Talking about race in mixed company is uncomfortable. Talking about the problems that exist within one race in front of mixed company is just unacceptable – or so I’ve seen.
Last May, Bill Cosby made headlines for criticizing the low-income blacks. He commented on everything from the lack of proper parenting, spending habits and most infamously their speech patterns.
“I can’t even talk the way these people talk,” Cosby said of some blacks. “‘Why you ain’t, where you is go’ I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with ‘why you ain’t … ‘”
Shortly after, University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote a rebuttal in the form of a book titled, “Is Bill Cosby Right?” An excerpt from Dyson’s book appeared in Philadelphia Weekly a couple of weeks ago, which discussed the question in depth. Dyson’s critique quickly explored what I thought the whole back and forth was about: not whether Bill Cosby was right or wrong, but about airing some “dirty laundry.”
Airing dirty laundry, in essence, means showing the general public the issues a group deals with behind closed doors, or showing a less than positive portrayal of themselves. When Spike Lee made the film School Daze, there were problems when some members of the black community got upset about, among other things, showing our dirty laundry in terms of the “color complex.” The color complex is an issue about the stigmas associated with dark-skinned blacks versus light-skinned blacks, an issue explored almost 20 years later by ABC’s 20/20 in a special titled “Colorism.”
Some feel as if issues that affect a certain group, or negative issues within a certain group, should stay within that group. This paranoia may stem from the fear that an outsider with a harmful agenda may take comments like Cosby’s and make them into a separate controversy or use them as justification for their pre-conceived notions.
And that is precisely the reason Dyson said that Cosby’s comments were harmful. He explained that while the points Cosby made do exist, they exist in places away from people who want to use them without their proper racial and historical context.
“It is not remarkable that such sentiments exist,” Dyson wrote. “Similar comments can be heard in countless black spaces: barbershops and beauty shops; pulpits and pavement platforms; street corners and suite hallways; and civil rights conventions and political conferences. These cultural settings give such ideas an interpretive context that they often lack when they bleed beyond ghetto walls and comfortable black meeting places and homes into the wider world.”
But while some comments might be unpopular, black voices that are a minority within the black community still deserve a forum. Dyson’s informative comments and rebuttals to the popular and misinformed thoughts about class and race may not have had a platform if Cosby had not made the issue so public. Who knew there were class wars within the black race besides blacks?
“Dirty laundry,” or comments such as Cosby’s, may engage the general black population and the population at large in some truly progressive racial dialogue. Talking about the differences that exist within races can give dimension and complexity to our racial discussion because they are not the same old critiques and criticisms being thrown back and forth.
While we must all be conscious of the different factors, settings and systems affecting our lives and our history, we must still talk frankly and honestly about how we feel in an effort to explore those existing feelings and to shed light on archaic ideals.
Many people will have critiques about what Cosby had to say, but we must all acknowledge that what Cosby did was he got people writing many editorials and spurred many discussions. And a year later, we’re still talking.
Beti Gathegi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.