TIME Race

I Am a ‘Conscious’ Black Woman Who Fell for a White Man

Getty Images

Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned-locs-sporting, ankh-wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

In the words of my hero Maya Angelou, “I can’t believe my good fortune, and I am just so grateful, to be a Black woman. A Black American woman. I would be so jealous if I were anything else.”

I learned that “Black” was intended to mean “inferior” at the age of five and by the time I was ready for college I had only begun to learn why I should rejoice in my Blackness. I grew up in this spirit. I survived being “the smart Black girl” at majority white schools in this spirit, and rejected an opportunity for full scholarship at a predominately white institution to attend the best university on the globe (naturally a historically black one) — because of this spirit.

Being a Black person at an HBCU is nothing short of divine. A community of academics who understand you, instructors who are exceptionally hard on you because they know what you’re up against in this world, and an ever-present aura that dispels every negative thing that you were taught about your color from the moment you knew what it was.

I chopped off my chemically processed hair, took every class I could led by the master of Africana Studies, Dr. Gregory Carr, and wore an ankh on my body every chance I got.

Needless to say, I only dated Black men.

Though I find Black men physically attractive, what I really, really find attractive is the unspoken understanding that exists between me and a Black man of my choosing. I love not explaining why I tie my hair up at night, or that my skin would burn in beach sun without sunblock. I love arguing about whether “Love Jones” or “Love and Basketball” was the greatest Black love story of the ’90s. I could never date outside of Black men, I thought. It would never work.

But I was W-R-O-N-G! I could and I did.

We’ll call him Mazzi for discretion’s sake. He stood about 6 feet and 5 inches. He was handsome, funny, and a bit cynical. We worked in the same space, after I had graduated from college, for about a year. I hardly noticed him at the onset but eventually we began talking and sharing inside jokes and such. And one day he asked me on a date.

There was naturally some apprehension: 1) because we worked together AND 2) because he was unquestionably a white man.

I expressed my desire to keep it quiet at work and Mazzi agreed, so we went.

I laughed a lot that evening. Like from pick-up to drop-off. As our dates went on for some months, I began to notice the disapproving eyes of people around us when we were out together.

“Do you see how people look at us?!” I asked one day.

“Yeah,” he said nonchalantly. “It happens all the time. People don’t have shit going on in their own lives so that fact that I’m here with this ‘self-aware’ Black woman is earth shattering to them.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He smiled cautiously.

Time passed and we grew closer. I had just gotten into running and he was a thrower for his college’s track team so he would offer me advice on what I can do to get faster and stronger (he also gave awesome back rubs). He was a writer who never put his thoughts down and I encouraged him to do so. He had become my sounding board when I would get overwhelmed and met disappointments in my medical school application process, and I was his “therapist” who eventually got to the root of his cynicism. We were comfortable with one another. At some point in all this, I changed jobs to work in my field and we no longer had the “work thing” to consider.

Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned locs sporting, ankh wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man.

He brought up the subject of a relationship and I retreated. I’d talk about my reluctance to get in relationships (which was true) and he didn’t push the issue. But of course eventually I entered a relationship with him because it only made sense.

My two closest friends were shocked but very supportive and liked him a lot. I liked him too. He was the ideal, except he wasn’t Black.

My family slowly began to pick up on the fact that this was more than a collection of dates and did not necessarily approve. This didn’t impact me so much though. I was good at being rebellious.

His family was really sweet to me and always invited and included me when going to dinners or family parties.

Though I never felt “inferior” throughout the course of our relationship, race was an issue.

I remember the first time it was brought to my attention. He was driving and talking to me on the phone with some friends in the car. His friends had been drinking one of them yelled into the phone.

“Tell Ashley I miss her! Wait! Do Black people miss people?”

Now you and I both know how idiotic of a statement that was, but my issue was not with his asshole of a friend, it was with his lack of response to the comment. He later told me he addressed it. I didn’t believe him.

When I would experience “exotic otherness” at work, I would talk to him about it and he would suggest that I was overreacting when I knew I wasn’t. He would never know the feeling I was describing and I really couldn’t expect him to understand.

Then once in an argument, he said that my beloved alma mater was “institutionally racist.” This was a HUGE mistake on his part. I don’t remember my exact response but I am certain it was angry.

These were tough issues we had to work through. And it was hard. In considering a future with him, I worried about these issues. And he got to a point where he would refuse to talk if he sensed that race would come up. I understood, it was tense between us.

But when it was good, which usually was the case, it was perfect. Then, during a period that I thought was a good one, he went through my phone while I was sleeping. He read messages between my friends and me about how I missed the comfort and familiarity of Black men… OUCH!

Race was an issue.

