Tag Archives: questioning race

Circling back

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Do you see the world through race- colored glasses?   Are you totally dependent on race to survive in the world around you?  Can’t leave  home without race?  Don’t know how you could understand the world without its prejudices and stereotypes?  If this is how you feel, then I understand.

I’ve been there and I have the Afro pick, the Kiswahili textbooks, the incense and the resistance poetry for beginners to prove it.  I used to be black, black and proud, black and angry, black and beautiful, black and conscious, a pre- cursor to being “woke.”  It was a cultural immersion or maybe a self- guided cultural exchange program, a total rejection of my Americanness and an intellectual pilgrimage back to Africa.  Blame it on my undergraduate history courses and the required readings for a concentration in African and Afro- American studies.  Before reading the slave narratives, the abolitionists’ witness and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I had a Black History month education of the African experience in America.

I feel like I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m not.  Growing up, we didn’t have many books in our home.  There was no local library.  Now with hundreds of books of my own, I cannot imagine my life without one.  Books make a house a home and I owe countless writers credit for guiding me to a place within myself that I could call the same.

After singing the spirituals and the blues, reading Olaudah Equiano’s startling testimony, the incidents in the life of Harriet Jacobs and the harrowing escape of Frederick Douglass and gaining the insights of  Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Chestnut, W.E.B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and of course, James Baldwin, I experienced a kind of conversion.  I had new eyes and ears.  There was a clarity and perspective that made me antsy.  I couldn’t get out of America and so I wanted America out of my head.  It started with my hair.

It was permed, processed, straightened out.  I cut my hair close to the scalp and learned that it curled.  Now nineteen years old, I don’t remember ever seeing my natural hair.  It had been corrected before I knew there was a problem.  Standing in front of the mirror, I liked what I saw and wondered who had a problem with my tresses.

All this time, I thought that something was wrong with my hair.

Those race- colored glasses were sliding down my nose and to my surprise, I was starting to look over them.  I had no desire to push them back into place again.  I began to see race for what it was and more importantly, for what it was not.  I realized that there was nothing wrong with my eyes either, that I could see just fine without them.  And rather than question myself, I began to question race.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the beginning of my raceless journey after reading Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others where she writes in parenthesis, “What would we be or do or become as a society if there were no ranking or theory of blackness?”  It is a necessary question for those who claim to be engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.  Do we even know how to answer it?  Or have we become so dependent on race that we dare not look at ourselves apart from it?

I’ve been there and if that is where you are, I am circling back to get you.  Race does not have a better view of our humanity and there is nothing wrong with your eyes.

Race who?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.”

| Ludwig Wittgenstein

Most persons feel compelled to answer to race and to question those who don’t.  “Who does race say that you are?”  Skin deep, the epitome of superficial meaning, we speak as if its value is apparent, a parent and second creator.  It is a rebirth, a remaking, a new creation made in the image of whiteness.

A social righteousness, we pray, “Make my skin light, lighter, lightest of all.  Amen.”  We baptize our skin in bleach, hoping that chemicals will straighten out the tangled mess our hair has made, that our noses won’t get in the way, that our big mouths won’t get us into trouble.  We wrestle with flesh and blood in hopes of being pinned with this prized social perfection.

Blue ribbon skin.  Trophy flesh.  First place in the race contest.  It is faith in skin filled in, in skin that fills in for our faith.

We believe that race makes us or breaks us, that it all comes down to our physical appearance.  We talk of race as if it is the only way in which we fully identify, that we cease to exist without these colored words, that our flesh fails us unless it is colored in.   In race, “we live, move and have our being.”

We behave like we all fit into these boxes, that everyone has to go into one of them: beige, brown, black, red, yellow or white.   Get in.  Squeeze in.  We’ve all got to fit in.  And we say this while espousing the belief that we are buried with Christ.

Still, race gets up and in our faces.  We cannot look away.  Picking at our flesh, we feel that this is real.  We open our mouths to answer to it.

But, why?  Instead, question it.  Race does not tell you who you are and if it does, you should wonder why.  I mean have you ever met Race?  The relationship is superficial; it only knows your skin.  You don’t have to let it in.

Instead, leave it on the outside of you.  Peek through and ask, “Race, who?”

Why do Christians believe in race?

Image result for questioning“Calls are essentially questions.  They aren’t questions you necessarily need to answer outright; they are questions to which you need to respond, expose yourself and kneel before.   You don’t want an answer you can put in a box and set on a shelf.  You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life.”

{Gregg Levoy, Callings}

I believe that I have been called to question the validity of the social construct of race in the practice of faith.  In my head, I had been questioning the social construct of race for years.  In conversation, I would correct persons in my mind when they colored people in.   My perspective was changing and I wasn’t sure of how to express what I was beginning to see.   Then, the question came, “Do I have to be black?”  I answered, “No” and the race-less gospel of Jesus Christ was born.

