Raven-Symone has rattled the Twitterverse by telling Oprah she doesn’t want to be labeled as gay or African-American.
In an interview for OWN’s “Where Are They Now,” the former star of “The Cosby Show” and “That’s So Raven” said she’s proud to be who she is and what she is but doesn’t need language or a “categorizing statement” to express it. “I don’t want to be labeled gay,” she said. “I want to be labeled a human who loves humans. I’m tired of being labeled. 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,” she added. “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, because we are all people. I have lots of things running through my veins … I have darker skin, 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.”
The backlash has been fast and furious, with social media posts and think pieces declaring that Raven-Symone is confused, lost, delusional, wrong, ignorant, stupid and self-hating. Some have said her views are evidence of living in a celebrity bubble or being a member of the New Black brigade, just another Black star doing whatever they can to distance themselves from blackness.
Few have considered that Raven’s statements were not the result of any mental deficiency, character flaw or self-loathing, but simply the desire to define herself on her own terms rather than those imposed by society.
Clearly it’s a different way of looking at things. Since birth we’ve been indoctrinated with rigid and oppressive ideas about race. We’ve been labeled and categorized and told who we are. When have we ever decided for ourselves? Raven’s attempt to define who she is outside of widely accepted categories and labels contradicts everything this society has attempted to “teach” us about race and identity.
But the concept of self-definition is not that off the wall or far-fetched. Just as we’re realizing that gender is not merely a set of physical characteristics we’re born with but the way we feel, see ourselves and self-identify, perhaps it’s time we rethink notions of race to include the connections that resonate within us and not just the invented category we’re assigned to.
If Raven-Symone says she doesn’t have a direct, personal attachment to Africa and feels connected to a variety of cultures, if she is comfortable identifying herself as American in light of the fact that she was born and raised in America, if the words “gay” or “African-American” don’t accurately or fully encompass who she is and what she feels, then who are we to invalidate her feelings? Who are we to demand that she define her identity in terms we are comfortable with? Do we expect all people of African ancestry to be a monolith that views race in the same robotic way?
The license people feel to police Raven’s thoughts about herself, to tell her who she is and what she is according to their view of the world, is disturbing. It’s as if we’ve come to view race not as the invented concept it is but as an actual fact, as if our identities should conform to arbitrary and limiting labels instead of finding labels that fit our identities. It is odd, to say the least, that we cling so desperately to notions of race that were invented by white people for the benefit of white people.
Raven-Symone’s identity is hers and hers alone to define in words. Whether or not she describes herself as gay, she’s still in a relationship with a woman. Whether or not she describes herself as African-American, she still has ancestors from Africa. And as she told theGrio in response to all the criticism: “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.”
The words Raven-Symone uses to describe herself don’t change who she is. They’re merely a reflection of what resonates with her. Other people may choose to describe her as a gay, African-American woman, and that’s fine. She is talking about how she sees and describes herself.
The fact that she’s willing to share these controversial views in an era of thought police and social media bullies who drag people with dissenting opinions is evidence of courage, not confusion. Even if we hold a completely different view, she’s given us some important things to think about and some important questions to ask about how we choose to define ourselves and whose ends those definitions serve.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson here is that race, like gender, is not a one-size-fits-all concept based on inflexible criteria. Perhaps the idea that there is only one acceptable way to view racial identity, only one acceptable way to categorize or define oneself, is the real delusion.