To know me is to know that a violation of my privacy is grounds for dismissal. I felt guilty, so I didn’t break up with him right way. But from that point forward, I stopped feeling like myself. I was no longer mentally present in the relationship and I strongly resented the phone incident. The race thing was too hard and I had stopped “trying” because I knew he didn’t trust me anyway. I ended it a few months later.

This was in August. And I would be fooling myself if I said I don’t sometimes think I made a mistake. In my relationship, I felt special, and I was loved — even though he wasn’t Black.

Someone made a comment to me recently: “I’m glad you came back to this side.” I replied, “I never changed,” because though Mazzi may not have been the guy for me, and though he was undoubtedly a white man, he never wanted anything from me, but me — locs and all.

Ashley Thomas is an aspiring writer from Baltimore, Maryland.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME People

Kim Kardashian’s Nude Photos and Saartjie’s Choice: History’s Problem with Fascinating Bodies

Kim Kardashian (L) on the cover of Paper Magazine and an illustration of Saartjie Baartman (R) Jean-Paul Goude—Paper; Library of Congress

Linking Kardashian's recent Paper Magazine portrait to another famous body raises some serious questions

Saartjie Baartman’s is the body that launched a thousand revolutions. Kim Kardashian’s is the one that tried to break the Internet—and this week, when a nude photo of the latter made the cover of Paper magazine, many commenters made note of the striking similarities between Kardashian West’s nude profile and that of Baartman’s several centuries ago. In the 19th century, Saartjie Baartman’s striking proportions took her from Africa to Europe, where she performed as a curiosity. Her legacy in feminist circles is well known; she’s a worldwide symbol of racism, colonization and the objectification of the black female body. However, while many historians have pieced together what they believe to be the life and times of the “Hottentot Venus” during her stint as a performer in Europe, relatively little is known about the real life circumstances of Baartman herself.

In fact, even many people who are somewhat familiar with Baartman likely only recognize the 1810 illustration of the profile of her semi-nude body that once served as an advertisement for her performances in Europe. But seeing those advertisements as part of a whole life lends another dimension to her story—and to Kardashian West’s.

As researcher Bertha M. Spies detailed this summer in a piece about Baartman’s life that appeared in the journal African Arts, Baartman was born in the 1770s, about 50 miles north of the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa. She became a domestic worker, a slave employed by a Dutch farmer, before being sold to a wealthy German merchant in Cape Town. Baartman worked for the merchant until his death in 1799, at which point she moved to the home of the Cesar family, who were registered in the census as free blacks. She would give birth to three children during this time, all of whom died in infancy.

Baartman was nearly 30 years old by the time she left for Europe in 1810 with a British Army surgeon named Alexander Dunlop. As described by a 2010 biography of Baartman by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Dunlop saw the attention that Baartman’s body attracted, so he worked with the Cesars to bring her to London. There, Baartman’s nude body was exhibited to the public, and she sometimes played instruments and performed dances native to the Khoikhoi tribe of her origin. Baartman would be made available for private showings in the homes of the wealthy where at extra cost, patrons would be allowed to touch her.

Baartman only ever granted one recorded interview, in October of 1810, which is now available only as a paraphrased Dutch translation. The interview was recorded in response to abolitionist’s claims that Baartman was being exploited and enslaved. In the interview, taken to England’s highest court, Baartman stated that she was happy, came to England of her own free will and was being paid for her work.

Due the constraints of language and the lack of other personal accounts, little is known about the reality of that happiness. Was she exercising her own free will in choosing what to say? Was she coerced into lying to the court? In either case, Baartman’s life and interview bring up a greater issue: is it possible to separate a person’s choices from the world in which they live? Baartman said she was showing off her body by choice, but what other choices did she have? Kardashian West is a powerful modern woman who presumably could have said no to the photo shoot, but she still lives in a culture that objectifies female bodies; how much free will can she really have? Are Baartman, Kardashian West and the bodies between doing the acting, or being acted upon?

Eventually, when his English audiences raised objections, Dunlop changed aspects of the show to make it more respectable. Namely, Baartman’s body stocking, which gave the appearance of nudity, was scrapped and she wore a tribal costume instead. But the change backfired for Dunlop: public interest waned and viewers complained. It turned out they hadn’t wanted respectability at all. The interest, unsurprisingly, had been prurient, rather than anthropological, all along.

So Baartman’s show moved to Paris, where she was on display for ten hours a day, and illness and alcohol abuse made it difficult for her to perform. During this time, interest in Baartman’s body shifted from the spectacle to the scientific; scientists used her large buttocks and extended labia to compare Blacks to orangutans. Baartman died in poverty in 1810, and her body became the property of scientist Georges Cuvier. It was displayed in a Paris museum until 1974, when activists successfully petitioned to have Baartman’s remains returned to her birthplace in South Africa.

