Oprah knew this would happen. When the chat queen recently sat down with Raven-Symone, she predicted the ex-Cosby kid would set the Internet ablaze for quipping, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African American; I’m an American.”
Reportedly in a longtime relationship with model AzMarie Livingston, Raven only added fuel to the fire by remarking, “I don’t want to be labeled ‘gay.’ I want to be labeled ‘a human who loves humans.’”
In a single interview, the “That’s So Raven” star managed to alienate herself from not just one but two marginalized groups. As Winfrey anticipated, the public wasted no time taking the actress to task for attempting to shirk labels with which multitudes of Americans identify.
“I cannot imagine ever separating myself from all of the courageous people who came before me to break down barriers, share their wisdom and pave the way so my journey is just a little bit smoother in this life,” said Roxanne Jones, founding editor of ESPN The Magazine. “And in spite of her protests when Raven looks back just a bit, she’ll understand: She is also, among other things, a black American.”
Jones made her remarks in a CNN.com opinion piece. Other media outlets, including MTV and MSNBC, along with black-interest websites such as TheGrio.com, also addressed the controversy surrounding Raven’s thoughts on labels. For the record, the actress never said she wasn’t black but that she takes issue with being called African American because she feels no authentic connection to the African continent. Her roots are in Louisiana, she told Winfrey.
On the surface that sounds like a valid reason to distance oneself from the African-American label. Last year Morgan Freeman made a similar remark but hardly suffered the backlash that Raven has.
“I mean, you get — politically correct stuff happens that you don’t want to happen,” said Freeman during a “Today Show” visit. “I all of a sudden became an African — political correctness, African American. I’m not African.”
Why identify with a continent to which you can’t trace your roots? Because West African customs and traditions have historically (and currently) influenced black American music, cuisine, worship customs, folk medicine, hairstyles, vernacular and much more. Raven and Freeman may have been born in the U.S. and clueless as to which African country their ancestors came from, but the cultural connections to those ancestors exist nonetheless.
While Raven used ancestral alienation as the premise to shirk the African-American label, she did not and could not use this premise to distance herself from the “gay” label. Why she objects to this descriptor and instead wants to be characterized as a “human who loves humans” remains unsaid. But it’s likely no coincidence that Raven chose to distance herself from the labels that link her to two of the most marginalized groups in the U.S.—blacks and gays—while embracing the relatively safe label of “American.” She views the latter as inclusive, “colorless,” even, while discarding the labels that have resulted in large swaths of the public being rejected, oppressed, enslaved, bullied, beaten, tortured and lynched. It’s dangerous to be black. It’s dangerous to be gay. And the former child star, who currently does voiceover work in children’s films, presumably doesn’t want to be grouped in with these dangerous individuals. These labels can affect her livelihood.
What’s troubling is that she frames her aversion to the terms “African American” and gay in a way that suggests she’s being progressive somehow. But blacks have been passing for white and distancing themselves from their African origins for centuries to elude oppression, just as gays have been passing for straight. This isn’t some edgy new trend, but a trend birthed from the marginalization and dehumanization of “the other.”
In distancing herself from her “otherness,” Raven does a disservice to all those African Americans and LGBT Americans without her privilege, fame and resources. She certainly has no obligation to take up the mantle for African Americans or gays. But by acknowledging that she’s proud to be associated with those groups, she can send the message that Gay Americans and African Americans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They are not people to run away from and put at a distance. The problem, after all, isn’t the black label or the gay label. It’s the American label and those it has long left out.