Category Archives: Race and Identity

James Baldwin on “America’s ‘race problem'”

Today is the birthday of writer, activist and artist, James Baldwin.  Today, I salute his courageous questioning of the social construct of race, the distance between race and human identity.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the words and witness of Mr. James Baldwin.

 

Not Enough For Me

Race does not know my name

I know that the actions committed in the name of race are real, that is makes a believer and faithful follower out of us, that we pledge allegiance to our skin and create borders around our bodies.  No race- mixing.

But, race does not have a real name for me.  Socially constructed, I don’t want this American society or any other to have a say in who I am because the revelation is only skin deep.  The social construct of race can only say so much.  Race does not know my real name and instead, pretends to know me by lumping me into a color- coded group.  “Hey, black people!”  But, what’s my name?

I know that the social construct of race orders our lives, assigning position and extending power based on the social coloring of skin.  I know that race has a place for all of us and there is not much wiggle room.  “White people have this.”  “Black people belong here.”  But, I don’t have to take the seat that race pulls out for me.  I don’t have to give up the power within me because it somehow disrespects the social construct of race.  Besides, I require more space so I will need to move on to greener pastures. Trust me, the grass is greener on the race- less side.

And the social construct of race can only go so far.  It can only take me to stereotypical places.  But, I can’t help but stop race and say, “I’ve seen these boxes before.”  I want to go somewhere else and more still, this is not the place for me.  I don’t fit in and I won’t try to.

Because race is not enough for me.  Unable to keep track of me or to tally all of my being and its expressions, race is not the sum of my existence.  The social construct of race is not the defining attribute of my life.  The color black is the not synonymous with my person and blackness does not capture my presence.

My life is bigger than the social construct of race and it could never satisfy my identity.  Because there is more to me, race will never be enough.  I dare not pretend that it can be.  So, how about you?

 

 

The Lie of Race

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“White people have not always been ‘white,’ nor will they always be ‘white.’  It is a political alliance.  Things will change.”

 {Amoja Three Rivers}

I begin with whiteness because all of the other social colors define themselves by it.  In fact, the other social colors exist for it.  Whiteness depends on blackness, for example, for it is the existence of blackness, synonymous with evil and darkness, that calls for whiteness.  Whiteness is then needed to right the wrong and to stamp out the darkness.

In order for the socially constructed white identity to be the standard of good, there must be one or more identities that are the definition of bad.  Whiteness is then seen as a necessity and then divinized.  But, you can’t have one without the other.  We cannot have whiteness without the “other.”

Or, whiteness is defined as exclusively good, permitting no other social colors to join its group.  “If you’re white, you’re right.  If you’re black, stay back.”

James Baldwin called it “the lie of whiteness.”  And I would agree but I would push us just a little bit further.  I would call blackness and with it, all the other social colors a lie.  Consequently, I declare that the social construct of race is a lie, that there is no truth it, no redeeming characteristics or qualities.

I will never understand why we believed the lie to begin with or how we traded our humanity for hue.  I join with Charles Chestnut who asked in 1889, “What is a white man? ” No, really what is a white man?  Who is a white man?

Because God’s purpose for humanity is not color- coded: “If you’re white…” No, God’s purpose is eternal, not based on physical features tied to social contracts.  “If you’re black…”

Race is a lie; don’t try to make a believer out of God.

Only Human

Image result for only human imageIt seems that we are not satisfied with our humanity, that there is always a need to be something more than human, super human, a special set of humans.  In our quest, we often attempt to reduce the value and visibility of others.  Because we cannot be more human unless we make others less human.  We get our power by taking theirs away.  And there’s really nothing super or special about that.

Instead, it is an expression of pride and selfishness.  It is childish to believe that we are the only ones that should be seen, that everyone else is in the way, that the whole earth is mine and I don’t have to share, that I am God’s only child.

