What do we mean when we say the word race and that we are a member of one? Do we know what it means to belong to a race? How many races exist and why is the existence of race necessary? How are these races defined and assigned to cultural groups? How long have we been described as racial beings or judged by the social coloring of skin? What do we believe about race and what does race believe about us? And what of our Christian faith prepares us for the questions that arise when discussing race? What would God say, what would Jesus do about race?
These are important questions as we seek to live without race in the practice of our Christian faith. We must assess our investment in race and its power to define who we are and how we live. To do so, we must accept the fact that we don’t know much about race. Sadly, most of us do not know the answers to the questions asked above and worse still, we don’t desire to know.
The fact that we accept race so readily as apart of our identity without knowing much about it, save the stories that our parents and grandparents have shared with us, provides evidence of our self- ignorance and the absence of self- discovery. Because if we truly and fully understood race and not just racism, prejudice or stereotypes, we would not want it. We would not claim a race and we would not want race to claim us.
I believe that the difficulty that we have with leaving race behind lies in our inability to distinguish between experience and expression. We may have experienced racism or prejudice but it is not because we are an expression of the opposing socially constructed race. The rationale for our mistreatment lies not in our identity (e.g. “the Negro problem”) but in the sinful nature of humanity. The person was mean or callous or hateful because she/he wanted to be and if she/he did not have race as a reason, another would be created so that the sinful behavior could continue.
I also find with race that the identity that it provides us is inherently conflictual. When we choose a race, we pick a side. We take a position on all of the other social colors; it is the nature and purpose of race. But, this only continues this cycle of misidentification, unforgiveness and cultural segregation. There is no reconciliation in race.
So what does race mean? The meaning of race has changed over time as the theory of racial superiority was treated by different fields of study. Today, it depends on who is talking about race and what socially constructed race is being discussed. Though many persons would agree that race is not real but is a social construct, they still find it difficult to not associate themselves with one or the other. Its meaning does matter and our ability to define it will allow us to redefine it under the scrutiny of sacred Scripture.
Race is the categorizing of entire cultural groups based on the social coloring of skin and physical characteristics which determine their numerical/ political relevance (i.e. majority/ minority), social worth (i.e. privileged or disadvantaged, superior or inferior) and spiritual purpose (i.e. children of light versus children of darkness). Michael Omi and Howard Winant, who are credited with the racial formation theory, define race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests referring to different types of human bodies.” For race, it is the external that is of the utmost importance and much is at stake if we do not have the right appearance.
How do these definitions make you feel about yourself, other cultures, your society? Has it changed your view of race? I admit that this truth takes some getting use to. You may want to read the definitions a few times to allow them to sink in. But, once it does, oh the freedom! Race does not have the predetermining power that we believe that it does. We do not have to be defined by race but can redefine race for ourselves, putting it on our own terms. You can be raceless.