The Myth of Black Exceptionalism

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SJP friend, Enumale Agada, has written a superb post about “Sidney Poitier, Mike Brown, and the Myth of Black Exceptionalism” on her blog, Celluloid in Black and White.  Here’s a brief excerpt.

. . . . What exactly is the myth of black exceptionalism, you may ask? It’s the notion that black people who are educated, smart, articulate, poised, and basically every other positive adjective you can think of are atypical or rarities among the general black population. So what’s wrong with this notion? Well to begin, educated, smart, articulate, poised, etc. black people are not rarities or exceptions. They may seem to be exceptions based on the biased and unflattering depictions of black people that run rampant in the mainstream media (it seems that we’ve been upgraded from maids and butlers to angry black women and thugs), but they are not. This notion of black exceptionalism also bears the underlying assumption that there exists a single and one-dimensional manifestation of blackness. A black person that does not conform to this imposed, sole image of blackness is somehow an exception to the rule. In creating this false dichotomy, the myth of black exceptionalism denies us the individuality and the full spectrum of humanity that is so readily offered to the white population in this country. When we speak or act, our words and actions are often interpreted to say something about the entire black population, either by conforming to the dominant stereotypes about black people or by diverging from them. In Sidney’s case, his constructed persona was meant to set him apart from the black masses, ensuring white audiences that he was special and therefore worth supporting, trusting, admiring, perhaps even desiring. Hollywood packaged and sold Sidney’s particular brand of blackness as the correct form of blackness. “If it could gain Sidney access to the hallowed, white-washed halls of Hollywood, think of where it could take you,” Hollywood seemed to say to black Americans.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about what I’m arguing. The existence of stereotypes about black people is not a new discovery. And my black friends and I have numerous stories about being told by our white friends, coworkers, and colleagues that they don’t think of us as being black, an indication that they have a concrete and definite idea of what blackness is. I’ve even been told by other black people that I was not “black enough,” evincing to me that they had internalized this idea of a single and static form of blackness. But what I’d like to highlight is how this myth of black exceptionalism, and the stereotypes underlying it, seep into the everyday and manifest themselves in painfully real ways.

The conversation surrounding the killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown this past summer is a principal example. As the country debated whether this was yet another instance of police brutality against black men or whether it was simply a case of a (white) police officer defending himself against a (black) violent suspect, both sides seemed to co-opt Mike Brown’s personhood for their cause. “He was going off to college in a matter of days,” one side declared. “No, he was a weed-smoking thug that stole from a local convenience store,” the other side claimed. Beneath both of these arguments, I heard the familiar echo of the black exceptionalism myth. Both arguments undermined Mike Brown’s inherent value as a human being by creating a hierarchy of blackness in which the lives of educated, promising, exceptional blacks were to be valued more highly than the lives of stereotypical blacks, a.k.a. thugs. But Mike Brown existed outside of stereotypes and blanket assumptions about black people and about black men in particular. He was a human being. He held all of the complexity and contradictions that all human beings possess. His humanity can neither be summed up in five-minute news segments nor put in historically created and socially perpetuated bins for “good” blacks and “bad” blacks. His humanity is what makes his violent death at the hands of a police officer sworn to protect and serve atrocious and despicable. Yes Mike Brown’s death speaks to America’s violent racial past and carries weighty social and political implications. But that should not obscure the inherent value that he had as a human being—value that was not increased by the fact that he was going college nor decreased by allegations that he smoked pot or stole cigars.

Amidst the fury surrounding Mike Brown’s death, I heard many call for police officers to be viewed and treated as individuals. What’s incomprehensible to me is that this is exactly what has been denied to Mike Brown since his death. There has been no room for him to be an 18-year-old boy with the fears, hopes, and nuances encompassed therein. This same “privilege” of individuality has also been denied to black Americans since…well forever. But this denial has blatantly been put on display following Mike Brown’s death. For example, . . .

Read the entire post here.

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