Raven Symone is one that many African-Americans know all too well. They first met her on The Cosby Show, then know her from State of Georgia. That’s So Raven was the show I watched all the time at university, laughing my head off when I found myself depressed, homesick and missing my family. Let’s just say that I respect Raven Symone as an actress, and I found her to be a nice addition to The View — even though she clashed with a number of African-American viewers with her comments on Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, among others. I’ve watched at least the entire first season of Raven’s Home. After all these years, I find Raven Symone comical and brilliant on-stage. Regardless of all the attacks she’s received regarding her comments on race, she’s an accomplished individual.
She’s held her stance in the acting world, even though a number of child stars have “gone off the rails,” so to speak, and ended in disaster. And she hasn’t. She’s taken on so much pressure to be the best and has handled it with grace. In the midst of such a tough and competitive environment, hard enough for white actors but even more difficult for black actors/actresses, let me just say that Raven has done what many thought impossible.
But with that said, I have to acknowledge the controversy created by Raven’s own statement. It has been seen as offensive by many, but, is it really? That’s what we’ll look at Raven’s statement and how we should understand it.
“I’m not African-American”: Raven on Oprah Winfrey
In an Oprah Winfrey interview on Oprah’s OWN network (OWN for Oprah Winfrey Network), called “Where Are They Now?” back in 2015, Raven Symone said that “I’m an American. I’m not an African-American. I’m an American…I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go…I can’t go on, you know…I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from. But I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person, ’cause we’re all people. I have lots of things running in my veins.”
The statement was made with regard to Raven being lesbian. A Twitter statement she made celebrating her right to get married “now” is a clear sign that Raven has been longing for LGBT marriage laws in the US. But Raven uses the whole African-American discussion to make a point that she’s tired of being labeled. She isn’t African-American, in her words, because she doesn’t know anything about her African ancestry, the tribe she’s from, the particular language(s) her African ancestors spoke, and so on. Raven went on to mention her darker skin, interesting grade of hair, and the fact that she connects with Caucasian, Asian, Black, and people of other ethnic backgrounds.
So with Raven, she sees herself as an American, someone who lives in the United States of America. And yet, there’s a problem with her “racial” designation: “American” is a colorless person that no one fits. The reality is that no one is a “colorless” person without a skin tone. Every person in the world has a skin tone, a shade, that reveals where they came from and who their ancestors are. Even within the Black community, there are various skin tones that reveal some of us have more African ancestry than others.
To say that being American is a “colorless person” is problematic.
Problems behind Raven’s “colorless” American identity
Raven says that she’s an American, that her roots stem from the American state of Louisiana. She says that she’s a “colorless” American, a statement that matters just as much as her statement that “I’m not African-American.”
First, Raven says “I’m not African-American; I’m an American.” This is itself a contradiction. “African-American” and “American” are both labels. “African-American” is a label of race, while “American” is a label of country and continent. And when one says “I’m an American,” he or she is accepting a label. Raven says she doesn’t want labels but then accepts the “American label.” What she really sheds, though, is the “African.” She doesn’t mind the “American” label, but it’s the “African” label she doesn’t prefer so much.
Next, Raven says regarding her African ancestry, “I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go.” This itself was a statement affirming her ignorance on her ethnic roots. She’s now gotten her Ancestry DNA results. Keep in mind that this response is years after she made the statement, but believe it or not, Raven is still feeling the effects of her Oprah interview.
And yet, perhaps she should’ve affirmed her African-American ancestry and said, “Well, I believe I’m African-American,” but I don’t know what country in Africa my roots go back to. I know my family was raised in Louisiana, but that’s about all I know. I need to go back and examined my African roots so I can provide more information on this question the next time someone asks me.” This would’ve shown her willingness to affirm her blackness while leaving room to be educated about her exact country(ies) and tribes in Africa itself. She would’ve appeared to be educated yet humble, a nice look on a woman of Raven’s success.
But instead, Raven decided to just say, “I’m not African-American.” And to many people, it appears as though she wants to shed her blackness. The “colorless American” comment didn’t help matters. When you put those two statements together, clearly, Raven wants to shed blackness altogether, not just her African roots.
