The new generation of ‘woke’ multiracial twenty-somethings (teen-somethings, if the amount of recent press on the swathes of Willow-ites, Tavi Gevinsons and Amandla Stenbergs is observed) is disdainful of such terms as ‘colour blindness’ and scathing of notions that racial parity can be achieved by anything other than acknowledging that colour has an impact, and that a person’s colour denotes a measurable degree of privilege. Recognition is the new goal, as is acknowledgement that colour in 2015 has a bearing on how a person is reacted to, treated on the street, in popular culture and in the work place.
As demonstrated by the outcry at the emergence of the #alllivesmatter hashtag, in response to the highly emotive #blacklivesmatter, the current civil rights movement is demonstrating itself to be significantly more vocal, less airy and less willing to concede to those who, in the name of ‘equality’, strive to deviate the movement away from those who most need it – namely: people of colour.
While previous less internet-fuelled movements appeared to shy away from explicitly claiming anything other than equality to be the aim, the rousing nature of the internet has fostered a generation of young outspoken individuals. Those who don’t have a problem with admitting that their focus is on issues faced by people of colour, the celebration of people of colour and bringing to people’s attention previously under-addressed issues, such as cultural appropriation, or the prevalence of whitewashing in our most-accessed media.
Yet, while this new brevity from the continually vocally quashed can surely be nothing other than a positive step, there are voices who claim that we have become divisive in our determination, that rather than strengthening, people of colour are hindering the movement towards a cohesive society. A recent example is Winnie Harlow, the former America’s Next Top Model contestant who defended those who were criticized for putting on blackface in order to imitate her vitiligo through make up, describing the criticism as unhelpful and not conducive to education and unity between the races.
While this approach to a highly sensitive topic seems a little naive, it is worth questioning whether the current project of labelling, of defining our ‘race’ so blatantly – a term which, while popular in our particular epoch has been exposed as having no biological grounding, despite it’s immense impact on life chances – has been somewhat reductive in its execution. And, conversely, whether it is unexpectedly exclusionary, especially in a society which is producing increasing number of mixed-race children and therefore mixed identities.
Often, I find myself searching out those articles, those tweets not just advocating the rights of black and brown people identifying with a clear cultural identity; ones that supposedly typify the culture they’ve descended from but those that emphasize that black and brown doesn’t have to denote an ‘otherly culture’ or rather if the culture that they identify most strongly with is the apparently ‘neutral’ prevailing British, that isn’t some kind of colour betrayal.
In some respects, my argument reiterates the criticism of the ‘coconut’ or ‘bounty’ slur. But tackles the propagation of it by those who consider themselves progressives and are overwhelmingly people of colour themselves. Perhaps I am unwilling to attach my ambiguous multitude of ethnicities to any prevailing kind of cultural ark to which I have no connection to and perhaps, for a millennial generation, there will be an increasing reluctance to do so.
But the literature doesn’t appear to cater to that perspective, and the common social media discourse even less so. And so while, in the grand scheme of racial tensions, such as those coming to a head right now across America and in fact all over the world, it is a relatively low priority gripe it is true also that people of colour shouldn’t feel as if they are obligated to embrace a culture that may be wholly apart from their experiences just because that difference is supposedly made visible whilst it remains the case that white people, whatever their ancestral immigrant past, do not.
We must recognise the significance of such descriptors but we must also interrogate their polarising nature. It’s not just black and white.