Tag Archives: aracial

James Baldwin talks about race as “a frame of reference”

The most common question I get asked is, “How do you not see race?”  Mystified, irritated, doubtful, persons look at me and wonder how does it happen.  Or they think, “What world are you living in?  Not the real one.  Don’t you see what is happening?”

I am treated like a madwoman.  They shake their heads or wave me off.  “She doesn’t know what she is talking about.”  They confuse racelessness with colorblindness or post- racialism.  No, I’m talking about life before race. I am pre- racial: “For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139.13, NRSV).  I am not choosing one side over the other; I am aracial, neither accepting or desiring the racial nomenclature.

But, I don’t think these people hear me.  Like a cure for cancer or discovering the fountain of youth, solving the race problem is talked about as if a miracle or mythical.  Like parting seas, parting ways with race only seems possible with Divine intervention or some superb detective work.  To be sure, God has stepped in.  But, it also requires a change in the way that we talk about race.   We have to work out our salvation (Philippians 2.12).

And therein lies part of how it happens.  Talking about race as the problem and not our selves is a good place to start.  Because many of us talk about race as if we are afraid of what it will do to us.  We speak well of race though it does not return the favor.  Why?  It is only our tongues that are far- reaching.  We are who we say we are.

This is an agreement, a social contract.  Because race is not an absolute.  We give it meaning and make it meaningful.  We tell generation after generation we have a deal.

Aime Cesaire is right: “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”  Because there is a Pharaoh in our heads too.  Race is a mind game.

James Baldwin realized this.  In an interview with Margaret Mead captured in the book A Rap on Race, after Mead talks of an instance when race completely slipped her mind, Baldwin says,

“But, of course.  That’s what I mean when I say… when I hear ‘Ignore race.’  Well, it took me a long time to do that, and perhaps, I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people– I mean, at least different from my point of view and different from anybody I had met in America.  And I realized one day that somebody asked about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was black or white.  It simply had never occurred to me.  The question had never been in my mind.  Never in my mind.

I really had a terrible time.  I suddenly felt as though I were lost.  My whole frame of reference all the years I was growing up had been black and white.  You know, you always knew who was white and who was black.  But suddenly I didn’t have it; suddenly the frame of reference had gone.  And in a funny way– and I don’t know how to make sense of this– as far as I could tell, as far as I can tell till this hour, once that has happened to you, it never comes back.

Mead: I had to make it come back.

Baldwin: Well, I came home.”

A Race-less Vocabulary List

Race is not prescriptive. Race causes us to lose sight of each other quite literally. We are missing out on love, healing, relationship, truth… all because we cannot see each other.  We speak as if race has always been, as if we will cease to exist, turn into dust, fade into oblivion if we stop referring to ourselves in colors, shades and skin tones.  But, colors are not names.  Colors are colors.  They offer the meanings we give them, no different than traffic lights.  And I have seen the light.

The color does not change who or what or why it exists.  It does not exist because of the color but because in the case of the light, we need order, direction, safety.  Our human variableness is imagined then.  We are all the same: “You put your pants on one leg at a time just like me.”  We have same the needs and desires.  You say, “Tomato”; I say, “Tomato.”  Though met differently and at different times, it’s all the same.

This is the problem with human beings: We think that being human is a problem.  We take issue with being, simply existing.  We surmise that there must be something more to this.  Poking at flesh, we create words to make us stick out.  Race is no different.

I hope I have properly grounded this list in a strong argument for its recitation and memory.  I offer these words to combat the idea that the language of race traps us, cements our fate, locks us in an battle of us against them battle “forever and ever. Amen.”  There is an end to race and it is on the tip of our tongues.

Repeat after me.

  1. Skin (flesh, epidermis)
  2. Colors (as in crayons because one’s country is not synonymous with the social coloring of one’s skin)
  3. Sociopolitical construct (race as human- made, as idol)
  4. Racial eliminativism (the belief that race and racial groups do not exist)
  5. Racial eliminativist (those who seek to eradicate the idea, systemic implementation of race and to challenge/ thwart a racialized existence)
  6. Racialized (To view life through the lens of race and to color- code one’s existence, experiences and interactions)
  7. Aracial (without racial distinctions: Aracial anthropology, theology)
  8. Raceless (without race: syn: aracial; raceless gospel, raceless Christianity)
  9. Pre- racial (The belief that race is not a creator or co- creator with God, that human beings existed before race.)
  10. Race skeptic or race atheist (One who does not believe in race, who doubts and/or questions the basis or rationale for existence based on the social coloring of skin)

Race As Social Formation

3999186Like you, I inherited the identity that comes with the social construct of race and also the burden of its life and history.  Initially, I accepted it.  I didn’t know of any other option or way of being so I learned about being black.

I read books and watched documentaries on Black history.  I took classes and specialized in African American studies.  But, while I appreciated and honored the story, I never could make peace with the word.  Black.

My awakening and subsequent liberation came by way of a question: “Do I have to be black?”  And the answer was, “No.”  I am viewed as a black person but I don’t have to see myself this way.  I am treated like a black person but I don’t have to handle myself in this way.  Race does not have to inform how I understand myself or determine how I manage my life.