Colorless is “The New Black”: There is no such thing as a colorless person
Raven says she doesn’t want to be African-American, but rather, an American, a “colorless” person. But a colorless person doesn’t exist. No one in the world is born colorless. Every baby is born in the world with a particular pigmentation or skin tone. For example, babies are born either white, black, or brown. Every baby is born with an eye color, whether blue, brown, green, gray, amber, or some other color. Babies have hair color as well. So when Raven Symone was born, she had a particular skin tone, hair color, and so on. She wasn’t born colorless, and she can’t be colorless now.
No one is born colorless because everyone has a skin tone, hair color, eye color, and other features that include color. We’re taught that the sky is blue, the clouds are white, the grass is green, the water is blue, the sand is tan or brown, and so on. From an early age, humans are taught that the world consists of lots of vivid colors and that such colors are beautiful, not to be shunned but to be embraced. The colors of the rainbow, for example, are beautiful to behold when one sees a rainbow after a summer rain. Colors are beautiful to artists, who use them to bring artwork on a canvas to life. Color is beautiful, and a variety of colors is beautiful. God is a God of variety; He made variety because it reflects His genius.
So when it comes to race, skin tone is part of how we define an individual. Therefore, it should be embraced, not shunned. And yet, here we see Raven claiming that “American” is “a colorless person.” How can that be? America itself is a melting pot of many different races. So, if America is a melting pot of races, the typical American can’t be colorless, but rather, consists of different races and a mixed skin tone. So, at the very least, the typical American will be multiracial rather than colorless.
And yet, “colorless” appears to be “the new black”: that is, it seems to be a popular stance for some African-Americans or Black success stories who’ve made it in America. It’s often been a rumor that this is the reason why some black Americans look for white spouses rather than marrying within their own race. I’m not against mixed-race marriages. After all, my mother was African-American and my father is Caucasian and Native American. I’m biracial at least, perhaps multiracial. But the rumor from some is that some black men and women will “date black” when they’re unknown but, given the status and success of celebrities, will “marry white” when they feel they’ve socially arrived in the world.
Black people have a history outside America
Regardless of what Raven says, there’s no such thing as a colorless American. Every American has a skin tone and therefore, a race. If a person appears to be white, he or she is white. If a person appears to be dark-skinned, he or she is Indian (from India) or African. If a person appears to be mixed, then he or she is biracial or multiracial. And your skin tone, like your eye color and hair color, define you as a person. When Raven is called in to perform as an actress, companies are looking for a brown-skinned woman with dark hair and certain eye color. They don’t expect a white Raven Symone, or a Hispanic Raven, to walk through the door. If Raven has green eyes, everyone expects Raven with green eyes to appear in an interview — not a blue-eyed Raven.
And when it comes to black people, they all have racial roots outside of America. The reality is that blacks, like whites and Native Americans, all come from somewhere else because America is “a land of immigrants.” To immigrate to the US means to come from somewhere else. Since the USA has only been a country for 244 years (since the Declaration of Independence was issued), those who first came to this country came from somewhere else. Even white Americans that live here have ancestry from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Sweden, and other countries. So, with that said, just saying “I’m an American” isn’t good enough. The reason why claiming to be a “colorless American” is inaccurate is because it doesn’t acknowledge one’s ancestry. Ancestry is based on your ancestors, those who came before you, not just you and the events of your life.
Ancestry is about more than the last 500 years, for example. It’s about more than just life in this country, but rather, life elsewhere as well. So you can’t just be “American” when your people (or a portion thereof) come from Africa. America is a land of immigrants. When your people came from Africa to America, whether voluntary or by force, they brought their experiences from their home countries. And Raven is alive today and able to do what she does because of those experiences. Africa and the experiences of her African ancestors have shaped who she is and continue to do so.
And so, no, we can’t just move on to embrace “colorless” as “the new black.” The reason? Black isn’t colorless, and a portion of Raven’s people are black. And the reality is that, she too, is African-American.
Raven wants us to embrace the colorless, but today, with some African-Americans of her mindset, it appears that black is “the new black”. It’s refreshing to see young, African-Americans embrace who they are instead of trying to rewrite who they are and erase the past.
As George Santayana has said, “Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”