Rethinking Race, Part 6: Letting Go of Being “Black”

imagesCharles Haley, a former defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made headlines this summer after making what some would consider to be a controversial statement to the 49ers’ 2015 rookie class.

In an interview with a reporter for a Bay Area newspaper, Haley recalled his conversation with the 49ers’ newest players and summarized his comments as follows:

As far as the rookies, and I know they probably got mad, but I said, “Why don’t you all act like the white guys? You never see them in the paper getting high or hitting people. Why don’t you act like that?” They all looked at me crazy.

As you might expect, Haley’s words generated a mild buzz after they were relayed through the various media outlets, yet the reaction was quite tame compared to what we’ve seen recently, when other high-profile individuals have made comments that could be perceived as “racist” or “politically incorrect.” Why was there no public outcry against Charles Haley after he made these comments?

The answer, I believe, sheds some important light on the conversation we’ve been having about deracializing our society.

You see, although Haley claimed that he said what he said primarily for the “shock value”, what’s clear is that Haley’s words are grounded in a set of assumptions about African-American men – not just those who play in the NFL, but African-American men in general. The assumptions that I’m speaking of are not the least bit unfamiliar to those of us who are immersed in American culture.

In fact, if we’re being brutally honest with one another, the truth is that we know exactly what Charles Haley is talking about.

First of all, we know that Haley was probably speaking to a group of mostly if not exclusively African-American young men. We know this because in the NFL, the majority of the players are African-American – or so it seems – and because it wouldn’t have made sense for Haley to tell the rookie group to act like “the white guys” unless they themselves were not “white.”

Secondly, we know that Haley is reacting to the same news reports that each of us sees on a daily basis, and that he’s reached the conclusion that perhaps many of us have also drawn – namely, that “black” men tend to get into more trouble than “white” men.

Of course, if we want to, we can cite the latest crime statistics and debate whether or not Haley’s conclusion is factual. But doing so misses the point.

The point is that there exists a widely-held perception, rooted in the day-to-day realities of American life, that “black” men have a greater tendency to get into trouble than other people. And this perception is so strong that even Charles Haley, who himself is African-American, felt compelled to advise a group of young African-American football players to act like “white guys” instead of “black guys.”

To me, Haley’s words reflect the extent to which negative behavior has become part of the definition of a “black” man. In our culture’s view, to be a “black” man is to be part of that group of people which continually seems to commit crimes and cause trouble for themselves and others. In our culture’s view, there is a certain way that “black” men tend to act – a predictable pattern that characterizes the behavior of “black” men – which all of us recognize and acknowledge. And it isn’t good.

Which, to me, is one of the major reasons why we African-Americans need to simply let go of being “black”.

You see, as long as there exists something called being “black” whose cultural definition includes being prone to engage in actions that are unethical or illegal or criminal or otherwise flawed, then the culture at large will remain largely hostile toward those people to whom the term “black” applies. As long as there are “black” people, there will be animosity expressed by the broader culture toward “black” people, because of what is assumed about what “black” people do and how they behave.

In fact, I would argue that what “black” people typically characterize as racism expressed toward them is usually the unwillingness of others to tolerate the negative behaviors that our culture associates with “blackness.” It is a rejection of the idea that it’s okay for a large part of America’s population to continually engage in these negative behaviors. It is less about “black” people as people per se than as perpetuators of a lifestyle that involves acting a certain way.

And the lifestyle that I’m talking about includes not only committing crimes but also other behaviors that we attribute to “black” people – behaviors such as:

  • viewing ourselves as victims of a “racist” society and viewing our failures as the result of racist treatment by others
  • manipulating and exploiting our nation’s welfare system in ways that create systemic poverty
  • devaluing education, dropping out of school, and choosing delinquency and gang membership over self-advancement
  • producing and promoting music that glorifies the gang lifestyle, contains profanity and sexually explicit lyrics, and degrades and exploits women
  • speaking in a manner that reflects poor grammar and ignorance of proper English
  • failing to abide by cultural conventions of modesty, decency, and civility, especially in public settings

There is obviously much that needs to be said regarding each of the items I’ve listed here, but this will have to wait until a future post. For now, the main thing that I wish to communicate is this: I honestly think that if these negative behaviors were to be dealt with and eliminated by the people who engage in these behaviors, then most of the “racism” that “black” people claim to experience would simply disappear.