It is a strange desire that we would want to be something more than those around us, that we would create categories of exclusion that would make us less common or ordinary.  It is an awkward expression of our humanity: creating differences, hoarding the earth, making up problems, burning bridges, segregating ourselves, cheating some to enrich the lives of others.  Still, we cannot get away from the truth that we are all the same.

For all of our attempts at creating differences and maintaining them, we are all obviously, plainly, nothing more than human.  No matter what we attach to or associate with ourselves, Paul was right, “There is only one flesh for human beings” (First Corinthians 15.39).  Despite the claims of the social construct of race, we are only human and always family.

 

 

Unmasking Whiteness

“However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man, there is only one destiny.  And it is white.”

~ Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

“This contradictory longing to possess the reality of the Other, even though that reality is one that wounds and negates, is expressive of the desire to understand the mystery, to know intimately through imitation, as though such knowing worn like an amulet, a mask, will ward away the evil, the terror.”

bell hooks, “Representations of whiteness in the black imagination,” Black on white: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White

The Apostle James writes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1.12).  When the Bible speaks of God’s plans for believers, God does not speak in terms of race as Fanon and hooks have written.  Thus, it is necessary to explain why we need not confuse the two.

While American society provides our perspective, it is important that we are reminded of the big picture or perhaps, the Biggest Picture.  We cannot forget that God’s eyes frame our lives very differently.  It is our senses and our temporal nature that confines us to such limited views of our humanity.  We cannot see more because our eyes are so small, so dim.

This, along with the fact, that we see as we are told.  We focus on what the group, what the majority, what a society, what the powerful tells us is worth looking at.  And even if we have to look away from ourselves, we will lean into the image that is being held up and prized for fear of being left out and consequently, being out of sight.

But, this is not a test or a trial.  This is not about acceptance, endurance or even survival.  This is assimilation.

Primarily, the testing that the oppressed endure due to the social construct of race is social.  It is a proving ground not ordained or created by God.  It is not a test that God is grading us on because we are not being judged according to the social coloring of skin.

Thus, whiteness is not the answer.  Whiteness will not get a pass.  Whiteness is not to be learned but unlearned.

This testing is also not rewarded by God.  Those who aspire to whiteness will be rewarded socially not divinely.  There is no crown for the whitest.  This is not the crowning achievement of our humanity.  There is no life for whiteness in eternity.

Secondly, the plans of whiteness and the plans of God are not synonymous.  The plans of whiteness and the plans of God are not in partnership.  There is no connection there.  They do not support each other.  Two kinds of righteousness, two saviors, to different sets of commandments, whiteness is an idol.  Only one can be right.  God.

The destiny of whiteness and the destiny that God has for us are not the same.  We will end up in two different places.  Thus, our relationships with race and God are about faith.  Which one do we believe in?  Which one is truly rewarding?  Which of these really matters?

Because you can possess whiteness and its privileges yet not know God.  Putting on whiteness and putting on Christ are not synonymous.  Only one can save you.

Thus, whiteness and all social colors are not tests but rather evidences of our lust.  And they are not new lusts: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life (First John 2.16).  Race is about visibility, choosing who will be seen, valued and rewarded while God sees us all.

So, don’t put it on; instead, take it off.  It will make the value go down.

And let us stop being reproducers of these masks.  Let us stop providing, making concessions and excuses for them.  “I’m sorry.  You cannot wear that mask here.  We will need to see your real face.”

Let us no longer order or carry masks in our institutions and the marketplace, in our families and social circles.  Let’s not keep spare ones in the drawer, inherited ones in a safe deposit box or emergency ones under our mattress.  Let us no longer offer these masks, wrapped up and presented as gifts.  Let us not treat them as essential to our survival, tied to our destiny and who we must become no matter what of ourselves we lose.

No, let us prove that whiteness means nothing at all without us.  Reveal our true selves and demonstrate that we can understand ourselves without it, that we can see ourselves without it.  Move whiteness out of the way so that you can get a glimpse of the Biggest Picture.