This question revealed my calling and will carry me the breadth of my life.  I will spend the rest of my life repeating the answer to this question and the impact of this truth on our faith in Jesus Christ.  The truth is that God did not create colored people; American society did.  As Christians, we are ex- colored people, no longer known by the names of race.  There is no longer socially colored beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white people (cf. Colossians 3.11; Galatians 3.28).  But, this is not to suggest that we are not persecuted and privileged according to the social construct of race.  But, to suggest that God does the same and that the Church is called to embody it is a gross theological misstep.

The truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ is race-less, that God is not a Colored Person (socially colored white included), that the hope of my existence is not tied to my flesh seems obvious to me.  It also seems obviously contrary to the faith that we espouse.  Created as new creatures in Christ Jesus and the judgments of our sins removed, how then does God bless and curse us as believers based on the social construct of race?  How do the power and oppressions of the social construct of race remain in play for members of Christ’s body?  The answer is that we simply add the social identity to our confessions, doctrines, hymns, preaching, theologies.

Called to be a new community, we abide by the same rules as society and section off the body of Christ according to the pretenses, privileges and prejudices of race.  Gathered in as the family of God, race says that we are not related. The Church is called to challenge the systems of the world; instead, we incorporated it.  We justified hatred in exchange for pseudo- supremacy and excluded ourselves from other cultures with the self- generated blessing of Holy Scripture.  We don’t question the social construct of race because the answer is too hard to hear, too challenging to accept, too true to believe, too authentic to experience, too time- consuming to live in to.  We would rather be in the Church but of the world.

It is only recently that I have mustered up the courage to challenge our faith in it.  Why do Christians believe in the social construct of race?  Though science doesn’t support it, why do we believe in colored people and in turn, a god created in our image and subject to the rules and roles of race?  If we would all answer this question, the body of Christ would hear its calling.

What Race Cannot Answer

Image result for who am i“I am beige, brown, black, red, yellow, white.”   What do we mean when we define ourselves by the social coloring of skin?  Because calling yourself a color will not answer who you are.  And the social construct of race does not tell us who or why we are but what we are– colored people.  More it than she and he.

Race is no creator, having no hand in our being but we turn to it for a sense of belonging.  We reach out our hands but color does not connect us.  Race has no power yet we yield to its influence, repeating after its prejudices and stereotypes.  Surely, it cannot speak for us.  So, why does it remain apart of the conversation?

Race does not know us.  It does not actually identify us.   Race cannot name us and it is not an attribute.  The social construct of race is a system of privilege for some and oppression for others.

The attempt of race is not to identify us but to isolate us from each other.  This is why we are grouped according to “colors.”  All one in the same, bearing the same name: beige, brown, black, red, yellow, white.  Boxed up and carted off to segregated communities.

And the meaning of race does not say much.  According to race, we are the sum of our physical features, the social coloring of skin, the shape of our nose and eyes, the size of our lips.  No soul or spirit here.

So, what do these social colors mean except the political and economic definitions we have assigned to them?  More so, if we must define ourselves by oppressing, marginalizing and dehumanizing others, then what are we really saying?  If in order for me to be beautiful, you have to be ugly?  If we understand who we are by ignoring the existence of other cultures, then we have learned nothing at all.  And what does this all really mean?

What have we been introduced to and what are we really saying about ourselves and each other?  Do we even know?  Worse still, do we want to know?  James Baldwin said, “Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality.  He meant by this that they prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience.”  So, who are you really?

I assure you, race cannot answer this question.

Beyond Black & White

Image result for beyond black and white manning marable

 

Beyond black and white.  It is the title of a popular book by Manning Marable.  He begins his introduction this way:

“Black and white. As long as I can remember, the fundamentally defining feature in my life, and the lives of my family, was the stark reality of race.  Angular and unforgiving, race was so much more than the background for relationships.  It was the social gravity which set into motion our expectations and emotions, our language and dreams.  Race seemed far more powerful than distinctions made between people based in language, nationality, religion and income.  Race seemed granite- like, fixed and permanent, as the center of the social universe.”

Writing out our experiences with race and sharing them with others is important.  But, defining what race means to us will change the way that we talk about race.  Marable’s words are true and challenging.  He positions race above our mere table talk and private jokes.

So fixed is this idea of race that it seems set in stone, unchangeable and immovable.  We believe that race is permanent and since there is no changing race’s beliefs about “us” and “them,” then we are hopeless to change anything of our selves.  We will always be beige, brown, black, red, yellow and white– unless race falls from our mental skies.

This is how we can get beyond race; it is to lower its standing in our minds.  In order to move beyond black and white, we must not to lose sight of our differences but not allow race to define or value them.  Race is a poor scale.

Moving beyond what race is doing to us in order to discuss the ways in which we have empowered race is a noteworthy cause.  I mean, who put race in its place before we set it in stone?  In order to break the chains of this social oppression, we must look at our own hands.  I challenge us to look inside of our minds and examine what we think of race.  What makes it so worthy to describe us?  Why is it not just the center of our universe but a universe all its own?  Why is it so important that we stick with race and not move beyond black and white?