Jewish World Review June 3, 2003 / 3 Sivan 5763
We all have our limits.
Portland, Ore., performance artist damali ayo (That's how she spells it, all lowercase) is said to have reached hers after years of dealing with questions about being black and having people want to touch her hair, which she wears in long, luxurious dreadlocks.
So, ayo, 31, who says she used to be a "diversity facilitator" before taking on the artists' life, did a creative Making-My-Statement performance-artist thing in late April. She launched a Web site with a startling all-lowercase name:
Surf to it and you will find a "state-of-the-arts service that allows you the chance to promote your connection with a creative, articulate, friendly, attractive and pleasing African American person."
These days "supporting multiculturalism" is "on everyone's agenda" as an "important part of building social clout," it says. "But how to start? Where do you find the people to diversify your life?"
Nervous about interactions with black people? Worried that they're so angry? No problem.
"With rent-a-negro, your comfort and enjoyment are valued," ayo's site assures you, and offers some ringing endorsements from allegedly satisfied customers:
"I took her to the country club for lunch... all heads turned," says one.
"My friends still ask, `how is that black friend of yours?" says another.
"I introduced her to my mother," says another. "Family conversations haven't been boring since."
No doubt. This is all a put on, of course. Inevitably some irony-deaf people fail to get the humor of it. For them, I have three words of advice: Relax. Lighten up.
Ayo has said that the idea came to her after years of playing a cultural ambassador in all-white settings. "I feel like people are saying, `you need to serve my ignorance by teaching me,' " she told The Washington Post. "I understand the white environment because I was forced to learn it. White people are not forced in any capacity to learn about other cultures. I'm not mad about it, but I would like more equity."
Well, good luck with that. It is a sad reminder of our society's persistent segregation that so many Americans still grow up without knowing anybody very well who comes from another race or culture.
Some others try earnestly to make a cultural crossover but mistakenly overdo it. I was reminded of this when my 13-year-old son recently expressed some irritation about a classmate, a white Eminem wanna-be who "thinks he's black."
Although it is always hazardous to venture into the depths of the teenage brain, I gather that my son, black all of his life, has made some sort of discovery, that blackness involves something more than the slang, rap stars and break-dance routines that he sees on MTV and BET.
Yet, he does not eagerly take on the role of racial ambassador to instruct the uninitiated in how it feels or what it means to be black. He is still learning most of that for himself.
Alas, helping white people to feel comfortable with non-whites or, in today's parlance, "people of color" can be a wearying burden for some.
I call it "integration fatigue." Sometimes black people in integrated settings grow weary of being asked to be the Official Representative of the Race.
This phenomenon came to mind when I heard lawyers for the University of Michigan's affirmative-action case, now before the Supreme Court, argue for a "critical mass" of nonwhites to enrich the school's academic atmosphere with racial diversity.
That makes sense to me. Diversity is enriching. I enjoy reminding Jim, my college freshman roommate, of how he did not even know that black people get tanned in the sun until he met me.
Nevertheless, I often wonder how many incoming minority freshmen know what they're in for. Life on integrated campuses calls upon many of us to be racial and cultural ambassadors. Michigan, with its "critical mass" theory, is just being more candid about it than many other colleges have been.
Of course, integration cuts both ways. You may have heard that white parents at Taylor County High School in Butler, Ga., recently paid for an all-white prom for their children as a throwback alternative to the school's racially integrated prom.
Obviously some people in all races get tired of dealing with other races. That's why we need racial ambassadors. It's a tough and tiresome job sometimes. Few of us
volunteer for it. But, for the sake of our children's futures, I'm glad somebody's doing it.
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