I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one…my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.
— Toni Morrison
I pay attention to the way people carry themselves, as most people should.
As much as we don’t like to admit to it, we judge people by their appearance all the time, whether it is intentionally or subconsciously.
When we go to a job interview, we try our best to present our best selves. We dress nice and professional: a collard shirt, a nice blazer, a tie, the whole nine.
Now imagine if someone came into the same interview dressed the exact opposite. They came in with a wrinkled white t-shirt with a hole in it, old sweat pants with a coffee stain on them, and dirty sneakers.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the interviewer is going to take seriously in this scenario. This is an example that is acceptable.
However, what I’m finding is that some people in the Black community, mostly the older generation, try to apply the same logic in places where they don’t belong.
“If only these boys would just keep their pants pulled up”
“If only we could get all these kids to go to college.”
“If only we keep our hair straightened.”
“If only these folks stop rapping, twerking, getting tattoos, wearing afros, etc.”
It’s a generation that still clings to the belief that the key to Black success , or rather to Black survival, is to play respectability politics and fall in the good graces of White people.
The mindset is in no way new. As far back as the post-slavery and Reconstruction era, Black Americans have been trying to figure out ways to survive in a system that was never built for them to succeed.
A big piece of that was one’s ability to fall into the good graces of White people. Assimilation to white society wasn’t about “wanting to be white,” it was about securing your safety, it was about survival. The more you could veer towards the image that White counterparts would like, the better.
For some, that meant implementing hair straightening in their beauty regimen. An abbreviated timeline of Black Hair history shows that in the mid-1800s, the idea of “good hair” became a prerequisite for successful Black women. Metal hot combs became popularized, as did Madam C.J. Walker’s press-and-curl methods in the 1900s.
For some, it meant pursuing higher education and obtaining degrees through HBCUs to take advantage of an education that had been so long kept from them. For others, it meant inventing something significant or becoming a prevalent business owner to ensure your family’s well being.
The Message of ‘The Good Negro’
I’m all for the things mentioned above. I’m all for my people constantly progressing themselves, creating their own legacies, breaking generational curses, pursuing higher education, owning businesses, and being fantastic creatives.
However, the problem with the mindset of The Good Negro is that it creates the claim that only prestigious Black folk deserve to be treated with kindness and decency. It’s the living sentiment of “Well, you’re not like those Black people. You’re one of the good ones.”
The concept of The Good Negro says that as long as you dress nice at all times, be academically articulate at all times, never raise your voice, never speak up, never speak out, go to school, get a good job: Then you’re safe! The Good Negro says “I do everything I’m supposed to do, so I have absolutely nothing to worry about!”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s take myself, for example. To paint a picture, I am exactly 5 feet tall (152 cm), I am extremely nonathletic, I have gone my whole life without executing a successful pull-up. I am articulate with an extensive vocabulary. I have never engaged in a fistfight, never talked back to my teachers, have a Bachelor’s degree, attended a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) and work a corporate office job. To put it simply: “”I am a Good Negro.”
Even so, these things didn’t stop my White dorm mates in the next room over from being afraid of me (5’0 can’t even do a pull-up ME). It didn’t stop the retail lady from following me around in a clothing store in which no one greeted me but immediately greeted an old White lady soon after. It didn’t stop another retail worker in a different store urgently pointing me towards the Sales rack even after I told her I didn’t need anything from her.
The Good Negro status didn’t save the Obama family from being the target of racist aggravation, from the initial Presidential campaign all the way through two terms.
The Good Negro status doesn’t save the many Black men and boys who face the highest risk of being killed by police–a rate of 96 out of 100,00 deaths.
Atatiana Jefferson worked in Human resources and graduated from Xavier University of Lousiana.
Oscar Grant was completely cooperative and calm with police when arrested, and even urged his friends to calm down during the scene. He was still shot in the back by a police officer.
Being dignified, having an expanded vocabulary, obtaining degrees, acquiring office jobs — these are all wonderful things! I never want to take away from the accomplishments my people have been able to achieve.
However, the real problem question is this: For whom or what do we do these things? Is it for our own personal fulfillment? For our own legacy? Or is it to intentionally separate ourselves from those other Black folk?
Overcoming Good Negro Syndrome
If we as a people are going to get rid of this archaic mindset that getting all of the awards, all of the degrees, all of the nice suits, is going to save us from racial prejudice–we must acknowledge a few things first:
Racism is Not my Problem
An abbreviated version of the Toni Morrison quote mentioned at the beginning of this post. Racism is a problem that is pushed on to Black people, but it is not necessarily “our problem.” It’s the issue that the oppressor has and we bare the consequences of their problem. In other words, if someone is racist, your accomplishments aren’t going to mean much to them. And even if they do commend you for it, you don’t become the person who “cured” their racism, you’re just an exception to their rule.
We All Deserve to be Treated with Human Decency
We cannot reserve humane treatment for people who fit the description of a Huxtable family. Nor can we reserve it for men and women who, though Black, meet the favored Eurocentric aesthetics. It shouldn’t take three degrees, a six-figure income, homeownership, and an extensive vocabulary just for the possibility of earning human decency from our fellow man. The Black person who is working a blue-collar job and speaks mostly in African American Vernacular English is in no way beneath or lesser than the Black person who works a white-collar job and speaks Standard American English.
White Approval Does Not Equate to Happiness or a Successful Life
I don’t want to come down on some of the older generation too hard. After all, a lot of them did live in a time in which white approval was literally how you got by in life. But living your life solely for the approval of others is absolutely exhausting. It can be something small, or something large. It’s cutting off your dreadlocks because you’re afraid of not getting hired. It’s making sure your white co-workers don’t see you making a grab for the fried chicken at a catered work event.
The division between the “good” and “bad” Black people is something that was embedded in our community from the beginning. It fuels the false belief that we can reach a certain social status, a certain income level, a certain aesthetic, in order to “achieve” acceptance and respect from our White peers. However, their perception of you is not your problem to fix, but their own.
About The Author
Hi there! I’m Raven, TGA’s first contributor and the first member of The Ghetto Community! Based out of the Northern VA / Metro D.C. area, I work full time as a Case Assistant. However, my true passions lie in writing and serving others! I created my own blog Serendipity & Such, which centers around topics of personal growth and development. I also have writing featured in Medium publications that explore topics such as race, communication, relationships, and culture.