Every weeknight, Aaron, who was my live-in boyfriend at the time, and I would sit on our crème colored futon, in our 6th floor apartment in the least expensive building in Northern Virginia, eat whatever budget meal I had made to last us the week and watch Jeopardy. Jeopardy and the host Alex Trebek allowed our brains to idle down a bit from a day of graduate and law school classes, while keeping them engaged enough to study later.
When Alex would introduce the categories, we’d assign them appropriately to each other: anything having to do with literature, word play, food or travel would go to me. Aaron would handle science and sports. We could share in historical knowledge. Some categories would leave us both puzzled and questioning, “how do people know this stuff?”
And then there were the times that there would be a category or question that was related to Black people. Those categories and questions would serve as an example of an American social issue (one that is the genesis of many other issues): Most White folks are absolutely illiterate in all things Black.
The astro-physicist who started the 14th century poetry lovers club wouldn’t know who George Washington Carver was; the anesthesiologist from Wisconsin who was the world champion in scrabble and had a Ph.D in religion from Harvard had never heard of Earth Wind & Fire. Contestants who knew the inspiration for a painting of a little known cathedral in Portugal didn’t know the name of the actress who was the wife on The Cosby Show.
Initially, the lack of knowledge about Black culture and history was somewhat unbelievable to me, especially since most Black and Brown people are proficient in White culture. We begin our grooming and education to be accepted into the majority world at birth. From the Kenyatta’s who shorten their names to “Ken”; to the little Black girls getting the natural spirals of their hair relaxed; to preparing to pass exams that primarily test our knowledge of White History, heroes, writers and scientists, we are schooled in all things White.
Almost without exception, any Black or Brown person who is highly successful in America (outside of the entertainment and sports industries) is equally or more credentialed in White people than they are in their chosen field. Quite frankly, a J.D., M.D., or Ph.D. are useless degrees if one doesn’t also possess a “Mainstream-D” — the ability to make the majority culture feel comfortable. Being professional requires being “acceptable.” The most qualified doesn’t always excel; the most most acceptable does. Black people are rewarded for diminishing their “Blackness” and prioritizing the majority culture.
Most White people, in contrast, have spent almost no time with Black and Brown people. In fact, a 2014 study found that 75% of White people do not have any non-White friends, so they are rarely (if ever) put in positions of being the “only” or “one of a few” like most people of color are. And if Black people are honest, oftentimes when we are in the presence of White people, we present the shellacked and shined-up version of our Blackness. We code-switch to Black-light because we have been taught our true, whole, Black selves are not appropriate.
More significantly, most White people have never had to learn about Black people. They’ve never had to adapt to our environment, or to learn our collective social norms (even noting that being Black is not one monolithic thing).
White people’s success was in no way attached to being proficient in our history or our culture. White people — all people — can generally pass every societal and professional test in their lives without knowing one thing about Black people. It’s not something that they are ever called to do — except for the few that have appeared on Jeopardy and have been asked a question that pertained to Black people.