Raven-Symone, best known as The Cosby Show’s Olivia and star of Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven, has decided she doesn’t like labels. Well, she only likes one label, I guess.
On OWN’s Where Are They Now, Raven sat down October 5 with Oprah to discuss her past accomplishments, future projects and plans, and personal life — including her recent coming out as a lesbian. Oprah asked if she wanted “to be labeled gay.’’ But Raven was having none of that labeling, and retorted, “I want to be labeled a human who loves humans, [and] I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American; I’m not an African-American, I’m an American.’’
“Oh, girl, don’t set the Twitter on fire!’’ Oprah said as she laughed and adjusted her seat.
Given the chance to walk her statement back, Raven doubled down: “I will say this: I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa. I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person.’’
Though I’m certain she meant no harm, this is without a doubt a statement packed with problems. One pressing issue with this declaration is that she didn’t want to be labeled black. I say black because there’s a great deal of racism inherent in the term African-American. Africa is a continent, and to lump a whole continent into an ethnicity implies uniformity. Irish, Italian, Greek and French folk don’t get labeled European Americans.
Discussing blackness as a label is useless because black isn’t a nationality or sexuality, it’s an external identifier in this country, and one of great consequence. Sexuality can be masked; nationality can be masked and even changed. The negative effects of either can be blunted with money and privilege to a far greater degree than the negative effects of blackness––think housing discrimination––and this is due in large part to the ubiquity of blackness. Look at it this way: If you walk into a bank and deposit $1 million, what will they know about you without having to ask: your color, your sexuality, or your nationality?
That’s because labels are fluid, and identifiers are static.
The most wrong-headed portion of the 28-year-old actress’s comments, however, is that she thinks America is “colorless.’’ America is not at all colorless. If Americans were colorless, white people wouldn’t get away with racistcaricatures of the firstblackpresident. They wouldn’t rage when an Indian-American woman from New York won Miss America. To quote Toni Morrison, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’’
To aspire to be a colorless American is to aspire to be in America, free of the burden of color—i.e., to desire to be white. James Baldwin once said that whiteness took “generations and a vast amount of coercion.’’ He speaks to the thinking paramount to the differences between white and black in America when he says, “…in this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves.’’
The existence of whiteness, as it stands, makes blackness bad automatically. It creates a country where people use “African-American’’ as an unthinking default. (There’s history there, too: We have Jesse Jackson’s presidential run to thank.) Most important, many of us buy into it, and we bristle at non-whites in positions of power and influence because of it. Raven is the latest among us to buy the company line, but she won’t be the last.
Raven doesn’t like labels. That’s fine, I don’t either. But when we say we don’t like labels, it’s often about the labels we get. Nobody wants to be served a label that blocks them from agency and equality. American is a label, for example, and it’s the one Raven chose for herself—and chose by shedding the labels that block her from privilege. If, by some stretch of the imagination, being American blocked her from getting enviable roles, or equal treatment, she’d have taken issue with that label as well.
Gay and black in America can get you denied a home loan—or killed. [White] American in America gives you the benefit of the doubt when you’re treated like you’re black or gay.
And that is so not Raven.