There’s something to be said about confronting the respectability politics that deny women the agency to choose how and when they will display their bodies and the social policing that says modesty is best, but the story and legacy of Saartjie Baartman complicate these issues in ways few are able to reconcile. Unlike Baartman, Kardashian West has been able to capitalize on the public’s fascination with her body and likeness both financially and socially—but when we consider that that fascination is rooted in the same (perhaps perverse) curiosity that turned Baartman from a human being into a museum display, it is not unfair to wonder just who is exploiting whom.

Read next: I Can’t Help But Admire Kim Kardashian’s Devotion to Staying Famous

TIME Culture

Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca

Chinese characters
Getty Images

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable

A Russian, a Korean, and a Mexican walk into a bar. How do they communicate?

In English, if at all, even though it’s not anyone’s native language. Swap out a bar for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China this week, and the attending heads of state from those three countries still have to communicate in English: It’s the only official language of the APEC, even when the APEC gathers in Beijing.

Mark Zuckerberg recently scored points during his own visit to Beijing when he made some remarks in Mandarin. The news sparked talk about whether China’s economic rise means Mandarin could someday rival English as a global language. Don’t count on it. Fluency in Mandarin will always be helpful for foreigners doing business in China, much like mastery of Portuguese will give you a leg up in Brazil. But Mandarin poses no threat to English as the world’s bridge language, the second tongue people turn to when communicating and doing commerce across borders.

Thanks to the British empire, native English speakers are strategically sprinkled across the globe. English is also the native language of shared popular culture – music, movies, even sport, with the recent ascendance of England’s Premier League. And English is undeniably the language of the technologies connecting us all together. Most languages don’t even bother to coin terms for things like “the Internet” or “text” or “hashtag.”

It’s little wonder that an estimated 2 billion people will speak functional English by 2020, the vast majority of them having learned it as their second language.

English is an inherently neutral language: There is no gender in English as there are in Romance languages. There are no class or generational distinctions baked into the language, as there are with so many languages that feature different you’s with different verb conjugations – the deferential you (boss, elder, stranger) versus the familiar you (friend, subordinate, child). Ours is a radically egalitarian and modern language, and it is simpler and more direct as a result.

English is also more politically neutral than we think. Even Islamist Jihadist propagandists would concede that English, is a convenience in spreading their word. And any relative decline over time of America’s global power and influence will actually help, rather than hurt, the cause of English worldwide, further decoupling people’s perception of the language from their perceptions of the United States and its influence.

The French – whose language was the last viable alternative in the race to become the world’s lingua franca – are understandably sore about the triumph of English. But even French companies have had to fall in line, accepting English as their organizational language. In what amounted to a telling parody of modern France, one grievance underlying a recent Air France strike was the airline union’s anger at the adoption of English as the default language for internal communications across its global operations.

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable, for linguistic, economic, cultural, and political reasons. For starters, the language is just too hard for outsiders to attain fluency. Then there is the inconvenient fact that Mandarin doesn’t hold sway throughout all of China.

Indeed, resistance to any claim the Chinese language may have for global status may be strongest in the country’s own neighborhood, where nations are nervous about China’s intentions. The PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveys show that people in nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan are far more comfortable with America than with China as regional superpower. And so it’s no accident that English is the only official language of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations.

This cordon sanitaire containing China’s cultural (and if it comes to it, military) expansion is one of the lesser appreciated dynamics of today’s world, one that augurs well for the cause of the English language and American cultural influence. All the hype surrounding China’s rise to great power status can make us lose sight of the fact that what realtors might call the “China Adjacent Region” (let’s call it CAR) – the crescent encompassing Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the rest of Southeast Asia, and India – far surpasses China in population and economic power.

So don’t expect Chinese to take on English for global preeminence. That’s the good news for us as Americans. The bad news – at least for Americans thinking they don’t need to learn a second language– is that English’s very universality will make more and more of the world’s population multilingual. If all our kids speak is English, they’ll be at a disadvantage in a globalized labor force – because everyone else will speak it too. But at least we get to pick our second language.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He teaches journalism at Arizona State University.

Read next: Speaking More Than One Language Could Sharpen Your Brain

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. As separatists and Russian troops chip away at its sovereignty, Ukraine struggles with corruption while hunting heat for the coming winter.

By Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg View

2. Leading by example: One Silicon Valley superstar has put tech’s pernicious racism in his crosshairs.

By J.J. McCorvey in Fast Company

3. The most important element of the U.S.-China climate deal might be that China has stepped away from its go-it-alone approach on climate.

By Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations

4. Is the next frontier of mesh networks — like the one that linked protestors in Hong Kong — serving news?

By Susan E. McGregor at NiemanLab

5. Lessons from the Bulungula Incubator: Zeroing in on poverty at the most basic level can catalyze community change — and transforms lives.

