After sparking outrage for remarks about not being African-American in an exclusive Oprah interview last weekend, Raven-Symoné responded to critics who took issue with her stance on racial identity.
“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,” she told TheGrio.
On the most recent episode of Where Are They Now, which aired last Sunday, the interview took an unexpected turn when Symoné expressed her aversion to labels in the context of being in a same-sex relationship and her sexual orientation. She asserted, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American, I’m an American.” With family roots in Louisiana, Symoné continued, “I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person. Because we’re all people; I have lots of things running through my veins.” Oprah bluntly told Symoné that she’d draw a lot of flack for her statements, but the actress insisted, “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.”
As a beloved actress known for her roles on popular shows featuring African-American families, including the groundbreaking Cosby Show, Symoné elicited scathing criticism from people of color nationwide. Yet she is hardly the first celebrity to push back against race labels. In a GQ interview, Pharrell Williams drew criticism for his attitude towards black frustrations about institutional inequality. “I’m a black man. I’m happy to be black, and anybody that is not happy to be black will point around and ask for that kind of sympathy. But the thing is, let’s not ask nobody for no more sympathy. Let’s get together ourselves and support ourselves.” He also called on people to embrace the “New Black,” which the artist equated with high-profile success. Zoe Saldana, an Afro-Latina woman, also raised eyebrows when she argued that people of color don’t exist.
Comments like the ones made by Symoné and her peers spark outrage because they raise questions about privilege and race politics. When high-achieving people of color — heralded as symbols of success for people in marginalized communities — actively shrug off identity labels, they do so because they have a unique level of visibility and notoriety. The ability to distinguish between being black and African-American, as Symoné did, is a privilege that most people don’t have. People of color in Ferguson, for example, who don’t have celebrity status, are dehumanized by people in power for their race. They are acutely aware of their skin color because their realities are inextricably linked to it, and they do not have the luxury of differentiating labels, like black and African-American.
And even people of color who have achieved a “modicum of success” understand that success doesn’t mean one transcends labels. Take Roxane Gay, for instance, who wrote about the opportunities she had as a black woman to attend the best schools, publish multiple books, and teach at Purdue University. Despite her triumphs, she constantly feels the need to work harder than everyone else, so as not to be labeled “good enough for a black woman.”
So while high-profile celebrities like Raven-Symoné are entitled to shun labels, they also need to realize that doing so has larger repercussions for the communities they belong to.