Fictive Kinship in the Dying Age of Obama

“All kinfolk ain’t skinfolk” – Zora Neale Hurston

When faced with the astounding fact that there are very few black folks at your institution, any black person may initially seem like a sibling. I remember when I first arrived at Princeton and immediately had this urge to join the Black Student Union. I was simply not used to being around many non-black people, considering my predominantly black hometown. I assumed that by joining the Black Student Union, I would find unity in just being in a room with people with mocha, caramel, burnt sienna skin like mine. As fellow black people, we could understand an arena like Princeton in a way that a non-black person could not. Who else could understand inside jokes about “black culture” and how difficult it is being a black Princetonian sometimes? As a first year, I did not consider or find it particularly relevant that just because someone “looked like me” (which is complicated because black people are perhaps some of the most aesthetically diverse people in the United States), did not mean they had my best interests at heart or even considered our fates aligned. Only later I began to question what words like “community” and “unity” meant, especially in such crucial times when the idea of fictive kinship is perhaps the biggest roadblock to a dialectical understanding of racial community.

Fictive kinship is the anthropological idea that someone not “blood related” to an individual can be considered that person’s “mother”, “father”, “brother”, “sister”, etc. Within the black community, black people have historically considered fellow blacks be their “brother” or “sister,” especially when that fellow black person has similar political views or is fighting with them in the good fight. And like kin, one perhaps overlooks some key conflicts in a person’s character or goals because of their relation to you. This connectedness to other black people, per Wilson Jeremiah Moses, is connected to the idea that all blacks have a “shared racial heritage and destiny.”Although not often explicit, this is perhaps one of the reasons people like myself rushed to Black Student Union events. It is perhaps the reason that I assumed another black student would automatically understand my plight at a Predominantly White Institution, simply because they were black.

Of course, not all black people are the same. At an institution like Princeton, this is evident if you attend any events hosted by groups like the Black Student Union, Princeton Association of Black Women and Princeton’s African Students’ Association. Although Princeton is not indicative of the United States’ black population, it serves as a petri dish of elite black students who come from varying backgrounds – some more represented than others. This view of black life is perhaps the most valuable thing about the non-monolithic nature of black people; I have friends whose homes range from Nigeria to the South Side of Chicago; who speak multiple languages or have Southern twangs. However, such “diversity” is not all daisies and roses. Our political views, gender identities, sexual orientations, classes and nationalities are just a handful of identities that interact with our blackness in often conflicting ways. Our blackness does not provide an automatic indication of our feelings on violent protest. Our blackness does not provide an automatic indication of whether we employ respectability politics. Our blackness does not provide an automatic indication of our feelings on a woman’s right to choose or the role of black women in civic life. Our blackness does not provide an automatic indication of our feelings on whether LGBTQ+ rights be placed in as much priority as racial issues. For myself and others, Princeton has been a place where we discover that while fellow black people can be some of our greatest supporters, they can also be our foes. When we purport the idea of unity, what harms do we perpetuate when for so many of us, our views of the future are not necessarily aligned?

Eventually, I would like to return to a time when I could look at any black person walking down the street and consider them to be an ally.  Presently, I cannot assume that just because of shared skin color, I can overlook internalized racism or misogyny. I do not want unity just for the comfort of it. In the dying age of Obama and a period of white backlash, unity may be more important than ever. As Obama leaves office and Donald Trump’s fascist regime makes ethnic and racial identity all the more stratified, the question of unity is poignant. Feigned and symbolic unity is perhaps as pointless as no unity at all. Ideally, we should acknowledge our differing goals as black people, many of which may be shaped by several historical factors. For example, while class should not be an ultimate barrier to black unity, it is important to acknowledge how class privilege plays a larger role in the goals of many black individuals. Once acknowledged, ideally we can coalesce these goals by understanding that certain goals that leave behind some black people and deify others, hurt more people than they help. With this, we can progress toward a brighter future for all black people, where we reject homophobia, colorism, ableism, classism etc. as a community built on love and accountability.

– Imani Thornton