By Réjane Woodroffe in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Science

Looking to Science for Answers About Race

Theodosius Dobzhansky
Theodosius Dobzhansky, circa 1960s Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

How a forgotten scientist changed the way we talk about race

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Americans are constantly reminded of the contradictions concerning the meaning and impact of race.

We can as a nation claim progress as it pertains to race. After all, a majority of American voters have twice elected President Barack Obama to the most powerful office in the world.

Yet, for as much progress as we have made there is as much work to be done. The recent killings by police of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York remind us how race shapes the often hostile relationship between law enforcement and some communities. Racist comments by several NBA owners remind us that some remain polluted by the foolish belief in the fundamental superiority and inferiority of different groups. Skin color still limits economic and other opportunities. Take home loans: over the past few years the U.S. Justice Department settled cases with several banks for having steered non-whites into expensive subprime loans despite having qualified for standard mortgages.

Race matters, of course, and so too does the meaning we give it. We have often turned to science for that meaning—to justify beliefs and to provide a vocabulary for explaining human differences. But science too struggles with understanding race.

When we talk about the scientific meaning of race today we do so largely because of the work of the distinguished evolutionary biologist Theodosious Dobzhansky, who spent most of his career at Columbia University. Though today forgotten outside of scientific circles, Dobzhansky was almost single-handedly responsible for reshaping the race concept in the 20th century through his classic book, Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937).

Until Dobzhansky’s work appeared, race was defined largely in typological terms, meaning that one member of a race was thought to share the same traits with other members of that race. This kind of thinking helped perpetuate racist actions and stereotypes. For example, from 1932-1972 the infamous Tuskegee Study followed the natural course of syphilis in African American men because it was mistakenly believed that syphilis was a different disease in blacks than it was in whites.

Although Dobzhansky was unaware of the Tuskegee Study at that time, he did understand that such classifications were bad science. Dobzhansky, through new techniques in population genetics and evolutionary biology, came to understand first in the non-human animals he studied like fruit flies and ladybug beetles, and later in humans, that genetic diversity at the racial or population level was far greater than most people knew. Racial groups were much more genetically complex than a typological race concept would allow.

So how did Dobzhansky redefine race? To Dobzhansky, race was simply a methodological tool to facilitate the scientific study of human and other populations. Race was not a fixed entity, it was a way to organize individuals within a species based on the frequency with which a gene or genes appeared in that population. Depending on the genes being investigated, there could be just a few or many races. What made his definition so important and so radical was that he understood that the way we choose to organize differences in gene frequencies within species were about data and methodology, not about an underlying racial hierarchy or about the fixity of certain traits within specific groups. Dobzhansky thus sought to extract racism from the race concept.

By the 1960s, Dobzhansky grew disillusioned with the race concept, and came to believe that the scientific study of race was not only inseparable from its broader social meanings, but that it could also be put in the service of reinforcing those social meanings. The rise of the Civil Rights Movement and his own battles with other scientists over the imprecise and often inappropriate use of the term ‘race’ led him to issue a challenge to the field: devise better and more meaningful methods to investigate genetic diversity.

More than fifty years later biology still struggles with Dobzhansky’s challenge and still operates within a paradox that he himself struggled with. On the one hand, race can be an important tool to help scientists organize genetic diversity. On the other, race is an imprecise marker of genetic diversity and not a great proxy for elucidating the relationship between our ancestry and our genes.

This paradox remains central to the use of race in our genomic age. For example, it is currently too expensive to sequence everyone’s genomes, so the rapidly growing field of personalized medicine relies on race as a proxy to make best guesses about an individual’s disease risk and how one’s genes influence the response (positively or negatively) to drug treatments. Because genetic variants can cluster in populations, the belief is that this can help clinicians and drug companies make medical decisions based on one’s race. The potential danger here is that we inadvertently reinforce a crude understanding of race, forgetting that it is a highly flawed concept that cannot be used as a proxy for an individual’s own genome.

It turns out that muddled thinking about race is as deeply ingrained in scientific as non-scientific thought, and that scientists are as conflicted about race as the rest of society. It is neither cynical nor misguided to acknowledge this. It is only a reflection of a society that continues to struggle with the meaning and impact of racial difference.

Michael Yudell, Interim Chair and Associate Professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, is author of “Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century,” which was recently published by Columbia University Press.

TIME Civil Rights

How Gandhi’s Time in Jail Helped His Cause

Mahatma Gandhi TIME Cover 1930
Mahatma Gandhi on the cover of TIME, Mar. 31, 1930 TIME

Nov. 6, 1913: Mahatma Gandhi is arrested in South Africa while leading a march to oppose a racist policy

Before he was the pioneering civil rights activist called by the honorific “Mahatma” (“great soul,” in Sanskrit), Mohandas Gandhi was a young attorney just trying to take his seat on a train.

