In 2002, when Michael Steele's campaign for Maryland lieutenant governor visited Morgan State University, his audience offered him several delicious snacks. Unfortunately, they weren't on a platter. Instead, cookies flew at the stage. A representative for Steele's campaign said that "it was raining Oreos. They were thick in the air like locusts."
The event has returned to the spotlight since Steele announced his Senate candidacy. A blog posted an article titled "Simple Sambo wants to move to the big house." There's intense speculation about whether Steele was actually pelted with Oreos, but the message behind the story is clear: black people don't like black Republicans, and being one calls your racial loyalty into question.
Being called an Oreo means that your skin is black, but you're white on the inside. Such a creamy vanilla filling may be delicious, but it doesn't sit too well with black people. This begs the question, what is blackness or whiteness?
Being light-skinned, I've been called "high yellow," "red bone," and a host of other names that are supposed to question my blackness. I've been called "nigger," too, which of course is supposed to prove that I've suffered racism and can now officially claim to be black.
Despite the hurtful nature of those names, none hurts me more than Oreo. The other superficial terms address my skin. "Oreo" questions my consciousness. It says that I'm somehow not part of the struggle, I've abandoned my people, or I don't know what it is to be black.
People define blackness differently, but for me, it isn't how I dress, what music I listen to, or how I speak (I supposedly "talk white"). Blackness to me is a fundamental identification with African and African-American values that have strengthened our people. It's knowing our struggle through living it. Struggle should never, in abstract terms, define a people. Not only would that give the oppressor the ability to define that people, but also because that people would cease to be defined once the struggle ends. No one who is not black can ever truly live the black struggle. Other groups may live similar struggles, but none is the black struggle. Whites can be allies in our struggle, but, ultimately, they can escape it if they ever choose to.
In 1959, John Howard Griffin temporarily darkened his skin to see what it was like to be black. In Black Like Me, he wrote that the only way he could deal with the experience was knowing that he did not have to stay black. He could always go back to the other side.
The inability to escape blackness produced the black phrase, "I only have to do two things: stay black and die." While this is used both by people who wish they could shed their skin and people who are proud of it, the sentiment is the same: blackness defines one's life, and denying that denies your entire race.
According to this sentiment, if a black person is ever in a position of power, the blackness that they share with other blacks somehow requires them to work on behalf of black people. Given the overwhelming support black people give to the Democratic Party, it's easy to see why there is such contempt for black Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats.
But is it fair to say that because someone is black, he or she has a responsibility to use a position of power to help black people? Can Steele be a politician, or does he have to be a black politician? Can Clarence Thomas be a judge, or does he have to be a black judge?
I believe that all people who are part of any oppressed, disadvantaged group have a moral and ethical responsibility to help that group. After all, if black politicians vote against legislation that helps blacks, white politicians will point to that as a reason why they can too. If we won't help ourselves, who will?
In the ideal world, I would be student who was black, not a black student. I don't advocate a color-blind society. I don't want a society that is discriminatory, but rather one that sees and appreciates my color and all that comes with it. I long for the society where Steele can be just a politician who is black. But the reality is, we are not in that society. When we get there, I'll be the first to say that Steele has no responsibility to blacks. Until then, I can't say that Steele owes anything to black people, but I can understand their feeling of betrayal. Race is not neutral. Republicans are well aware of the race of black Republicans. They use people like Thomas and Steele to court black voters.
However, people who call Steele "Oreo," "Uncle Tom," or "Sambo" are just as racist as those who call him "nigger." There is a serious debate to be had among blacks on the nature of responsibility to one's race, but it is undermined and debased by such terms.
Besides, it's not like black Republicans are evil. Democrats don't do much for black people either. They're just the lesser of two evils. Democrats happily take the black vote, paying lip service to high profile causes but failing to push for real change.
Rather than spit offensive terms at black Republicans, we'd do better to try working with them to see what can be done for the race and the nation.