Being Black in America: From Twelve Years a Slave and Beyond


Sara Niles

In the year 1988, Peggy McIntosh published a landmark essay on ‘white male privilege and white privilege in general, that provided a revolutionary view of what most White people expected  as a result of  simply being born ‘White’ or Caucasian: The title was White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack

The reason this paper was such an illuminating essay in 1988, was because it caused people to take a second look as the way races viewed not only each other, but how White people viewed the world. In the essay, it was revealed that a White person learned to expect to be treated a certain way simply because he or she was White; for example. McIntosh stated that these perceptions and privileges were both “denied and protected” by those who enjoyed them, and that those protected privileges were the total opposites of those of minority races; that being White was not listed as a defining characteristic of an entire race, and the White race was used as the ‘In’ group to provide the standard for those of the ‘out’ groups or races. Even in the year 2014, the word ‘minority’ is applied to most races that are non-White, and ethnic groups and racial distinctions leave out Whites, with the presumption that the majority sets the standard that needs no definition or label.

It is now 2014, over twenty-five years since McIntosh wrote about White privilege, and six years since Barak Obama, the first Black president of the United States, was sworn into office. The racial landscape has changed drastically during the past couple of decades, and will continue to evolve and change; which leads to a question that is becoming more prominent: What does it mean to be Black in America now?

In 1988, being Black in America meant that you suffered the delayed reaction of a culture that was born during the times of blatant racial prejudices and injustice, a time when the era of Integration of the schools was a fresh memory in the minds of many who lived it firsthand (me included). There were many who still held beliefs that Blacks were inferior, less intelligent, less courageous and less handsome or beautiful than their fair skinned and light haired contemporaries; in fact, I remember when Sidney Poitier and Cicely Tyson broke through many of the preconceived stereotypes of what Blacks could and could not do. I remember when Diahanne Carrol was first considered ‘beautiful’ by the standard of White America; and I also remember when the supermodel arena first opened the doors of its perception wide enough to see the beauty of Black female models who ranged from light caramel in complexion, as in Super Model Tyra Banks, to an ever increasingly dark hue of brownness  until  Sudanese born British model, Alex Wek was pronounced ‘beautiful’, and graced the covers of countless magazines. By now, it was 1995, and the racial climate in America had undergone an extensive degree of change toward being the progressive nation that it has been destined to be, since our forefathers said “every man is …equal”-but we are not there yet. There is still work to be done before the dark shadow of American slavery and its years of ugliness, has been removed.

The last frontier: The Black Man in America, and how he is viewed, is now front and center. The killing of Trayvon Martin presented a hint of leftover stereotypical fear-because if you changed the scenario of the teenaged Black child innocently taking a shortcut home through a White neighborhood, for a blond haired White child doing exactly the same thing, at the same time and in the same place-it would almost assuredly have produced a different result, from the reaction of George Zimmerman to the judgment of the jury. The national perception is still slightly tainted against the idea of the ‘scary’ Black man; especially if he happens to be ‘dark’ complexioned, with a hint of Africa, the birthplace of the world, apparent in his coloring.

I just watched the movie Twelve Years a Slave, an adaption of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, an intense account of man’s inhumanity against man, and a historical time of grave injustices against all men born of color, especially those born Black; and I was driven to reflect upon the changing standards by which America deems one human’s life to be just as valuable, or equal to that of another. I remembered Peggy McIntosh landmark work on White Privilege, and realized it has a match in the Black Man’s lack of automatic privilege; although the scene of racial equality has drastically changed for the better, the view of the Black Man in America, still needs work. Until we can see all humans as merely humans, not as a Red Human or a Green One, and measure all people by the same standards, as good or bad. Intelligent or beautiful, there is work to do yet.

Top Ten Black Supermodels:

Alex Wek


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