Not long after moving to South Africa in 1893 to help an Indian merchant with a legal problem, he was kicked out of the first-class section of a train — despite having bought a ticket for it — after being told, “This is for whites only,” according to Ramachandra Guha, the author of Gandhi Before India. “He had just come from England, where — at least in London in the 1890s — professionals who were colored did not face discrimination,” Guha said in an interview with NPR. The experience was both humiliating and eye-opening, and set the stage for the civil disobedience that would become Gandhi’s legacy.

He paid a price — including four periods in jail during his 21 years in South Africa — for demonstrating against discrimination, but continued with protests, such as leading Indian expats in opposing a racist law requiring all Indians to register with the “Asiatic Department” and to carry their registration cards at all times or risk deportation. His final stint in a South African prison began with his arrest on this day 101 years ago — Nov. 6, 1913 — for leading a march of more than 2,000 people to protest a tax on Indian immigrants.

While he left South Africa for good the following year, his arrest record was far from complete.

Going to jail was, in fact, one of the sharpest tools in Gandhi’s nonviolent tool belt, along with fasting (or a combination of the two). According to TIME’s 1948 report on his assassination, British authorities often freed him from jail when he began to fast, “lest a massive anger at his death in their hands engulf India.” Gandhi himself once said, according to the story, “I always get my best bargains behind prison bars.”

The lessons he learned about the effectiveness of peaceful protest in South Africa formed the basis for his efforts to end British oppression in India. In the book Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi relates a conversation with a tailor in 1915, just after returning to India.

He gave me some account of the hardships inflicted on the people in Viramgam, and said:

“Please do something to end this trouble…”

“Are you ready to go to jail?” I asked.

“We are ready to march to the gallows,” was the quick reply.

“Jail will do for me,” I said. “But see that you do not leave me in the lurch.”

Read TIME’s original coverage of Gandhi’s assassination, here in the archives: Saints & Heroes: Of Truth and Shame

TIME

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Race

Charles Barkley
Paul Drinkwater—NBC/Getty Images

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

He's not right, but neither is the other side—the truth about 'blackness' is somewhere in the middle

Charles Barkley is on the griddle for suggesting too many black people think it’s white to be successful. Barkley said that such people think “it’s best to knock a successful black person down ’cause they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s crabs in a barrel … We’re the only ethnic group that says, ‘Hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’”

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had posed, based on his own locker-room interviews, that part of the reason Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s teammates don’t like him is that “some of the black players think Wilson isn’t black enough”—Wilson is “well spoken.” Barkley agreed with Freeman; controversy was officially sparked. But too many people who agree either with Barkley or Wilson’s teammates are off-base; the truth is somewhere in the middle, and it forces us to look squarely at some things many find awkward.

A standard response for people inclined to agree with Barkley would be something like, “Yeah, that’s right. What’s ‘black,’ anyway? There’s no ‘black’ way to talk. There’s no way for somebody to ‘blacker’ than somebody else.” But there is. I don’t know how many black people think it’s “black” to go to jail, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as black—or blacker.

We are trained to think it’s stereotyping to say that. And indeed, all black people do not exhibit black cultural traits to the same extent. But the traits exist. Example: linguists have documented that one can indeed sound black. Both white and black Americans can almost always immediately tell whether someone is black on the phone even when the subject matter is race-neutral and there is no “slang” involved. And black speech is not the same as white Southern—who really thinks Jeff Foxworthy talks the same way as Tracy Morgan?

And then, wouldn’t it be strange if black culture somehow consisted only of speech? Like any culture, black culture also includes favorite foods, modes of dance, senses of humor (Black Twitter, anyone?), religious traditions, dress fashions and aspects of carriage and demeanor. This is what black culture is. To pretend the entire conception is a stereotype because people exhibit it to varying degrees is to dismiss generations of scholarship and art lovingly documenting exactly this culture. Blackness is beyond skin color.

The elegant way of putting it: some people are more rooted in black culture than others. The simpler way of putting it: some people are blacker than others.

If their reported sentiments are true, then Wilson’s teammates are not wrong in sensing that Wilson is less black in how he talks. Where they are wrong is in having a problem with it. Too many black people hear someone like Wilson talking and make a quick assumption that because he’s less rooted in cultural blackness than they are, he must not like them. Or that he has somehow denied a part of his real self. This belief is dead wrong, both as fact and because of where it leads.

The fact part: legions of black people wearing the culture more lightly than Wilson’s teammates love black people of all kinds quite deeply, thank you very much. And very few of them are under the impression that they are white, a tough notion to maintain in front of a mirror.

