Touré Talks Racism, 'Oreos' and Skydiving in the Age of Obama
Loop 21's "Post-Blackness" Interview
Though best known to audiences for his groundbreaking work as a journalist covering pop culture for outlets like CNN and Rolling Stone (and for his singular name, à la Prince or Madonna), Touré will soon be known as one of America’s foremost chroniclers of race in the Obama era. His third book, “Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness” has generated critical acclaim in the New York Times. It’s also generated some controversy. In it he, explores what it means to be black in the era of the first black president, and whether or not political beliefs, or cultural behaviors should have any bearing on racial identity.
While promoting his new book Touré recently reminded audiences why he is one of the most provocative writers, thinkers and tweeters in media. After calling Tyler Perry one of the worst directors in Hollywood, he likened his films to “cinematic malt liquor” and McDonald’s burgers -- food that sells well but is bad for you. In response to Perry defenders who point out that he employs underemployed black actors, Touré noted that drug dealers provide jobs to those that need them too.
Our conversation with Touré on post-blackness, modern day racism, skydiving and “oreos” (not the cookies) is below.
Loop 21: Let's start with the title. When I told a couple of people I was interviewing you their reaction was "Yeah he has a new book on post-racial stuff," and I corrected them that the title actually references "post-blackness" not "post-racial." Can you explain the difference?
Touré: Post-racial is a concept I don't really understand. I think it means a world where people don't notice race or something which is obviously not the case so that would make it a word for something that doesn't exist. Post-Blackness is talking about modern Black identity and the complexity of it. It's a term that started in the art world to describe artists who were rooted in Blackness but not constrained by it. They were Black but didn't want identity concerns to rule them. They wanted the freedom to deal with Black subjects and traditions or to not deal with them. I feel like that identity freedom is in the real world now.
Loop 21: There have been books on black political leaders, black women, black artists and black entertainers. I'm not sure I can think of a single book comprised of such a broad cross section of African-Americans from diverse fields, from the artist Kara Walker, to the comedian Paul Mooney, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and so many others. How did you decide who would ultimately make the cut?
Touré: I just tried to talk to as many brilliant people as I could. I called several of my friends and I cold-called some people. Sometimes I did TV with someone or in the building at the same time and ran up to them and asked for an interview. Governor Paterson was walking through a building I was in and I ran up to him. I was fortunate that most of those I reached out to said yes. It was also important to me to have that broad cross-section you mentioned: people from lots of different fields. I imagined a giant Senate coming together to have a massive conversation about a massive subject.
Loop 21: You had a list of questions -- all of which I found pretty provocative -- that you asked each subject you interviewed on issues of identity. I don't want to give them all away but is there one question that you ultimately found more revealing than all of the others and if so which one?
Touré: I asked people “What's the most racist thing that ever happened to you?” [CLICK HERE TO READ “Is Racism Worse in the Obama Era?”] That was a lightning rod question. Most people didn't have to think to recall their story and their stories were central to shaping the person they would become. Racism is not incidental. It is seminal. It drives people to become who they become. And the stories were often, predictably, emotional. Rev. Jackson cried a bit as he told me his story. People have told me it's a hard chapter to read from an emotional standpoint. It was hard to write. But we don't just wallow in difficult stories. I suggest several strategies via which Blacks can try to combat racism or at least make racist situations manageable enough for them that they can do their jobs and possibly excel. One of the most important things is to maintain a private opinion of yourself and your worth. This is trickier than it sounds: we all take some of our opinion about ourselves from the way the world looks at us. Sociologists call this the looking glass self. And if the world is constantly looking at you as less brilliant than you are it takes a somewhat more Herculean mental effort to maintain that view of yourself as brilliant.
Loop 21: Melissa Perry, who I consider one of the smartest people I know, seems to believe that the media bears the brunt of responsibility for perpetuating the belief that black people do certain things but don't do others and says in your book that black people are used to diverse representations in how we speak and what we do. But my personal experience is that black people are the ones more likely to accuse each other of talking white or acting white as a pejorative, because of cues they are picking up on from other black folks, not the media. What's your take?
Touré: I found through my research that Black people (some, not all) are often the spreaders of the messages that there's a rulebook which lists what we do and don't do. The media (I hate using that as a blanket term but I think we can here) does surely do some of the work here but people on the ground definitely tell each other in various ways what Blacks do and don't do. I was also surprised to find through my research the prevalence with which Blacks spread the messages about what it means to be light and dark. That we are reminding each other of the stereotypes around color and acting on them.
Loop 21: Like you I experienced a bit of what I would call oreo-bullying. You had a classmate who said, "you ain't black" because the way you carried yourself, and lived your life didn't match his way of doing so. Similarly, I lost count of how many times I heard that "I talked like a white girl" or like an oreo -- black on the outside white on the inside -- growing up. What do you think it will finally take for the perception that certain behaviors are race specific to cease within our community?
Touré: I'm not sure. My book is meant as an attack on that way of thinking and those who appoint themselves the identity police but I don't think my book alone will overturn all that. It's an age-old intra-community debate. I don't think those doing the oreo-bullying as you call it realize they're being racist and selling Blackness short by telling you and others they're not being Black "correctly" as if there's some narrow, definable parameters to it. Part of the good news I found is that the Not Black/Acting White assertion is generally something that teenagers and emerging Adults engage in. It's not generally something adults traffic in. It mostly comes up in people who are actively working on their identity (ie, between about 15 and 25) rather than those with settled identities. But then again when Jalen Rose referred to Duke's Black players as Toms that showed you it's not all buried in youth. (I know Jalen was referencing an opinion he held as a teenager but I heard what he said and heard a man who still believes that. I don't sense that anything happened that changed his perspective on Duke's Black players even though age had mellowed his anger and resentment about them and things like Grant Hill having a father while Jalen did not.)
Loop 21: Do you think other communities are similarly as sensitive to a behavior being perceived as racially or ethnically specific as the Black community is?
Touré: I really don't know. I haven't looked into how other communities deal with that. I know in our community the issues are particularly charged because of our peculiar history in America where white supremacy has been a pernicious evil and made whiteness into the enemy such that seeming to act white becomes traitorous and something dangerous and angering. I'm not sure if in other communities that would be seen as equally charged, absent our history of whiteness being the opposition
Loop21.com: You and I have something in common--besides both being black and being writers. We've both gone skydiving. Would you go again?
Touré: I would indeed go again! Skydiving is safer than people realize (you actually have three chutes with you, one of which will deploy automatically in case of emergency). It's an amazing rush and I'm scared but titillated by it. But once you've gone and you know what it is some fear in you is broken and you can't go back to fearing it in the same way. It changed my life and I'd definitely encourage others to give it a shot once. (The canard about saying Black people don't skydive is that most human beings are afraid of skydiving, not just us.)