Tag Archives: pre- racial

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.”


If you’re wondering how I can live without race and still function in the world, then this post is for you.  I used to believe in race; while in college, I was an avid supporter, a devoted follower.  I sat at the feet of race and wanted everything that race had for me.  Race could do no wrong and everything that race said about me and others was right.  I was its “amen corner.”

I wanted to be “black and proud,” shaving off  permed hair, taking Kiswahili classes and minoring in African American Studies.  I bought the t- shirt, the artwork and read the books.  My dorm room walls looked like the business office of a “Back to Africa” movement.  I’ve been there and overdone that.

And if you think that you know why I have reached this conclusion, this state of being then, let me address your answers as well.  No, I do not live in the land of “la la.”  I have had my share of experiences with persons who were judgmental, rude or threatening due to the social construct of race.  No, I’m not out of touch with this reality but in touch with a greater Reality, the Reality.  I am not living on the margins of American society but looking from the margins at the racialized life.  My position has changed because my perspective has changed.  No, I am not suggesting that America is post- racial while I certainly am.  In fact, I have learned that my identity and consequently, my purpose predates the existence of race.  Before race was, God is.  Therefore, I am pre- racial.

I took the time to get to know race, not just through the experiences of others or even my own.  I put down history books on our treatment toward each other once we accepted race as our reality and picked up books on the history and origin of race.  I was no longer interested in hearing who race thought I was or would be but I began to research who race was.  I wanted to know more about the identity of race.  Instead of asking race, “Who am I?”  I began to ask race, “Who are you?”

I had placed great faith in race and couldn’t see myself questioning it.  Even these introductory, getting to know you questions were difficult.  The conversation was slow going.  I wrote them down in journals at first; Sometimes, I would ask them aloud and then leave the room as if I could leave my head.  I wasn’t sure of the answers, if I could find them or whether or not I was even prepared to accept them.

I would share them with family and friends and they would be offended.  Why are you asking that?  Conversations would quickly shift as my questions suggested to them that I wanted to deny their experience of pain, that I was forgetting who I was and all that they had taught me, that I had lost it.  Some persons even suggested that it was a trick of the socially colored white man, that I was letting “them” off the hook, that I should not get over race and its offenses, that they deserved to be punished every day of our lives.  But, who was really being punished?

I had been told that I was black and that race provided meaning for my physical existence and the social world.  I had been told that this was how the persons would experience me and my physical appearance would determine how I was treated.  But, what of my soul and spirit?  What deep meaning could race provide?  What of its mysteries could it reveal?  How did race support my faith and make me a better Christian?  It did not.  It could not.  It would not.

I was beginning to crave something different.  I just couldn’t believe that this was all there was to life, that my existence had been figured out from beginning to end based solely on my physical attributes.  I was craving something more, something deeper.

So, day by day, I began to talk back to race.  After a few years,  I found myself with nothing more to say.  Realizing that there nothing more that race could say to me,  I stopped talking to race.  I just didn’t need the conversation any more; I had heard it all before any way.  Over time, our relationship changed and race went from bosom buddy, confident and teacher to personal enemy #1.

Race no longer shapes my perspective or influences my decisions.  Race does not tell me what to do.  I do not follow its commandments or practice its faith.  I have left that world, that mindset, that way of being.  I’ve stopped serving race, bowing my life down in order to fit into its categories.

I am craving something different.  I am not interested in history’s favorites.  I don’t care what the media adds to the menu.  I don’t want the prepackaged special.  I’m tired of more of the same old superficial identity and racialized purpose.  I don’t have an appetite for race anymore.  Instead, I am craving reconciliation with myself and I don’t care what it cost me.  I’ve placed my order.  I’ll just mingle with the other diners until it arrives.