From there it’s a short step to thinking that things not associated with black talk—like school—are white and therefore disloyal. That helps drag black kids’ grades down (and studies have not disproven that, despite a certain hype). Also, if you think straying from black culture means you’re antiblack or not “real,” then there follows the idea that true blackness means holding back from reaching out beyond the black world for much of, well, anything. Some years ago in a truly unpleasant reality show, Black. White., a black family posed as white while a white family posed as black; the black guy told the white guy—proudly!—that real black people don’t stand up straight and aren’t curious.

So telling people like Wilson’s teammates that there’s no such thing as someone being less black than someone else is just not true. What’s sloppy, dangerous and backward is calling someone not black enough.

 

McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Authentically Black and Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, among other books.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Crime

State Senator Arrested in Ferguson Protest

Video shows her leading protest chants

A Missouri state senator was arrested during a protest in Ferguson Monday night following the continued outrage over a white officer’s shooting of an unarmed black teen in August.

State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who represents sections of St. Louis, can be seen leading a protest chant in footage aired on local news channel KSDK, Reuters reports. “No Justice,” she yells in the video. The crowd replies, “No peace.”

On Aug. 9, police officer Darren Wilson shot multiple times and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The town has been on edge with near-daily protests since news first broke, but tensions have run especially high in recent days as a grand jury weighs whether to indict Wilson.

[Reuters]

TIME faith

It’s Time for Whites to Accept Responsibility for Racist Systems

Hundreds march on day of disobedience in St. Louis
Clergy members lead hundreds of protestors march from Wellspring Church to the Ferguson police station in an act of civil disobedience on October 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Ferguson must be a moral wake-up call to white parents, not just another warning to black parents

I and many other faith leaders came to Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday and Monday because of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old black teenager who, though unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer on August 9. My first thoughts when I heard the news were about my 16-year-old son Luke. I knew how unlikely it would be that this would ever happen to my white son in America.

Coming to Ferguson was about Michael Brown. But Ferguson has also become a parable for our nation. Jesus often told parables. A parable is just a story, but often one with a simple but important point.

The Ferguson parable is simply this: black lives in America are worth less than white lives—especially in our criminal justice system. And the parable of Ferguson rings true around the nation, with the many young black men who were and have been assaulted, shot and killed before and after Michael Brown.

The big question for us is, how long will we accept the unacceptable? When will we decide to right this unacceptable wrong? I believe that is a question for parents, and for white parents in particular. How long will white parents accept the fact that the lives of children of black parents’ are worth less in our police and criminal justice systems than the lives of white sons and daughters?

Black parents are friends we meet through our children’s schools, colleagues in our workplaces, and the moms and dads we sit with at baseball and soccer games. Black parents are our brothers and sisters in Christ if we call ourselves Christians. So let’s be honest. If white Christians in America were willing to act more Christian that white when it comes to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.

Every black parent I know or have ever spoken to has “The Talk” with their sons and daughters. “The Talk” is a conversation about how to behave and not to behave–”keep your hands open and out in front of you, shut your mouth, be respectful, say sir”–when you find yourself in the presence of a white policeman with a gun. But white parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experiences of black and white parents in America. How can we continue to accept that? Ferguson must be a moral wake-up call to white parents, not just another warning to black parents. That’s why I went to Ferguson this weekend and why I got arrested.

As a Little League baseball coach, I know that all the black parents of kids I have coached have had “The Talk,” while none of the white parents have had such conversations with their children. And most white parents haven’t got a clue that those talks are going on between their son’s black teammates and his parents. So what does it really mean to be teammates?

As Nicholas Kristof said in his Sunday New York Times column: “The greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks… We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Let me add a tougher conclusion. To my white brothers and sisters: you can’t continue to say you are not racist when you continue to accept and support systems that are. It’s time for white people to take responsibility for our acceptance of racist systems.

These conversations will make people uncomfortable, and they should. I want to ask white parents to ask their black parent friends about “The Talk.” Ask them if they have had the talk with their sons. What did they say? What did their son say? How did it feel for them to have that conversation with their son? What’s it like not to be able to trust law enforcement in their own community?

The time for zero tolerance of racial policing has come. It’s time to right an unacceptable wrong. It’s time for white parents to join with black parents to make that happen. And it’s time for white Christians to join black Christians and say that black lives are important; all lives are important. These kids are not just God’s kids, they are our kids.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

The Real Problem When It Comes to Diversity and Asian-Americans

Asian-American Whiz Kids | Aug. 31, 1987 Ted Thai

The lack of Asian leadership in tech sheds light on a larger issue: Asians are excluded from the idea of diversity

Years ago… they used to think you were Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan. Then they thought you must own a laundry or restaurant. Now they think all we know how to do is sit in front of a computer.

