I love Raven-Symoné. I always have. As Olivia, she was my favourite character on The Cosby Show (until the adult me realized the legendary-ness of Mrs. Claire Huxtable), I shared middle and high school years with her as Raven Baxter on That’s So Raven, and I even have some of her discography on my iTunes. But all of those things aside, I have loved Raven-Symoné as an individual who has always held a strong head on her shoulders despite whatever madness may be going on around her in celebrity culture.
So when I found out she sat down with Oprah for a “Where Are They Now?” segment, I knew I’d be all about it.
In this recently aired special, Raven stirred the waters when she said, “I’m an American, not an African-American.” Now before I dive into this loaded statement, I want to make sure you all understand the context in which she says it. In this case, Raven was answering a question Oprah was posing to her in regards to her sexual identity—since August 2013 when she made a tweet saying she could marry whomever she loves with the support of the government, Raven’s sexuality has been a question people have been dying to have an answer to.
Raven: I don’t need language. I don’t need a categorizing statement for it. I think that’s one thing that…(Oprah interrupts)
Oprah: So you don’t want to be labelled ‘gay?’
Raven: I don’t want to be labelled ‘gay.’ I want to be labelled a human who loves humans. I’m tired of being labelled. I’m an American, I’m not an African-American. I’m an American.
Oprah’s immediate reaction to this is “don’t go and set Twitter on fire.” After Raven explains how she doesn’t know where her roots go to in Africa and that she just knows she’s from Louisiana, the big O, being the great interviewer she is, makes sure Raven is given her chance to clarify what she means—and she holds tightly on to her identity marker:
Raven: What I really mean by that is I’m an American, that’s what I mean. I have darker skin [and] I have a nice interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian. I connect with Asian. I connect with Black. I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture.
Oprah: You are a melting pot in one body.
Raven: Aren’t we all? Isn’t that what America is supposed to be?
So let’s talk about this.
My initial reaction to seeing this segment was a little bit of shock, but to be honest, she gained even more respect in my eyes.
Let me be clear, I think it was a little irresponsible of her to negate the visible identity marker of her skin and what the historical context of that means for our American society, but I completely respect her choice in identifying herself only as American. Why?
Because if that’s how she views herself, I have no right to argue her on that.
The biggest problem I think that occurs way too often is people feeling that they have the right to decide how someone else should live their life. We see this with uninformed cisgender folk who try to tell a trans person they are not who they say are; we see this with men feeling the need to dictate what a woman does with her body; and now we are seeing this with Black people dragging Raven for her statement. Why can’t we listen to what people have to say even if we disagree, and respect that person for sharing their story with us? It should be that simple.
I personally can agree with Raven in that I do not identify as “African-American,” rather I choose to use “Black American” instead. Especially after my time spent living in Africa, I realized it wasn’t fair of me to use that term when I—like Raven—can only trace my roots back to America. But what I think Raven fails to do here is acknowledge the importance of still identifying as a Black American, and not just an American.
But then again, Raven has never been an ordinary American like you and I. She’s lived her life on TV screens, with her face being known by millions of people all over the globe. When you live a fortunate life like this, I can easily see how it really could be the easiest thing to only identify as an American—because it gives her global audience a tangible thing to understand without needing historical context about a country that is not their own.
But more than that, the thing which sticks out to me the most from this segment is the intersectionality of race and sexual identity.
Let me remind you: Raven’s statement about race came from a direct question about her sexuality. As a celebrity who admits to understanding and knowing how to play the game, and from all of the interviews I have watched of her, Raven-Symoné has does nothing to demonstrate that she doesn’t understand the power of her words. So to link her race with her sexual identity means something to me. As a fellow Black LGBTQ community member, I send love and support to her for coming out in the way she has, but I wonder about her journey to get here.
As I said to some friends on Facebook about this situation, I’m wondering what about her as a Black woman in a same-gender-loving relationship has meant for how she views herself. I’m not speaking for all of us, but I could see how she would want to identify with nothing but the overall umbrella term “American,” because despite her being Raven who we all love, some people just really don’t want nothing to do with us when they learn we are same-gender-loving—and when you are at the intersection of two of the most marginalized communities, Black and LGBTQ, people respond to that even more differently.
Am I trying to put words in Raven’s mouth? Absolutely not. But when you’re talking about such a nuanced subject like identity, it’s important to be aware of the intricacies that often lay far beneath the surface.
I say all of this for one reason only: to increase awareness in respecting others for how they choose to identify.
We are all individuals. We all have our own unique story. It is from these stories that informs us on how we decide to identify. And whatever we decide to identify as shapes everything we do in life.
Like I said, I don’t think Raven-Symoné did the best job at explaining why she chooses to identify as solely American rather than African-American, but I respect her for making that decision. It’s clear that Raven is in a positive space that many of us have not been able to reach yet, and that is fine. At the end of the day, she is still a celebrity who has been fortunate to live a life many of us only dream of.
My hope is that one day we can all identify solely as our nationalities, but the reality for us Americans is that we must identify as our race, so that we can allow healing and restoration while we work to create more spaces for us to do whatever we dream of doing in this world.
Thank you Raven for standing true in your identity, despite whatever everyone else expects you to do. You are certainly a woman who I believe many can still look up to for strength and inspiration.
UPDATE (08-Oct-2014; 12:17 EST): In an exclusive interview with theGrio.com, Raven addresses the conversation going around on this topic:
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 labelled in America.