it is the grace of God that has kept him out of the kinds of incidences that have lead to so many dead young men. And so he is NOT protesting what IS happening to him. He's protesting what COULD happen to him, and IS happening to many others.

Put simply, earning a good living, being able to make the most of one's opportunities, having a good life, a nice car, a big house, wealthy friends and lots of money DOES NOT REMOVE ANYONE FROM THE COLLECTIVE. It does not make one ANY LESS BLACK. And when we see so much irrefutable evidence that those who are black are treated differently by some law enforcement officers, and by some courts, and some prosecutors, the outrage of it is personal and utterly worthy of protest. One of our greatest gifts is freedom of expression. It is a right that I put on the uniform to protect and defend. I take great issue with those who say that because Colin Kapernick makes good money, he has no business protesting. The notion is absurd! It is because he knows that money will not spare him from the injustices we see, that he has EVERY right to protest, and is to be commended for having the courage to do so at great personal risk.

I have often said that my definition of patriotism is not loving some antiquated notion of America. Rather, it is LOVING AMERICANS. It is wanting for all Americans to share equally in the rights and liberties we value. Loving your country does NOT mean remaining silent in the face of injustice. Protest in many instances is the highest form of patriotism, for it is acting to bring about a more perfect union. Colin's simple act has started a much-needed national conversation and has forced people to reflect on the symbology of the flag and the anthem. Colin may never make it to the NFL hall of fame as a QB, but he has already made it into the history books. To my way of thinking, under the heading "courageous patriot." 


 

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