And yet, this cannot and will not happen as long as there are those of us who insist on being “black” and perpetuating the “black” identity.

In other words, if we want to live in a society in which being “black” does not continually create an obstacle to being treated with basic human dignity and respect, then we have to be willing to let go of being “black.”

Among other things, this means that we must be willing to be told that we’re “acting white” or that we’re “not black enough”, realizing that the people who think in these terms are caught in the race trap along with the rest of our culture.

To let go of being “black” means taking pride in dressing respectably, using proper English, and having ambitions beyond “fitting in” instead of playing along with the stereotypes about how “black” people dress or talk or act.

To let go of being “black” means abiding by the law, using good judgment when choosing what to do or say, and having the courage to stand out from those who stubbornly refuse to let go of “blackness.”

To let go of being “black” means rising above my circumstances instead of using them as an excuse for why I can never hold down a job, or finish school, or get out of the drug trade, or be successful in life.

To let go of being “black” means realizing that my actions can either feed the racist attitudes of others or severely weaken the validity of those attitudes.

As I express these thoughts, I can’t help but reflect on the civil rights era in American history and the example that it provides. The civil rights movement succeeded in changing our nation’s conscience regarding its treatment of African-Americans because of predetermined choices that were made by Dr. King and his followers, who refused to play into the stereotypes that mainstream culture had about African-Americans.

Contrary to what we’ve seen recently in response to the events in Ferguson and in Baltimormixede, Dr. King and his followers transcended their circumstances by responding peacefully instead of committing violent acts and then blaming “the white man” for their actions. In essence, they put their best foot forward even while their oppressors were putting forth their worst. The nonviolent response by Dr. King and his followers in the face of inhumane treatment reflected the best of what African-Americans can be, appealing to the hearts and minds of mainstream America in an unprecedented manner.

To me, the civil rights movement provides a critical lesson that our culture – especially “black” culture – would do well to learn. As long as some of us insist on playing the role that the culture has assigned to “black” people, we cannot expect the so-called “racist” attitudes of mainstream America toward “black” people to change.

As long as so many of us are validating the stereotypes about “black people” through the negative behaviors and attitudes that we display, we cannot expect the culture at large to be eager to champion our rights and our freedoms.

On the contrary, if we were to make a commitment to being the best human beings that we can be – in spite of how others may treat us – then we will appeal to the collective conscience of others in our society, and we will see their attitudes toward us begin to change.

The first step in this journey is to let go of being “black” . . . Yet there are additional steps, which I intend to comment on in my next post.


Rethinking Race, Part 5: Outdoor Concerts, Neighborhood Walks, and “De-Racializing” Our Culture

A few weeks ago, my family and I attended a concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a beautiful outdoor amphitheater at the north end of Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. The free concert featured classical music performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A massive audience had gathered for the performance that evening, and after locating a few friends whom we were meeting up with, we sat down with them on the expansive lawn that extends outward in front of the amphitheater. All in all, it was a perfect evening for enjoying the beautiful weather and listening to classical music on the lawn with family and friends.

As I looked around at the audience that had gathered on the lawn at Millennium Park that evening, I couldn’t help noticing the diversity of the crowd. There were groups comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – which itself is fairly typical in downtown Chicago.

My eyes were especially drawn to the numerous groups that included African-Americans and Caucasians sitting together – sharing a meal, making conversation, listening to the music, and enjoying each other’s company. And this, I would say, is not necessarily typical – even in a city like Chicago, which, despite being ethnically diverse, is notorious for being highly segregated.

Nevertheless, I could see that the individuals in these mixed groups were relating to one another as equals, and that there was no implicit division between the “blacks” and the “whites” in these groups. Everyone seemed genuinely at ease within their groups, as evidenced by their smiles, their laughter, and their conversation with each other.

To me, scenes like this represent a major triumph with regard to the deconstruction of race in contemporary American society.