It was 1987 when Virginia Kee, then a 55-year-old a high school teacher in New York’s Chinatown, said the above words. She was one of several Asian-Americans who discussed the perception of their race for TIME’s cover story, “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.” The cover story would elicit small-scale Asian boycotts of the magazine from those who found offensive the portrait of textbook-clutching, big-glasses brainiacs. To them, the images codified hurtful beliefs that Asians and Asian-Americans were one-dimensional: that they were robots of success, worshippers of the alphabet’s first letter, study mules branded with their signature eyes.

Today, Kee is 82. It has been nearly 70 years since the days when she avoided the public restroom “because it was white or colored”; nearly 20 years since she co-founded the Chinese-American Planning Council, then an unlikely social service for Asian-Americans, who were perceived to be sufficiently independent not to need it. And yet Kee, who still recalls the words she told TIME nearly 30 years ago, maintains that not much has changed.

“If you try to navigate the human part of it, we are seeing, as yellow people, our stereotypes still existing in the heads of many people. We don’t get the chance to really go through and break the glass ceiling,” Kee says. “We are putting limitations on our people.”

The longevity of the idea that “all [Asian Americans] know how to do is sit in front of a computer” was highlighted recently when several top technology firms released their first-ever diversity reports. Those reports and media discussion of their findings centered on the obvious, important problem: an under-representation of women, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Very little was said of the discrepancy between the high percentage of Asian tech employees and the disproportionately low percentage of Asian leaders. The fact that Asians’ presence charted in bars more than a few pixels tall, it seemed, disqualified them from scrutiny.

To compare representation across companies, and in tech versus leadership roles, use the drop-down menu.

“There is an important conversation to be had in terms of who actually has full access to education and economic opportunities,” says Mary Lui, a professor of American and Asian-American Studies at Yale University. “But at the same time, think about what [not talking about Asian representation] might be saying in terms of Asian-Americans in the U.S.”

What it says is this: Asians and Asian-Americans are smart and successful, so hiring or promoting them does not count as encouraging diversity. It says: there is no such thing as underrepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans. The problem with this belief, historians and advocates assert, is that it not only obscures the sheer range of experiences within Asian and Asian-American populations, but also excludes them from conversations about diversity and inclusion in leadership and non-tech sectors.

*

Not that this exclusion is a new phenomenon. Historians agree that diversity has turned a blind eye to Asians and Asian-Americans ever since the 1965 Immigration Act. With the conclusion of World War II, many ex-colonial Asian countries like the Philippines, South Korea and India had emphasized technical education to modernize and industrialize their new national economies. The Immigration Act permitted the migration of those highly educated Asians as a means of recruiting science, technology or engineering experts to the U.S. during the Cold War era.

For over half a century, the growth of the Asian-American population in the U.S. had been stunted, first by racially-motivated exclusionary laws that banned Asian immigration and later by annual quotas. But within years of the 1965 act, that population boomed. By the 1970s and 1980s, the image of Asian-Americans was no longer of the alien invaders washing ashore in California during the Gold Rush, the faceless bachelors laying the cold steel of the Transcontinental Railroad, or the land-grabbing and job-stealing migrants. The new Asian-Americans were scientists, doctors, programmers and engineers. They were thriving.

By the mid- to late-1980s, the notion of Asian-Americans as universally successful was everywhere. Major news organizations lauded them as the “model minority” — a term first coined in 1966 when first the New York Times and then U.S. News and World Report published stories that suggested Asian-Americans, through their steely work ethic and quiet perseverance, were uniformly triumphant despite prejudice. The idea elicited criticism, particularly from Asian-American groups whose problems were made invisible behind the guise of universal success: the displaced Laotian and Cambodian refugees of the Vietnam War, or the elderly Filipinos fighting to save their low-cost I-Hotel housing complex from urban renewal.

TIME was not immune to the model minority craze. In 1985, two years before its controversial cover story, TIME published an article called “To America With Skills: A Wave of Arrivals From the Far East Enriches the Country’s Talent Pool.” The piece documented the flood of Asian-Americans into high-paying careers and elite universities with decidedly less focus on marginalized groups like poor Chinese launderers, unassisted Vietnamese refugees or underpaid South Asian cab drivers:

What really distinguishes the Asians is that, of all the new immigrants, they are compiling an astonishing record of achievement. Asians are represented far beyond their population share at virtually every top-ranking university: their contingent in Harvard’s freshman class has risen from 3.6% to 10.9% since 1976 … Partly as a result of their academic accomplishments, Asians are climbing the economic ladder with remarkable speed.

“I consider it a two-headed hydra: the stereotype of being the evil invader, or the model minority,” says Helen Zia, an Asian-American activist, journalist and historian. “The conclusion of both is the same. Asian-Americans are too foreign — from the outside, being an invader, or on the inside, being so bland and so good.”

