My father had a Jewish friend, Mr. Green. My father and Mr. Green would talk about all kinds of things like sports, politics, current events, the price of gas, when Nixon would be impeached, stuff like that.
They also talked about race and religion.
Every now and then my father would say something about Jewish people that was none too flattering and then tag it with, “But not you.” Mr. Green would say something about black people, and tag it with “But not you.” Both men thought they were doing the right thing. Both thought that since they had carved out an exception for the other, that proved they were not bigots.
They were both wrong.
For men of their time, they were both doing the best they could. They both fought in WWII. They both thought segregation was bad and Jackie Robinson was great. They split on Ali and Frasier, but that is a story for another time.
When we moved from DC down South, my Pop missed his friend and Mr. Green missed my Pop. I went to Mr. Green’s granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, because we were friends too. Mr. Green was genuinely saddened that Poppa couldn’t make it.
I believed in their friendship but never really bought into the “But not you” thing. At first I didn’t know why, but it seemed wrong. I never doubted the two men enjoyed each other’s company, or were sincere when they said it, it just didn’t sit right. And it didn’t sit right because it wasn’t right.
Race bigotry is the belief that a group of people are a certain way and that groups can be and/or should be ranked by various criteria. There will always be individuals who will break with the group and be exceptional says the bigot, but the group, for the most part, will live up to or down to whatever are the beliefs about them are.
I have spent my whole life hearing, “But not you.”
In every thing from winning spelling bees in elementary school, to writing and performing poetry, to teaching, to canvassing during campaigns, people have in one way or another said to me, “But not you.”
To that, I’m saying here, “Yes, me.”
I’m a black woman. And when called upon I can be any stereotype about black women you can think of, with the exception of Prissy, (I don’t do stupid.) I can roll my eyes and roll my neck and pop gum.
I can also be Claire Huxtable, Barbara Jordan, or Ida B. Wells.
But the truth about racial bigotry is, it doesn’t matter who or what I am, but how my group is seen. And that doesn’t change. My politeness, my eloquence, my intellect, my humor can get anyone to like me the individual, but it can’t disprove what people think about black people because once I’m made exceptional, I am no longer in that group, at least not in the mind of the person saying, “But not you.”
And I have to earn “But not you” with everyone I meet.
Because the racism is about the group to which I belong, and the first time people see me, they see my group identifiers, they assume I am like what they believe the group is like. I have to show them I am different or be treated not like me, or even a random white stranger, but like what my group is expected to be.
Don’t get me wrong. My blackness is a part of me. It has shaped me, molded me, raised me to be who I am. I see the world through all parts of me and that includes being black in America. But my black experience is not your black stereotype.
I am not your negro.
And that is the trouble with “But not you.”
It is meant to be a way of saying, “I see you as you.”
What it really says is “I see you as me and not like them. They are still all that I think they are, but you are different.”
And that’s the problem.