When I was in college, I took a class called Group Communications. It was nothing complex. The class involved sixty students sitting around discussing various culture-related topics as brought up and moderated by the professor. She had teaching assistants, juniors and seniors who had taken the class previously, to help her facilitate the discussions. The first two days of the class were spent doing the professor’s standard introductory activity. At random she chose four students to sit in the middle of the floor. Each student was to explain to the class the moment he/she first realized his/her culture, however that student defined the term. When each student had spoken, the professor would choose a new quartet until every student in the class had expressed him/herself.
One of the teaching assistants, a half-Jamaican friend who lived with her single White mother, told me to pay attention to the moments chosen by the American White people. She told me she’d been in the class three times and that every single American White person identified his/her moment of cultural recognition as a time he/she heard a friend or relative use a racial epithet or overtly discriminate against a person of color. I asked her why she thought that was the case. “Because this is America,” she said. “Everyone’s so commingled and assimilated that nothing really stands out except…” She held the back of her hand up to me. Obviously it’s not that cut and dry, but, as I’ve seen as I’ve grown older and gone out in the world, she’s really not that far off. Whether it’s been in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Indiana, or California, the mainstream culture isn’t really all that different. Sure, there are differences about this and about that, but there seems to be a pervasive American culture that all the American White people I know share.
In work environments, especially those of the white-collar variety, I’ve found there are three basic groups of employees.
- Group I: Those who hang out with coworkers and attend work functions regularly.
- Group II: Those who hang out with coworkers just enough to avoid being labeled unfriendly & antisocial and attend just enough work functions to avoid being branded a malcontent.
- Group III: Those who nearly never go out with coworkers and rarely ever show up to a work function.
What I have observed over my years in college and at work is that Black people who fall into Group I in predominantly White work environments tend not to socialize as much with other Black people.
The mainstream American culture and the mainstream Black culture--henceforth called American and Black for ease, not necessarily accuracy--are so different that there's very little overlap. You will not find many people heavily immersed in both. Trust me, you won’t. That Black man or woman from your job who goes to happy hour every week and goes out with you all on Fridays after work probably isn’t spending a lot of time with Black friends. That other Black person, the one who rarely goes out and socializes with the rest of your coworkers, probably spends most of his/her downtime with other brown-skinned people. Obviously, none of this is 100%, but in my experience, it’s not that far from it.
Why are American culture and Black culture so different? It’s very simple, really. It goes back to the idea of the United States as the world’s melting pot. The theory behind the term is that people from different cultures would enter our borders and would all be accepted and blended into "America". The people would "melt" into one homogeneous culture. Personally, I do not like this concept, but let’s roll with it because it was that concept that brought a lot of people over here. And for a lot of those peoples, it became reality. It took some time and struggle, but there is a lot less racism and segregation among American Europeans (White people) than there was a century ago.
Even in those places, such as the Northeast, where segments of the European population remains largely segregated, people still "live America". People live Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. at home and in their neighborhoods, but they can tap into the American culture. The American culture still very much represents them. It welcomes them.
For other people, though, especially those whose ancestors did not come to America voluntarily, the melting pot was not real. Over time, the concept has even become largely undesired. After centuries of slavery, torture, and government-sanctioned terrorism--a harsh history of being taught that the melting pot was not for us--many Black people abandoned the idea of ever becoming a real part of America. Essentially, we, like other people of color, were forced to live on the fringe of America.
Prior to the 1950s, everyone would have agreed that American culture and Black culture were two separate and distinct entities. That separation still exists today; it's just that most Americans just seem to be unaware of the divide. Black people are, technically, American. We’ve been here for centuries. Even though others recognize that we have our own culture there is an expectation that American is our primary culture. BUT…the two cultures are extremely disparate. Living both is not easy. Nothing quite illustrates this as much as television ratings. Look at any of the studies breaking down what America watches versus what Black America watches. Here’s one such study (look at pages 32 and 33 of the pdf).
As more Black people have become more accepted in the white-collar work force, there has grown an expectation that we will assimilate into the culture and be like our American (White) colleagues. As the 1980s became the 1990s and beyond, however, many of us realized that we like it on the fringes. Because when you look at American culture for what it is, you realize that it is largely White culture. The reality of the melting pot is that as other (White) groups entered the United States, they were assimilated into the mainstream. Not so much for the Black, Latino and even Asian cultures. Sure, the culture is always adapting and picking up things here and there, but American culture is defined by what White people do. And, rightly or wrongly, a great many Black people have lost the desire to do what White people do. One line from Boogie Down Production’s Homeless sums the sentiment perfectly. “To be fully American, you know, you gotta take out the word Afro. Now they’ve relaxed our heads; they might as well call us Toby.”
A Black person who identifies with Black culture is very often an outsider to American culture and, thusly, seems odd and strange to his/her White colleagues. Foreign. Here’s one example. But this is our America. It’s just not the same as theirs.