Because there is an unfathomable distance between who society says that I am and who God created me to be.  I have spent many years now peeling back the layers of lies, most of them are the same.  Each year, the falsehoods have become easier to identify but this does not make the work any easier.  I get tired of the motion as there seems to be no end.

Still, the truth that I am race-less must not only be acknowledged or repeated but practiced.  This truth must be lived out.  I must make it visible.  I must give it voice.

And in so doing, I remove the hands unseen that attempt to mold me into who we have been and the way we should be.  I deny race the right to practice on my life; it’s license is not real.

To be sure, stereotypes are a collection of people’s assumptions.  Prejudices are but pride and fear extended to keep others at a distance.   The social construct of race is nothing more than life lived from the mouth of human beings versus that of God.  The continued existence and acceptance of race is evidence of our fear of being children of God and likewise, becoming a family.

The race-less life allows the Hands that held me first to lead my being and to lead me into being, new and original, personal and mine alone (Psalm 139.13-14).  An identity rooted in race is but the process of social formation.  But, it is not a genesis; it is no beginning but the end of me.  I come to a conclusion here.

It is not the fullest expression but the summary of me and most of the details are not mine but a collection of others mixed together.  It is not me at all.  It is what is thought of me.  It is what is believed about me… socially.  It is an identity created by the people and for the people, which is not to be confused with in service to God.

I am so glad that I don’t have to be black, that I have a say in who I am and will be, that race does not speak for me, that its hands did not touch me first.  What about you?  Who were you before race?


Does Race Give Credit?

Today, I attended a briefing at the White House with sixty other Baptists from around the nation; afterwards, I attended a debriefing over a very late lunch; and after that, I attended a ministers meeting at the church where I currently serve. To say the least, it has been a long day but it’s been a productive, a useful one. I have great joy at this late hour because while I waited for my food to arrive, I opened my Bible and began to read the lectionary readings for the week. As often occurs, I continued to read beyond the designated scriptures and found myself being fed in the best way.

This week’s readings included Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Chapter four and verses 20 through 24 read: “He (Moses) did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore it was credited to him for righteousness. Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, but also for us.  It will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” 

I pray that I too will have the faith of Moses as I believe in the promise of God through His Son, Jesus Christ: “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their (the disciples) message. May they be all one as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You; May they also be one in Us so that the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17.20-23). Likewise, I share the conviction of the apostle Paul: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28). Jesus prayed for the unity of future believers and I believe with all my heart that we will not remain separate forever.

So, tonight, I wonder what will race give us for our faith in its colors and categories, its stereotypes and prejudices? What will be our reward for trusting in race? What promise or prayer does it fulfill? What do we think our credit for believing in race will be?

Traveling Mercies

“Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the depths of the sea. On frequent journeys, I have faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold and lacking clothing. Not to mention other tings, there is daily pressure on me: my care for all the churches.” ~ Second Corinthians 11.24-28

This daily race of self- examination, the questioning of socially approved answers and the critique of the American interpretation and practice of Christianity is tiring. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve said enough or if I should even speak at all on matter. Why continue to carry this message of race-lessness? Maybe I should let this sleeping dog lie but it is not sleeping at all. It is a guard dog that prevents me from moving out of the place that I have been colored to hold. So, I’ll kick it every day no matter how many times it lunges at me, no matter the number of times I am bitten.

While taking a walk this afternoon, I was reminded of the words that the apostle Paul shared with the church at Corinth and was encouraged. Needless to say, I have not experienced much of his sufferings for the sake of the gospel, having not been beaten, stoned or even threatened with such as punishment for my faith. I have not been shipwrecked seeing as though I have never utilized this mode of travel, suffered imprisonment or found lacking in food or clothing as I traveled to share the message of Jesus Christ. But, I do know something about a couple of the dangers that Paul writes about: “dangers from my own people and dangers from the Gentiles.”

We have invested our lives and its future in this idea, this social construct of race and I have been reminded on a few occasions of the depth of its meaning in the lives of so many Americans. Race means a lot to us. It is the rationale for our privilege and the reason for our mistreatment. It explains why we do what we do: hate, segregate, prejudge and stereotype. I can’t just take that away, right? Wrong.

Carrying a message that is opposed to an identity so treasured and thus, valued is dangerous and I find myself at odds with my own people: friends and family members. Because of my denial of race and a racialized life, I am often ostracized. If I don’t want to belong with black or beige people, then with whom will I find myself? My hope is that my denial of race will further position me in Jesus Christ, that it will assist in my continued spiritual formation and identity. I also hope that my friends and family members would join me there, knowing that in my leaving race, I am not abandoning them, that there is a group that we can all belong to wherein we possess equal privilege and powerlessness.

It is also dangerous to share this message with you, the reader. I am never certain of how the message will be received. Do I want the world to be color- blind or post- racial? Neither. Then what exactly is the goal? I want the Church to live the Truth that is Jesus Christ, live the already proven fact that race is not biological but social, not biblical but cultural. My hope is that the Church would not continue invest its faith in race, knowing that we have a sure foundation and a secure identity in Jesus Christ, that it would serve as the leader of this journey toward race-lessness, to love all of its members and to demonstrate the unconditional love of God. And I believe that God has granted us, like Paul, traveling mercies. Yes, there will be pain and suffering, plans will be thwarted and terror might appear to reign, but the message will survive. So, keep on walking. Keep on talking.