Raven Symone will always be remembered by most of us as the adorable little girl from The Cosby Show who took over when Rudy Huxtable just wasn’t as cute as she used to be. Both Raven Symone and Keshia Knight-Pulliam have grown into beautiful women who carry their brands with dignity, charisma and social responsibility.
I applaud them for that.
I’ve only crossed paths with Raven once, when we were going on a television show in New York (I can’t remember which one). She came on right after me. Raven and I didn’t speak to one another, but we made (what I call) NEC: “Negro Eye Contact.” That’s when you walk past another black person, and subtly look them in the eye, waiting for them to make eye contact back with you and do one of three things: 1) Say “hello” (which is most preferred), 2) give you a friendly smile (especially in the case of the opposite sex), or 3) give you the “head nod” (in the case of one brother acknowledging another – the nod is quick, but it means a lot).
The worst case scenario is when you try to make eye contact and the person deliberately avoids looking back at you. This sometimes means that the person is either uncomfortable connecting with other black people, they are too arrogant to do so, they didn’t see you or they feel no obligation to respond to you just because you also happen to be black. I don’t like those people.
As I alluded to earlier, Raven gave me the soft smile that says, “I see you black man and I know you see me too.”
I’ll admit that I was confused to see Raven tell Oprah Winfrey that she doesn’t want to be seen as an African American. To be more precise, she told Oprah, “I’m not an African American; I’m an American.”
I was thrown off by Raven’s remarks in part because she didn’t necessarily have to make them. This shows that she has the courage to say what’s on her mind, but there may be times when it’s best to change the subject. Even Oprah Winfrey warned her that people were going to be upset about her comments, but Raven stuck to her guns.
Raven’s statement reminded me of Tiger Woods’ “caublanasian” remark years ago. Tiger’s point was that he’s a mix of many ethnicities and doesn’t want to be confined to the “black box.” This was a huge PR fail in the black community, but probably made white people trust him more than they trust men like me. I love telling people that I’m black, even if they don’t ask me.
Part of me identifies with both Tiger and Raven. No one wants to grow up being defined solely by the color their skin. In fact, it can be overwhelming. I remember how good I felt to be in China and Africa, where my black skin didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that people thought I was a rich, educated and modestly-famous American. This was better than being in the US, where the businessman in the airport thinks I’m there to sweep the floor. When I go to Atlanta, I love the fact that people are likely to notice your profession or your personality before they notice your race. Being black isn’t a big deal in Atlanta.
So, to Tiger and Raven’s point, we owe our kids the chance to be something other than just a skin color.
But here’s the problem.
Tiger and Raven, both child stars, may have been so disconnected from the black experience that they are unable to truly appreciate the beauty that comes with being bonded by a common struggle. Tiger has never been stopped by the police for no reason or had a teacher assume that he isn’t as smart as the white kids. He’s never run into a situation where another black man was trying to kill him. He’s never tried to apply for job after job, only to be told that he’s not “a good fit” for the company.
Raven has had an equally sanitized experience, at least when it comes to racial discrimination. She’ll always be a millionaire celebrity, which allows for the kinds of eccentricities we only see with Will and Jada’s kids. They get to go through life believing that the world is colorblind, and that if we all just hold hands and sing Katie Perry songs together, everything will be OK. For some, the mere mention of racial inequality is an inconvenient mood-killer that only exists because we choose to bring it up.
While carrying my blackness on my back feels like a 400 pound gorilla, I owe it to the people I love to represent them proudly, in the best way that I can. I want everyone to know that I play for the “Black American Team,” even when it appears that the team is losing. But the truth is that I might not feel this way had I not seen the struggle up close. If I hadn’t seen my older brother lose his mind after going to prison or my best friend shot in the head, I might not be so sensitive to the violence experienced by black men in America. This is not to say that Raven hasn’t seen her share of struggles in life, but when you have enough money, you can sometimes by-pass many of the challenges that come with being black.
Here’s another important point for Raven to remember: While you might not see yourself as black, gay or female, the rest of the world does. So, as you seek to define yourself as a colorless, shapeless species who is free to be who she wants, I encourage you not to disconnect yourself so much from the black experience that you end up shocked when white people decide to treat you like the rest of us. It is in those situations where the black celebrity who has abandoned their community suddenly seeks to lean on black people as a back-up. Just ask OJ Simpson.
Overall, Raven is at least partially correct: We are all Americans, and this is our country too. We built this nation, even if someone took our wealth in the process. But being American doesn’t mean forgetting that many of us are also African. We may not even be 100% African by blood (with all of rape that occurred on plantations), but we are African by spirit and by experience. So, no matter how many times Henry Louis Gates tells us on his show that a large percentage of our DNA is rooted in Europe, the fact is that it’s truly OK to just be BLACK…..let’s not run from our heritage.
The bottom line is that Raven Symone will always be a beautiful black woman, whether she likes it or not. I hope she understands what I’m saying.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is one of the the most highly sought-after African American public figures in the United States. He has been a Finance Professor at Syracuse University for 12 years, and was the only African American in the country to earn a Ph.D. in Finance during the year 2002. He is the author of several compelling books, including “What if George Bush were a Black Man?“, “Black American Money: How Black Power can Thrive in a Capitalist Society,” and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College.” He is the co-star of the Janks Morton film, “Hoodwinked,” along with Drs. Steve Perry, Marc Lamont Hill, Ivory Toldson and Jawanza Kunjufu. He has also appeared in a slew of national media outlets, including CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and many others. This article is culled from Your Black World Network.
Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.