A native informant is someone from a particular race or place who is seen as an expert on it simply by virtue of belonging to it. Rented Negroes are native informants. So are the black people who appear in sentences like “I have a black friend who says…”
- You: if you are a white person’s only black friend then most likely you are seen as a native informant. Tell-tale signs: they ask you serious questions mainly about “black” issues, like about affirmative action but not about health care reform. Or they say things like, “I know this black guy at work and he does not agree with what you say.”
- Roger Ebert’s wife: when Ebert said he knew more about black women’s hair than Chris Rock because he was married to a black woman.
- Rap videos or BET: when people watch them thinking that is how black people are. But this is even worse because most of what is on television could not have got there without white approval at different levels – producers, advertisers, company heads, etc.
Seeing someone as a native informant is racist because it assumes that all people of a particular race are alike, that talking to one is as good as talking to another. It is on the same level as saying “All black people look alike” or “All Asians look alike”.
The danger of using native informants is that of the single story: no single person, no matter how broad his experience or how insightful his observations or how long or beautiful his words can possibly sum up the full range of experience of his race or place. Or, in fact, even of his own life.
If you want to know what New York is like, for example, there are over 8 million people you could ask. But each one would give you a different answer, some of them wildly different. Donald Trump’s New York is not Sonia Sotomayor’s New York or Spike Lee’s New York or even Lou Reed’s New York. Spike Lee’s New York is not James Baldwin’s New York. And so on. And even if you went there yourself to live for 20 years, that would itself just be one answer.
Black America has about 40 million people. So asking a black person about black people is just as bad – well, in fact, about five times worse than the New York example.
Native informants cut out that huge range of experience.
But it gets worse: in practice they wind up supporting narrow stereotypes and white opinion. Because native informants who say what white people want to hear have their opinions repeated or put on television. “See, a black person said it!” They give the white lens a false sense of perfect vision.
A good example are the Rented Negroes you see on American cable news: nearly all of them have middle-of-the-road or right-wing opinions despite the fact that most blacks – and even most news reporters themselves – are well to the left according to opinion polls.