I discovered the black box the night I got caught acting black. As a white liberal who knew few black people, I had taken a job at Trenton High School. I’d find out who black people were.

I noticed black people dressed up. I began wearing spike heels and Sunday outfits to work. I noticed they were loud and demonstrative. At a party at my house, to which we’d invited Princeton friends, black and white, I showed off my new insight When the Trenton guests arrived, I greeted them bois­terously and did little shuffles, with my feet in appreciation of their humor. See, I was one of them, I thought. I glanced at my other black guests for approval. Their faces were blank, the sudden silence deafening.

Like a tourist in the foreign land of black people, I’d noticed only differences at Trenton High. I’ d overlooked the modest black teachers, just as I hadn’t counted my Princeton friends as “ black.” And I’d made other assumptions. Remembering TV footage of the freedom marches of the 1960s, I expected black teachers to be united in their dedication to black students. They weren’t. Black teachers were just like white teachers: Some worked tirelessly; others came and went with only a newspaper tucked under their arms, had their classroom TVs tuned to the soap operas during afternoon lessons, or threw up their hands at “ these kids.”

Trenton High had a reputation for being dangerous. Princeton friends called me a saint for working there. For a time, I reveled in that. But it began to sound racist as my knowledge of the students broadened. Yes, I had a few tough kids, but no one ever threatened me. Most kids wanted to learn and appreciated that my TV was turned off. And there were students who could have been my own children. These students, and many black and white teachers, fought for excellence. Administrators, black and white, resisted, saying almost proudly, “Trenton isn’t Princeton.”

Skin color and dress say nothing about socioeconomic status, ability, educational level or, most important, values. A Trenton High colleague, an elderly black woman, recounted the time three young black men in hooded sweatshirts had joined her in the elevator in her building. She was terrified, sure of being robbed. When the elevator reached her floor, the young men turned to her and asked, “ Can we help carry your groceries?” She was mortified.

White people are usually cubbyholed. As voters, we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Con­trast that to the “ black vote.” White people are Presbyterians, Mormons and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “ black church.” So I learned what I should have known all along, that our language seems stuck in an ancient box. It doesn’t reflect what the others already knew: There is an infinite variety among the people we call ‘black.’

Yet we keep putting people in boxes. For Cornel West, Princeton University
professor and author of Race Matters, the box is the “blues people.” In a recent New
York Times Magazine article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, black politics is
defined as fighting racial injustice, unequal opportunity and poverty. Who’s looking out for the black middle class, the black upper class?

When Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for “talking down to black people,” he
tossed responsible black parents into a box with the absentee fathers whom Obama had
singled out. But when Obama recently shamed CEO’s for taking excessive bonuses in a
time of recession, no one said he was “talking down to white people.”

I’ve been put in a box, too. A black colleague at Trenton High told me her first
impression: “White lady. Here for the paycheck. Probably can’t get a job anywhere
else.” She soon placed me in the cubby hole of dedicated teachers, but I recently found myself back in the box when I exclaimed, “Obama is so articulate!” I was expressing my relief after eight years of George Bush’s mumble-mouth.
“That’s politically incorrect,” a friend told me. “You’re implying that you’re
surprised a black man can be articulate.”

Good grief. Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr, were articulate.
Besides, I wasn’t thinking of Obama as black. But Joe Biden and I got put in that box.

White people are usually cubby-holed. As voters we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Contrast the “black vote.” White people
are Presbyterians, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “black church.”

Our language seems stuck in an historical box. It doesn’t reflect the infinite variety among the people we call “black.”

To me, the most mysterious and dangerous term is “black culture.” Recently on NPR, black mystery writers rejoiced that their stories reveal “black culture.” They meant
the lifestyle of black people in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. Dorothy Sayres described the lifestyle of upper-class England in her mysteries, but we don’t call it “white culture.”

Let’s abandon “black culture” and celebrate the specifics: African rhythms, the
Harlem Renaissance, jazz, hip-hop, soul food, Toni Morrison’s storytelling, Alvin
Ailey’s choreography…. Why? Because some people think “black culture” means an
uneducated, urban poor.

Beware the boxes. We’re not in a post-racial society if politicians aren’t “black
enough” to represent the poor, or if smart black children are told they’re “acting white.”

Sadly, Eric Holder’s call to talk about race merely flipped the boxes into soap boxes. If we’re going to respect our common humanity and our individuality, we should do as our mothers said and watch our language.

This essay will lead into the discussion for “Continuing Conversations on Race” at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m.

In 23 years at Trenton High, Chrystal Schivell served as faculty senator, secretary of the School Management Team and advisor to the Student Government Association.