University of Portland’s Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a panel discussion that delved into the variety in Black American culture. This panel Q&A held in St. Mary’s lounge last Tuesday night was a part of the university’s week-long Diversity Dialogues event.
The event titled “Shades of Black” brought together panelists who came from different parts of the Black community. Panelists came from mixed-race, second-generation continental African, Pacific Islander, and single parent backgrounds, among others, bringing with them different experiences which gave audience members a multi-faceted view of the Black experience in America.
Cross-cultural communication studies professor Jeff Kerssen-Griep, “the palest member of the panel” opened the night by framing the ensuing discussion as a discussion about bi-cultural management. Put in simpler words relevant to “Shades of Black”, how the panelists perceived, identified, and maintained involvement within the Black community in relation to American society. The ensuing discussion drew out panelist responses that were as varied as their backgrounds.
Senior BSU President Kaileah Baldwin explained the four different categories of black experience: abandoned, mainstream, transcendent elite, and emergent, and then asked each of the panelists which category they identified with. While each of the panelists could clearly identify with a category, it was less clear what varying degrees of privilege each experienced not only based on their category, but based on their skin color, or shade of blackness.
This point was driven home by an audience member who related how he, a very dark-skinned black man, would be treated differently than his half-sister, who is light-skinned. Panelists and audience members agreed that people who were lighter-skinned were treated with more privilege than those who were dark-skinned. But the issue came down to the fact that these differences in treatment create conflict and division within the black community.
But despite the varying experiences amongst people of different shades of black, all of the panelists nodded in agreement when Andriana Alexis said, “Everyday,” when asked if there is pressure to be a certain type of black image.
The panelists discussed how black stereotypes came from this specific black image. They expressed their annoyance with some of the stereotypes because majority of them were not relevant to their personal experiences. A few of them expressed the idea that if they are lighter skinned, the stereotypes are not as relevant to them then if they were darker.
One of the panelists discussed an experience he encountered when he was in a prominent upper-middle class suburb, Los Altos hills. He said that while in a market, he was stopped by a security guard and was mistaken to have stolen something from the store, though he did not even buy anything. The panelist expressed his frustration and felt as if it was another stereotype that is usually placed on someone because of their skin color.
This was just one example that a panelist gave about their experience with stereotypes, but there were many others offered. For example, that every black person loves fried chicken or they all know how to play basketball. But in reality, these panelist expressed that they rather be seen as a human being and not be judged because of their skin color.
Many members of the panel that came from mixed backgrounds found themselves in an identity crisis as they learned more about their roots. Not only did some feel out of place here in the states by their skin color, but upon visiting their homeland they felt like they were also treated as an outsider based on how they talked and dressed, as they have been normalized into the American culture. These experiences have led students to a mental block as they struggle to figure out where they feel like they truly belong.
But no matter what struggles the panel brought up, the dialogue brought up by the shared stories and experiences of the panelists and audience allowed each member in that room to discuss and heal, together.