Struggling with Race and Identity in a Changing America

Struggling with Race and Identity in a Changing America
Like it or not, the face of America is changing

I am a Black man.  I am a father.  I am a husband.  I am a lawyer.  I am a son.  I am a brother.  I am a business owner.  I am a Cubs fan.  I am a Chicagoan.  I am a friend.  I am a kidney transplant patient.  I am a writer.  I am a son-in-law.  I am a suburban home owner.  I am a reader.

I am Brian.

A fellow Chicago Now blogger, Kay Smith, who writes Pimps, Preachers and Politicians is doing a series called: “We Hold These Truths” which seems to be an open ended discussion on race and identity in America.  I say “seems to be” because the discussion just started and will likely morph as it continues.  I volunteered to be part of the discussion; Kay emailed me eight questions dealing with race in our society, my family and life generally.  Although I haven’t answered those questions by putting fingers to the keyboard, they have made me ask myself who am I?  And how does that fit into how society views race?

I fought with these questions for years.  I was raised in Elmhurst, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago.  I joke that the Elmhurst I grew up in was pretty diverse, considering we had people of German, Italian, and English descent.  Not many brothers in Elmhurst back in 1985.  You could count our families on one hand.  But because of that, I struggled with race early on.  I heard “nigger” hurled at me from a young age at school and on the street.  I asked my mother– who is Italian and German– what that meant.  She explained that it was an ugly word used to demean people who had brown skin and features like mine.  She also explained that the word better characterized the person who used the word than the person to whom the word was directed.

Growing up in Elmhurst had difficult moments, initially.  But I found that as people got to know me, I became less “Black” and more “Brian” or “BT.”  I was always Black; but I was also Brian. My brown skin and high top fade were always parts of me as I grew up, but people knew me for the personality traits and my likes and dislikes; things that made me Brian.  Elmhurst is and will always be my home and is still  a place I am very fond of.

Elmhurst– along with Champaign-Urbana and Chicago– are the places where I learned about race and where I finally became comfortable with my identity.  Being biracial, for YEARS, people around me wanted me to make a choice.  Are you Black?  Are you White?  Which do you prefer?  That mindset is so pervasive, the government forces us to choose when filling out forms.  Like the whole of my identity can be put into a box marked “African-American/Afro-American/Black.”

Think about how offensive that is.  This isn’t a sporting event.  This isn’t choosing whether you root for the Cubs or Sox, this is the government/society telling you to choose an identity.  And in some places the form said “select one.”   That is how pervasive racism is.  When I use the word racism there, I don’t solely mean it in terms of racial superiority.  I mean it in terms of our government and society caring to know; the importance we put on it.  But, asking that question indirectly keeps the mental mindset in place: It affirms that one race is superior to another.  If not, then why ask? Why does it matter?  You can’t preach that one’s race in America doesn’t matter yet then force us to “select one.”


It took about 23 years but once I realized that my identity can’t be marked in a box, my identity struggle largely went away.

That’s not a renunciation of my race.  I am Black.  I love me and being Black is a part of me.

I know and understand and appreciate that my Blackness precedes me when I walk into a room.  When I walk into an elevator with a White man and White woman on it, my Blackness gets on as soon as they see me walking toward the door.  It precedes me.  And because society– and within some families and groups of friends–  has taught largely negative connotations to go along with “Blackness” those connotations precede me onto an elevator.  It’s reflex.

Life, unlike most elevators, provides ample opportunity for discussion and for getting to know someone, other than a skin color, clothing, credit score, socio-economic status, or sports fandom.  By sitting down and eating, drinking, talking, you get to know the person behind the face.  You get to know Brian. Amy.  Evan.  Kay.  Jimmy.  And each of us individually are so much more than Black, Jewish, Asian, Mexican, whatever.

In the marriage equality fight, something resonated with me.  It was the concept that when two men or two women marry, it’s not “gay marriage” it’s just marriage.  Just like when two gay men go out to dinner, its not “gay dinner” its “dinner.”

