Column: The human family

Recently I was invited to be one of several guest speakers at a meeting of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association here on campus. At one point the members of the BGPSA were being asked to stand up, one by one, to identify themselves. When the sequence of introductions came around to me, I somehow instinctively sprung up from my seat and gave my name and major, eliciting smiles among many who interpreted what I did, as a white person, as a symbolic gesture of goodwill and unity.

Recently I was invited to be one of several guest speakers at a meeting of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association here on campus. At one point the members of the BGPSA were being asked to stand up, one by one, to identify themselves. When the sequence of introductions came around to me, I somehow instinctively sprung up from my seat and gave my name and major, eliciting smiles among many who interpreted what I did, as a white person, as a symbolic gesture of goodwill and unity.

After I went home I got to thinking more deeply about it, and realized maybe there was more to it than that. For a long time now, I’ve understood that Africa is the origin of all of humankind, and in that sense, in the broadest historical context, we are all African. I’m sure this is old hat to the BGPSA members, even if it’s still taking me years to internalize the truth of this realization.

What’s interesting, though, is that, even as a European American, I do have closer physical and intellectual connections to Africa than are at first apparent. Europeans did not live in a vacuum throughout history, and it should come as no surprise that there was a lot of interaction between southern Europeans and northern Africans, both socially and sexually.

My grandma has passed away now, but she was incredibly special to me. Once, not too long ago, while thinking about those loving feelings and conjuring up the image of her face, it occurred to me that several of her facial features which I also considered to be “French” may have ultimately been of African origin. If I only had a crystal ball and could look backward in time through the generations, there must be a fascinating story to be told that would turn my understanding of my identity on its head – or more accurately, turn it right side up!

I didn’t have an inkling of any of this when, as a child, my newly divorced mother moved us (including my two younger brothers) into a racially integrated housing complex in my hometown in Illinois. In reviewing the experience of those three-and-a-half formative years of my life, from ages 9 to 12, I honestly cannot think of a single incident involving any overt racial conflict between any of us children. This includes my experience in seventh grade at a racially integrated middle school, which was named Martin Luther King Upper Grade Center. Somehow we managed to create our own relatively harmonious “children’s society,” which was probably more just, since children live closer to the reality of nature, and our heads hadn’t been completely filled up yet with the false adult ideas which promote racial division.

Rather than being a complete outsider, or person of an “other” identity during my visit to the BGPSA, maybe it should be described more as an instance of the group’s boundaries being temporarily expanded in a natural and commonsensical way for a special occasion. After all, there is only one human race.

Should I feel jilted in some way for not really qualifying to be a regular member of the BGPSA, despite the connections that exist? No, not at all. If we consider life to be like a conference, it makes perfect sense that there would be break-out sessions where different groups of attendees would gather together to discuss specific concerns which more closely align with their experience, interests and goals. The important point is that we are all attending the same “conference” and that we all come together as a whole during the “plenary sessions.”

I haven’t done a complete inventory of my personal identity yet, but I’m sure that I’ve incorporated many values from black culture into my identity, even though there surely must be some dysconscious (repressed) compartmentalization going on with some of my values conflicting with each other at the subconscious level. This is why it’s important that members of groups like the BGPSA have their own space, to work out issues among themselves without the interference (well intentioned or not) from people like me. As we know from the recent studies of the concept of “privilege” that scholars in the field of cultural studies have put forth, there’s much work to be done before the human family can finally function as a cohesive family, without hegemonic elements within the family unfairly taking advantage of other members.

All in all, I was gratified to be invited, and felt inspired to hope for greater inter-ethnic harmony here on campus and within the UC system.

Reach BRIAN RILEY at bkriley@ucdavis.edu.