Tag Archives: raceless

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.”

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?”

What are we talking about when we talk about race?

We’ve got to come back to ourselves.  We’ve got to take more than a few steps back and  we will have to step on more than a few toes in the process.  But, let’s begin to walk it back.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  Return to the first Word that is certain to be the last Word, Alpha and Omega.

Race is not God’s story with us or for us.  Race is not even a narrator.  It has no speaking role.  Instead, it is a rumor run rampant, a hand me down lie that has never fit our humanity.  An 18th century invention, it has no theological support.  Still, we cheer it on, take it on as apart of who we are.

But this race talk has got to stop.  I call on your tongues to push back.  I ask that your souls not budge, that you not give it an inch or an ear.   Instead, we must listen more deeply as race is simply skin talk, superficial gibber, surface level banter.  When we talk about our skin and its social coloring, we literally have not scratched the surface of our human being and its understanding.

Still, we carry on with our prejudicial assumptions and segregated living arrangements.  But, we must not make room for race.  Because we’ve gotten no where with it.  Carried down through these hundreds of years, carried on the backs of one generation after another, we’ve got nothing but bent back and broken hearts to show for it.  We’ve got to leave it on the side of the road now, admitting that we do not need it to survive but have used it to serve our pride, greed and lust for power.

We’ve got to confess that this has gone too far, gotten out of hand and that we are tied up by our own tongues.  Our freedom is literally on the tip of our tongues.  We need only speak the Word to return to God’s story.  Race has created this distance between us and the Divine.  A hierarchical humanity, this is a step down and far, far away from what God had in mind when God called us by name– not by social colors.

When we talk about ourselves as racial beings and not human beings, we are talking ourselves out of our shared humanity.  Our common denominator is not color but our Creator.  To be sure, race is not a likely substitute, a shoe in and certainly not a stand in, which is why we have to really think about what we are saying about ourselves and each other.  Because we are more than out on a limb or hanging ourselves out to dry when we suggest that the totality of our existence depends on our skin when Jesus came to save souls.

Don’t stop talking about race

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It is easy to reset, to move on to the next outrage, to the next shiny object.  “Ooh.  What’s that?”  We want to be distracted.  We hope that we can forget.

But, we cannot continue to let this be the case.  Race is a problem and it doesn’t just go away.  Instead, it is here to stay, stuck between our teeth, hanging on to our thin skin.  We carry it with us.  A word with sharp edges that we continue to wrap carefully and reuse, race is the weapon and the wound.

Still, we talk about race as if it is all we have, like it is all that we can say about ourselves, as if we are only flesh and blood.  We talk about race as if our lives depend on it, like we cease to exist if we are not socially colored beige, brown, black, red, yellow and white.  And though we cannot see the end of it (that is, post- racial), race is not our beginning. We cannot see past it but there is no future with race.

A socio- political construct, we talked ourselves into this belief in race and we will need to talk ourselves out of it.  You may not know this but we are not alone in this desire.  Recently, a number of books have been published that aim to discuss our relationship with race and empower readers to talk about it.  Please consider adding these to your reading list and your bookshelves:

Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).

Carolyn B. Helsel, Anxious to talk about it: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism, (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2017).

Ijeoma Oluo, So you want to talk about race?, (New York, NY: Seal Press, 2018).

Derang Wing Sue, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015).

Shelly Tochluk, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010).