The same is true with life and race.  When Black men go to lunch, is it “Black lunch?”  Is it “Black marriage” when an African-American couple marries?  It’s a wedding.  It’s a lunch.  When society stops making the distinction between “Black business owner” and “business owner” we’ll have the post-racial society the media suggested we had after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

And it’s coming.  I have felt the change and feel it daily.  The more Black business owners there are, the less need to attach “Black” to describe the noun.  The more the races intersect, the less my Blackness will precede me onto an elevator.  And I say that with certainty because when my father’s Blackness preceded him onto elevators in the 1970s, that Blackness was certainly much different than when mine precedes me today.

Moreover, I think my Blackness is different for different people. Although it’s a generalization, the connotations that go along with Blackness are different for someone who is 19, than someone who is 70.  And that will continue as the intersection between races increases.

One example: my father’s father didn’t even have the opportunity for his Blackness to precede him onto an elevator with whites.

Now some may identify primarily as Black or Korean or White or Mexican.  And that’s fine.  That’s their identity.  I’m not going to choose it for someone else.  But, I get offended that someone is “more Black” if they were raised on the south side.  Or if someone says: you’re not Black because you grew up in Elmhurst.  As if being Black has to be tied with socio-economic status.  It is offensive because when we attach socio-economic status to race we continue to perpetuate the stereotype and negative connotations.

And although that’s just not true, I do it too.  Because my generation was conditioned to do it.  I see a Black man in a Maserati– my split second thought as a I crane my neck is “athlete.”  Why isn’t it business owner?!?  I piss myself off when I reflexively do that.

One reason it’s not “business owner” is because we attach not only socio-economic status but  intelligence to race.  If not, the Black man driving nice car equals athlete or worse, stolen car, wouldn’t exist.  It’s more likely intelligence bought that car, yet by reflex we think legs and arms rather than brain.

Another reason why we do it is because we need more Black business owners.  We need more successful Black men.  Strike those last two sentences (which were written reflexively and intentionally not deleted so you can see the reflex), we need more visible successful Black men.  We need the media and Hollywood having more Black men in roles of successful businessmen, rather than roles which perpetuate the negative connotations that allow negative connotations of Blackness to precede us  onto elevators.  It’s happening.  You see more and more commercials featuring Black men in roles opposite an apple pie and the American flag.  More and more roles where we play lawyers.  Fathers.  Lawyers.  Husbands.  Sons-in-law.  Business owners.

As art imitates life, we’re starting to play roles where “Black” will not precede man.  Black will always be part of me as it will be a part of all Black men and women.  But, to me at least, it’s more important to be a good father.  A good husband.  A good lawyer.  A good man.  It’s not mutually exclusive.  I can be all those things and be Black.  Just like one can be President of the United States and be Black, rather than being the Black President of the United States.


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  • This discussion has come up in numerous places, including Craig Jackson of Chicago's Real West Side saying that President Obama is not perceived as Black there. Probably the same issues with Joakim Noah, Tiger Woods, Dionne Miller, etc. Then you get into the question that if the real American Afro-American is a descendant of slaves, rather than African, most of them are mixed race. They sure don't look like your usual Ethiopian taxi driver. Then there is stuff like Laura Washington's column today that Uber finally broke the racial barrier with respect to the Ethiopian picking up the Black passenger.

    The other is the "business owner," which at one time there were some (i.e. the Johnsons of Ebony and Afro Sheen, insurance companies founded in Bronzeville, etc.). However, Blacks have usually let others run the businesses in their neighborhoods, and rely on stuff like the Food Bus rather than forming their own businesses. I don't know if being confined in Robert Taylor Homes and the gang influence lead to the current lack of an entrepreneurial core, but it is generally lacking. In the meantime, it is real easy to remember that Lance Briggs overturned his Lambo, but I seem to remember someone else doing that, but not whom.

    I did note that the recent Dasani ad included someone who looked like the picture above. I wonder, though, who pays for bottled water.

    Other than that, I can't speak about the things you mentioned, other than Elmhurst is obviously not The Real West Side.

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