Black Only?

Okay, so perhaps you agree that having a Black History Month does make sense. I mean we all had to know the names of white Americans to graduate to the next grade level, but the histories of people of color have always been optional, elective, or unavailable. But what about the other stuff? 

Black Miss America

Jet Magazine 


Black professional groups 

Black student groups

and other "black only" things in America? Surely if any of these things were "white only" the black community would be in an uproar! Black Twitter would come alive and ruin the careers of anyone who even hinted that we should have white only versions of these things, right?! 

Well, so much things to say. Lets take this step by step. 

Since 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue this country started a recored of European domination that resulted in a number of "white only" practices. Freedom was white only. Home ownership was white only. Literacy was white only. Land ownership was white only. Voting was white only. Politics was white only. Equal representation under the law was white only. (And many of these were white male only.) So America has a pretty steeped history of racial dividing lines, but that history was created by white people. 

When these freedoms became (theoretically) possible for people of color, white folks quickly adopted Jim Crow laws, effectively barring us from occupying the same space as white people. For decades black folks got creative and began our own alternatives.  

Miss Black America was founded in 1968 when black women were not considered beautiful enough to place in the Miss America pageant. In fact, the first first black faces to appear on stage at Miss America did so in 1923… as slaves in a musical number. In the 1930's the Pageant formalized its racism by writing into the rule book that only women of the white race could could compete. A black woman would not place as a contestant until 1970, and wouldn't win until 1984. The racism of the Miss America Pageant did not hold back black women from celebrating one another. 

Jet magazine was started in 1951 when white magazines expressed no interest in presenting the beauty of African American women. In 1965 Harpers Bazaar used a sketch of a black woman as its first African American on the cover, before allowing her photo to appear. Ladies Home Journal didn't feature a black woman on the cover until 1968. Seventeen Magazine's first issue with a black woman on the cover was in 1971. American Vogue didn't place a black woman on their cover until 1974.  Even now, many of these magazines (and others) rarely feature black people on the covers. Magazines like Jet, Ebony and Essence have been sitting on our coffee tables for decades, telling our stories of beauty and success, histories and hopes of the future. 

BET is a relatively new business venture started in 1980, but it stands within a long history of creating our own media, much like black magazines. The creation of black media arguably started in 1827 with the Freedom Journal, our country's first African American owned and operated newspaper. Since the creation of the Freedom Journal, African Americans have produced newspapers, magazines, and yes even cable channels that are specifically targeted to meet the needs of African Americans. But don't be mistaken, when BET was created, MTV rarely showcased black artists in its video line-up until Michael Jackson broke the color barrier in the mid 80s. The creation of BET took new ground by purposefully featuring black artists and their range of music. 

The first historically black greek organization was created as a safe haven for minority students in a white college. Alpha Phi Alpha "initially served as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell." Other greek organizations started sprouting up across the country to meet various challenges and needs. Greek organizations have a history of service, fellowship, academics, and professional networking. 8 of the Divine Nine were created decades before the Civil Rights Movement. 

As segregation ended and America groaned under the weight of no longer discriminating against people of color in hiring decisions, black professionals realized that organizing, meeting, networking and promoting one another was one way to stay on top of professional opportunities. Many black professional organizations were birthed in the 70's- as a way to stay connected to one another, and as an opportunity to be available to the black community. 

I realize that even after this history lesson, someone still has two questions. 1. Why is all of this still in place now that segregation is over and 2. Wouldn't I still be mad if a group was formed for whites only? 

Let me begin with the first question. Many of these organizations, media, and alternatives exist because of resistance to integration, and have consequently been a part of black life for a long time. Alpha Phi Alpha has been around since 1906! It has a long history and tradition that didn't end just because of integration. Generations of black men and women have participated these greek-life organizations. Jet magazine has been sitting on coffee tables for 3 generations in my family. It is a household staple that didn't disappear when mainstream media finally decided to place black women (occasionally) on magazine covers. Our alternatives have become traditions. And we fell in love with those traditions while white people segregated themselves away. That love, devotion, trust and credibility didn't end with integration.  

Ok, on to the heart of your question about a double standard- Black folks can do this. White people can't.

1. Well, first I'd like to remind you once more that many of these were created during segregation (some during slavery). Our alternatives didn't pop up last week to make white folks upset.

2. America has a long, long history of forming white only organizations. KKK anyone? White neighborhood covenants. White Miss America Pageant. White drinking fountains, movie theaters, hotels, bus stations, bathrooms, hospitals, classrooms, and churches. We should not pretend that white only spaces never existed. "White only" was quite normal only a couple generations ago.

3. White only organizations DO still exist. I know we don't want to talk about them, but white nationalist, separatist groups exist around the world, including here in America. The KKK is but one among many, and the organization still has rallys to remind us where they stand.

4. There are plenty of organizations that don't have to write "white only" into their bylaws for African Americans to recognize whether or not we are welcome. There are still plenty of churches that have all white congregations. There are mainstream magazines that can go a year (or years) without acknowledging the existence of people of color. Television shows and movies can have all white casts. Private elementary and high schools can have all white attendance with only one or two people of color among hundreds of students. The Miss America pageant can go years without crowing a woman of color. (And despite having just done so, the crowning of Nina Davuluri was met with a furry of racist commentary). 

5 .Finally, I think its important to note that white ethnic organizations DO exist! I walked by the Swedish American Museum in Chicago last week. There are organizations for German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, French-Americans and so on. They may not be titled "white" but it is doubtful there are many people of color in these clubs, organizations, affiliations, museums, alliances and chambers of commerce. Perhaps if African Americans hadn't been stripped of the knowledge of our heritage we would term our alternatives "Ethiopian-American" or "Nigerian-American" or "Angolan-American" but we don't have that luxury. So Black-American or African-American will have to suffice right alongside European- American organizations. 

Here, I can only speak for myself, but I have no need to riot against these organizations. I have written no letters, stated no outcry, nor rallied Black Twitter around this cause. Just as black-Americans have a long history of organizing for various reasons, so too have other white ethnic groups. But lets be clear, white ethnic organizations do exist. 

So, no, I do not consider black organizations to be racist, nor are they a double standard. All of these ethnic affiliations, in one way or another, have risen from our history of segregation. Their continued existence tells us that our integration efforts may not have been as successful as we would have ourselves believe.

Let us continue in this business of learning each other's history, of celebrating one another, of advocating for each other. Let us work to understand one another and our varied experiences of America, whether historic or current.    


***Update*** It is also important to know that most "black" organizations are not really "black only" the NAACP, Greek-Life, Miss Black America, HBCU's and professional orgs are open to others. In fact, the HBCU where my grandparents attended in the early 50s is now majority white.