Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

The Idea of Race and White Privilege in the American Community

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The socioeconomic position of African descended Blacks in America cannot be sufficiently contextualized without understanding the marginalization of their racialized social and cultural identities as minorities who have historically combatted subjugation and oppression with respect to income, employment, education, and political representation.

Therefore, it is not hard to understand why historical references to “passing” primarily referred to Blacks claiming to be White in order to secure the social, education, financial and political benefits reserved for Whites. Choosing to abandon Whiteness and partake in a life of Blackness, means joining a new fictive kinship. It means experiencing the disadvantages of racial inequality and exploitation. It also means taking on a new citizenship identity, a sense of belonging and solidarity with the Black community.

The idea of race as an organizing principle of human identification and social organization has played a major role in the formation of contemporary systems of symbolic representation, misrepresentation, and social and personal identification (Maldonado-Torres, 2014). Racial classification based on certain apparent morphological traits provides important emphasis to those characteristics to which human perceptions are most finely tuned, nose shape, lip size, eye color, skin color, hair texture and quantity, etc (Lewontin, 1995).

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More than just physical characteristics, race is associated with dialect, culture, style, and in some cases neighborhood. Black popular culture can be seen as the confluence of multiple cultural traditions, as a negotiation between dominant and subordinate positions, as the subterranean strategy of recording and transcoding, and as critical signification and of signifying (Hall 1993).

While there are a multitude of physical and cultural aspects of Blackness today, the One-Drop Rule asserted that any person with even one drop of Black blood was considered Black. A law enacted in the colony of Maryland in 1664 established the legal status of slave for life and experimented with assigning slave condition based on the condition of the father. That experiment was soon discontinued. Paternity is always ambiguous; maternity is not. Slaveholders eventually recognized the advantage of a rule of descent that would guarantee to owners all offspring of slave women, regardless who the father was (Fields, 1990).

Unlike the African descended slaves, there is no ambiguity with respect to the parentage of Johnny Otis, often referred to as the original “King of Rock and Roll” and the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Three days after Christmas in 1921, Alexander J. Veliotes, a longshoreman and grocery store owner and his wife Irene, a painter, who had immigrated from Greece, welcomed a son into the world.

Ionnis Alexandres Veliotes would later be known by the name Johnny Otis and would become a famous singer, musician, composer, arranger, band leader, television show host, journalist and minister. Having grown up in an African American neighborhood in Berkley California, Otis spent his early years immersed in Black culture and music.

Identifying more with African American culture than his own Greek family culture, led him to change his name to Johnny Otis believing that the new name sounded more Black. He wrote, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” (Otis, 1968).

For Otis, identity was more a matter of culture than color. Living as a “Black” man enabled Otis to be a part of the world that he understood best and that meant the most to him. In his autobiography Otis explains that he knew that there were some dimensions of the African American experience that he couldn’t feel; that his biological makeup allowed him the theoretical option of living as “white”.

But his absorption in Black culture became such an internalized part of his experience that he found it impossible to think of himself in any other terms (Otis, 1993). Part of the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the fracturing of lineage and family ties. Therefore, many African Americans are met with a brick wall when attempting to trace their family heritage prior to enslavement.

Though, Otis always had the luxury of returning to a life of White privilege, he displayed his respect for black culture and black people openly because he felt that he had been captured by the beauty of the black community and saved by its political, spiritual, and moral force (Lipsitz, 2012). The choice to identify as black gave him a deep connection to black culture that helped him discover such future stars of R&B and rock as Etta James, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther Phillips (Lewis, 2012).

On May 2, 1941, at the age of 19, Johnny Otis married the former Phyliss Walker, an 18-year old woman of African American and Filipino descent from Oakland, California. Despite objections from Johnny’s mother, the couple eloped in Reno, Nevada, where interracial marriage was accepted at the time (Otis, 1968). Their union would last 71 years, until Johnny’s death in 2012

In 1979 Otis told the LA Times “Yes, I chose, because despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer” (Lewis, 2012).

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