Asian-Americans’ visible success, with numbers to prove it, began to mean they should be excluded from inclusionary practices like affirmative action. More severely, Asian-Americans were seen as a hindrance to diversity. In one case, high school senior Yat-Pang Au and his Hong Kong-born parents filed a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice that the University of California admissions system discriminated against Asian-Americans. Au’s case was profiled in several media organizations, including TIME’s 1987 “Whiz Kids” cover:

A straight-A student, Yat-Pang, 18, lettered in cross-country, was elected a justice on the school supreme court and last June graduated first in his class at San Jose’s Gunderson High School. Berkeley turned him down. Watson M. Laetsch, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, insists that Yat-Pang was rejected only for a ”highly competitive” engineering program.

Au is now 45. He still recalls his parents’ insistence that he “fight for his rights,” a struggle that concluded with an apology from the chancellor. He later transferred to UC Berkeley in 1989 for his junior year after two years at DeAnza College, a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, he is the CEO and co-founder of Veritas Investments. And though Au managed to find success despite obstacles — the classic model minority narrative — he says that the fact he chose entrepreneurship as a career meant he rose to leadership despite these systems that assume success for Asians is a byproduct of their race.

“I was, to be honest, embarrassed that I didn’t get in, embarrassed thinking and expecting that we lived in a relatively color blind society,” Au said.

Today, it appears that Asians and Asian-Americans still pose a threat to diversity. Only now even they believe the idea, too. In 2012, a popular New York Times op-ed titled “Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?” described Asian-American college students feeling like “a faceless bunch of geeks and virtuosos.” The previous year, an Associated Press article reported that many Asian-Americans were no longer checking off the “Asian” box on college applications, in order to circumvent unspoken quotas at top colleges. Their threat to diversity is so convincing that Asians and Asian-Americans have begun to offer what is, at its core, an inadvertent apology.

*

As the world’s response to the tech diversity reports shows, Asians and Asian-Americans remain invincible to underrepresentation: even though companies tend to have disproportionately low levels of Asian leaders compared to the number of Asians in technical jobs, this discrepancy is overlooked. That silence is only one part of a larger issue that experts insist has deep historical roots. It is not simply a first-world complaint or an upper-middle class problem. It is one with sobering consequences.

“Being the model minority, there’s the expectation that you’re going to do so well you shouldn’t have any problems,” Zia says.

The belief in a blanket Asian-American culture is so thick that it has resulted in confusion when Asian-Americans deviate from the model minority myth. Today, diversity is more visible than ever: There is the commanding John Cho, and there is the awkward William Hung; the funny Mindy Kaling and the serious Indra Nooyi; the talkative local launderer and the mum evil villain; the whitewashed American-born Chinese and the perpetual foreigner. And yet those who display that diversity are often perceived as exceptions. The rule is the single framework — the model minority myth — that persists as the dominant stereotype for the whole race, especially in the tech sector.

“If [executives] assume their Asian-American tech employees are the model minority,” Zia continues, “the baggage that that also brings is that they are good, high-tech coolies who will do their jobs, work like hell, stay up 24/7 grinding out code — and that [executives] can never think of promoting them into management or leadership positions.”

Yet the movement to push Asians and Asian-Americans into conversations of diversity and inclusion has fizzled out in recent years. Asian-American activism, historians believe, was at its peak following a national outcry after two white men escaped prosecution for their 1982 racially-charged murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin. Nascent groups like American Citizens for Justice and the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence demanded equal treatment of Asian-Americans both under the law and in society. The fight for Asian-American equality may be less fierce today, but it is still there.

“I wanted to bring to the conversation that Asians, although they were starting to enter the ranks of these companies, were not moving to the top of these organizations. I think it’s still the case that organizations are still not focused on the issue,” says Korean-American leadership consultant Jane Hyun, whose book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians discusses caps on Asian-American seniority in corporate settings.

The onus, Hyun says, is not only on society and business, but also on Asian-Americans themselves. They must try to untangle how cultural, historical and social factors inhibit their progress, in leadership or in other areas where Asian-American diversity is needed, like film, TV and politics. J.D. Hokoyama, former president of the national nonprofit Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), adds that “[The problem] is not just from the top. Our own communities are also settling.”

The irony is that it is the pride of many Asian and Asian-American cultures not to settle for anything less than they deserve. Unless, that is, they or everyone else believe they’ve already gotten what they deserve, and more: academic success, financial stability, happiness. It is hard to imagine that some have not gotten what they deserve, especially in an age when diversity in Asians and Asian-Americans is seen as the difference between straight-laced, straight-A geniuses and lazy, A- slackers. There are still those facing deeper problems that are dismissed or overlooked. And what it takes to start unraveling these issues is simply to understand that some things are too good to be true.

“We have the good, the bad and the ugly. We’re not models,” Zia said. “We should we be seen in our full humanity. That is, in my experience, what everyone really aspires to.”

Read next: Why I Changed My Korean Name—And Why I Changed It Back

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser