The Spiritual Discipline of Questioning Race

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” ~Albert Einstein

“I went for the jugular question.” ~ Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate

I didn’t like the answers that race was giving me. That’s what started this stirring within me, this discontentment that just won’t go away. They were answers, yes but they weren’t the answer. I knew this because I continued to have questions. Nothing that race said about me or the many cultures of the world settled things with me. In fact, there has never been a time during my readings on race when I have thought, “Aha, that’s it. This all makes sense to me now. I am confident in the power and ability of race. I am the created and it is my creator. I submit my will to yours.” I have always had doubts.

Race has never made sense to me and the conclusions that were drawn about persons socially defined as “black” weren’t sufficiently answering the questions that I had about myself or how I was to relate to those who were not socially colored “black.” I was too young to question my parents; it would have been considered talking back. But, that would have been far from the truth. What is disrespectful about questioning race? Is race my parent and consequently, it knows me better because it made me? Is race my elder and I should simply respect it for its position though only earned through age? It was here before me so it is safe to assume that it knows more than me? No, what race knows well is the record of wrongs. It is our scorekeeper. We want so desperately to be right that we don’t care what we employ to make us such. And of what value of knowing the wrongs of history? How does that make us the right people?

Is my questioning evidence of my naivete? Does it reveal that I am not old enough to have had the experiences of prejudice, which would bring an understanding of the social contract of race? So, I’m not old enough to understand race in order to enter into an agreement but I am old enough to be held to its stipulations? Who signed my name and how can I have it removed?

So let me get this right. This is what it means to live in America. Well, what does it mean to live in Christ? Obviously, the two are not one in the same. And my purpose is predetermined by the social coloring of my skin? Then, how am I to interpret passions that are stereotypically outside of what a socially defined “black” person is supposed to do? What am I to make of that fact and what should I then do with this desire to know and to love all cultures? Race certainly didn’t bring any clarity as to why I live in a society where cultures essentially give each other the silent treatment. What is strange to me is that no one else finds it strange, is troubled or perplexed by it? So, we just don’t talk to those people? Well, why and for how long?

Sure, race provided a historical understanding of why things are the way that they are but it is not able to deter my conviction that this is not the way that it should be. And I didn’t have to just idly sit by but could at least try to live into the vision that God has for us.  Consequently, instead of simply nodding my head in approval of the socially agreed upon answer of the pseudo- scientific findings of biological difference, culturally approved stereotypes and inherited family traditions of prejudice, I decided to keep asking questions of race.

It is a spiritual practice and if persons can question the existence of God, then why can’t I question race? Is race more self-evident than God? Did race create the earth, the trees and every living thing. No, I suppose that that would be going too far. And it is just that limitation, that restriction that began my questioning of the socially all-powerful, all-knowing, always present race. We talk about this social construct in divine terms and that should have never happened. Race should have stayed within the ranks of other gods. Persons should have never attempted to use race to account for so much of what is true about human beings and human nature; they should not have tried to give it such a place in my life at least.

For me, race is frankly superficial not just in a physical sense but in terms of ordering my life and understanding the world around me. There is so much more to life than skin and I strive to live and see people below this epidermic surface. Race also does not allow me to think or live deeply into the life that God has called me to and that Christ died for. When living the racialized life, things are said but not said; people are seen but not seen; actions are taken but not taken; truth is told but not told. In fact, I can have a conversation with someone of a different culture and she never has to open her mouth. Instead, her voice is supplanted by the voice of race and I have a conversation with race about her. And this becomes my dialogue with the world and its inhabitants.

I thought that I would have grown out of this sense of dissatisfaction with race, that I would succumb to the rationale of my elders as to its importance. But, I haven’t and I don’t suppose that I will. I began to question my faith in race and when I began to share my discontent with the social coloring of skin (or even speak about color in those terms) and its social positioning, you would have thought that I had said that I did not believe in myself.  Persons responded like the totality of my existence was linked to race and a part from it, I was nothing. If I was not going to be a socially colored “black” person, then I was saying that I did not want to exist in American society, in my church, in my neighborhood and in my family. It was as if I had said that the sun did not exist or that I was attempting to disprove that the moon did not hang in the sky at night. I was because race is.

But, I have questioned race and I am still alive. Race has not struck me down and it does not have the power to. There is no black cloud hovering above me, raining on this parade of life since I denounced it. My world is still being held together and comes together each day without race and its meanings. Some would call this social heresy; I would not. I rather see it as the spiritual practice of one who seeks to know herself more fully and that knowing has absolutely nothing to do with race.

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