In defense of Raven-Symoné

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I have been watching videos and reading tons of articles and Facebook posts about Raven-Symoné’s comments on Oprah’s Where Are They Now last Sunday. Although I understand why people of color in general, and queer women of color in particular are up in arms, I’m not too upset about it. Here’s why:

The term “African-American” is not synonymous with “black.”

In an exclusive statement for TheGriot.com, Raven Symoné responded to her critics, saying:

“I never said I wasn’t black … I want to make that very clear.  I said, I am not African-American.  I never expected my personal beliefs and comments to spark such emotion in people.  I think it is only positive when we can openly discuss race and being labeled in America.”

You know what bothers me more than what Raven-Symoné said? When people call all brown-skinned people African-American. It may seem politically correct, but it’s lazy. If you are going to use a label, at least be precise. There are black people living in the United States who do not self-identify as African-American. Perhaps they identify as Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean, African, Black American, or simply Black for various reasons. Some multi-racial/multi-ethnic people of color choose not to label themselves at all because there is not one label that can encompass all of their identity.

Will these brown skinned multi-racial/multi-ethnic people still be perceived as African-American? Probably. And they should be prepared for that. However, how other people see them and choose to categorize them should have no effect on how they choose to self-identify. After all, part of the struggle of marginalized groups is to fight for the right to decide, for ourselves, who we are and what we are to be called as opposed to having labels, stereotypes and descriptors forced upon us.

Personally, I identify with the term African American (no hyphen) because it speaks to my family’s history in this country. I am descended from Africans who were slaves in this country. My great-grandfather was a sharecropper in Mississippi. I have great-aunts and uncles who were part of The Great Migration to Chicago and Detroit. My parents lived and suffered in the Jim-Crow era south. Yet, I understand that these experiences might not be part of every black person’s family history and just because a label, and my interpretation of it, works for me doesn’t mean it must or should work every member of the black community.

I am not threatened by the fact that Raven-Symoné chooses to identify in a different way because whether or not someone chooses to use the same label as I do neither legitimizes nor invalidates my use of it. I do not need anyone else to identify as African American to know that it is the best term for me, just as I don’t need others to sanction the term pansexual to know that is the identity to which I subscribe.

One can be visible without the use of labels.

Some would argue that we need labels to increase visibility. The more people who specifically identify as black lesbians or black bisexuals, the faster it will become normalized and the easier it will get for everyone in the queer black community.

First I’ll say, though it’s a bit of a tangent, that I don’t want to be normalized. I don’t want to be put in a box or a category so that other people can understand me better. I don’t need for straight people to think that I am just like them so that they will accept me. It is not my job to make other people feel more comfortable about who I am so that they will give me the respect and basic civil rights that I deserve. I deserve these things (don’t even get me started on fair media representation) simply because I exist.

Having said that, I know that we are not as far as a society as I think we should be, and whether I think it should be true or not, it does help when celebrities come out. Take my own mother for instance. When I came out to her, she had a really, really hard time with it due to her Southern Baptist roots. However, she is also a huge cable news junkie and as anchors she liked and respected such as Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Jane Velez-Mitchell and Robin Roberts all came out, it made it easier for my mother to accept my sexuality. Now she calls me anytime she discovers that someone in the public eye has or has had a same-sex relationship.

“Did you know that so-and-so is gay?” she’ll ask. Yes mother, I did know that.

“You know, I heard that so-and-so is a lesbian,” she’ll inform me. Well mother, we’ve suspected that for years but she’s never officially come out.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how these celebrities identify or what labels they use, if any. The fact that there are people who aren’t straight in the public eye is enough. My mom knows that Raven-Symoné is dating a woman. She’s seen the pictures of her with AzMarie Livingston. She heard Raven-Symoné call AzMarie her partner on Oprah. Raven-Symoné is visible whether she chooses to label herself or not. The experience of being attracted to more than one gender since the age of 12 that she described can resonate with bisexual or pansexual people whether she specifically utters those words or not. The world can see that Raven-Symoné is a brown skinned woman who dates other women. As a brown skinned woman who dates other women, I can still be in community with her even if we use different words to speak about our relationships and ourselves.

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Language is powerful, but it can also be limiting.

I believe in the power of words. I believe in the power of naming and claiming. Yet, I also know that words can be subject and contain many different cultural connotations. Take, as just one example, the use of the word “stud” or “dom” as opposed to the word “butch.”

I understand that there is strength in numbers and the more people you can claim is on your “team”, the larger your community seems to be the more secure you feel.

Yet sometimes, relying on language to feel united only serves to tear us apart.

I am not a lesbian. I am attracted to, romantically and sexually interested in, date, love, have sex with people of more than one gender. Therefore, I identify as pansexual. If I used the word lesbian to describe myself then that would ignore the heterosexual privilege I receive when I am dating someone who is perceived to be a man. Though, for some people, using the word lesbian can be empowering. For me and other bisexual and pansexual people like me, it is actually limiting and potentially harmful. Not just harmful to myself, but for people who do identify as lesbians.

It’s an age-old story: Lady A is dating Lady B and everyone labels them as lesbians in a lesbian relationship. Months later, Lady A and Lady B break up. Lady A starts dating another woman and Lady B starts dating a man. Everyone then assumes that Lady B is now an ex-lesbian/hasbian (or that she was just experimenting or going through a phase) and people feel hurt and betrayed. Yet, the truth is, Lady B was never a lesbian in the first place. She was always bisexual. As such, Lady B’s relationship with Lady A was never a lesbian relationship. It was a same-gender relationship. Yet, because people were so quick to put a label on it so that they could categorize, identify, sanction, and claim the women as their own, damaging assumptions are made.

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I am not a lesbian. I try to make that clear to avoid any confusion or hurt feelings. Yet, as a woman who is in love with another woman, I can still be in community with other women-loving women even if we use different terms to describe ourselves or have some different experiences. Because in truth, when I am holding my girlfriend’s hand while walking down the street or kissing her hello or goodbye in my driveway, or trying to convince the hotel clerk that no, I do not consider changing the king-bed room I reserved to a room with two queens an upgrade, I am subject to the same discrimination, even if I don’t ever call myself a lesbian.

So, I’m not bothered by what Raven-Symoné said or didn’t say.  I don’t know her or her story. I am not going to make assumptions about how or why she identifies or doesn’t identify the way she does. Could she be naïve? Perhaps. Does her interview speak to some underlying self-loathing or internalized oppression? Maybe. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to use words to describe herself and her relationship because there isn’t one that fits.  All I know is that a brown skinned woman who loves another woman was on national television this past weekend proudly talking about her happy and healthy same-gender relationship. Maybe, that is enough. 

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