You see, the African-Americans that I saw in those groups weren’t concerned with trying to be “black”. They weren’t concerned with whether or not their interaction with Caucasians met the approval of the “black community”.  If they had been concerned, then they wouldn’t have been attending a classical concert in the first place, since – stereotypically speaking – “black people” don’t listen to classical music. The African-Americans didn’t view the Caucasians in their groups as being “racist”, nor did they view themselves as being out of place in a group that included people of a different ethnicity.

Likewise, the Caucasians in those groups weren’t concerned with whether there were other Caucasians nearby looking at them in a way that says, “Why are you sitting with those people? Are you trying to be ‘black’ or something?” The Caucasians weren’t relating to the others in their group with an attitude of superiority or condescension, as if being “white” elevated them above the “black” people who were sitting next to them. The Caucasians weren’t treating the African-Americans as if they were from a different planet simply because their skin was a bit darker and their hair had a different texture.

On the contrary, the people I saw that evening were simply practicing mutual hospitality across ethnic lines, treating the others in their groups as friends, with no remixedgard for how their groups were being perceived by others. Each group was, in essence, a miniature society of equals. To me, it was a beautiful sight to see.

In fact, this scene is a visual representation of what I mean by deconstructing the concept of race – or, to use a different expression, de-racializing our culture. This scene is a snapshot of what the end result of de-racialization looks like: people of different ethnicities circulating and blending among one another instead of in homogenous clusters, people relating to one another simply as people instead of as “black people” or “white people”, uninhibited by the baggage that comes with playing the race game.

But how do we achieve this kind of race-free society?

To me, it ultimately comes down to our choices. And when I say “choices” I do not simply mean the choice to treat people of different ethnicities as being on the same level as ourselves. The reality is that there is a series of choices that we typically make prior to having an encounter with someone of a different ethnicity; and it is in this sequence of choices that the construct of race is often reinforced – in ways that we may not necessarily be aware of.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point I’m making:

Let’s say you’re going for a morning walk in the community where you live. Before you begin your journey, you know that there’s a good chance that you’ll pass by other people whom you’re not acquainted with, who are out walking, or working in their yards, or sitting on their front porches; and you know that, if you’re looking in their general direction, you’ll probably make eye contact with at least a few of these people as you pass them by. If this happens, you could choose to wave or say “hello” as you’re passing by or to simply keep going without acknowledging the other person.

If you’re like most people, you might decide that you’ll say “hello” to the other person if that person says “hello” to you first. After all, you don’t want to be perceived as being intrusive by saying “hello” to a “stranger”, nor do you want to come across as being rude by not saying “hello” if they’ve said it to you.

But in making this choice, you overlook the reality that the people who will say “hello” to you first will almost always be people who look like you. If you’re a Caucasian and you happen to pass by an African-American while you’re out walking – or vice versa – chances are, that person will not initiate a greeting if he/she doesn’t already know you. And if you don’t say anything, this means that the two of you will simply pass each other by without acknowledging each other.

Why does it matter? Because if the other person assumes that you don’t really care for people of their ethnicity, then your failure to say “hello” has validated that person’s preconceived notions about you, even if they are untrue. In effect, your passive approach to this unplanned encounter has reinforced the wall of race that exists in the other person’s mind – and perhaps in your own mind as well.

So, what’s the solution? In this case, you could have decided in advance to wave or say “hello” to everyone whom you pass by on your walk, regardless of what they look like and regardless of whether or not your greeting is reciprocated by the other person. Although this might be considered an extraordinary gesture in our culture, it is precisely the kind of gesture that is needed to bring about the eventual de-racialization of our culture.

What’s fitting about this gesture is that it elevates both the person whom I’m addressing (who is reminded that he/she is a fellow human being who deserves to be acknowledged) and me (because my greeting compels the other person to acknowledge me as his/her equal).

Note also that this is just one example. The same concept applies to a host of other choices that we make on a regular basis: where we sit when we enter a movie theater, what we say (if anything) to the cashier at the grocery store, where we go during our lunch break, which summer camps we send our children to, which beaches we frequent during the summer months, and whom we group ourselves with at summer concerts in the park. In making each of these choices, there is the opportunity to be proactive with regard to normalizing interactions between ourselves and people of other ethnic groups.

And it is in those seemingly insignificant steps leading up to the actual encounter with another person that we have to exercise a greater level of intentionality, because being passive in making these choices only reinforces the wall of race and maintains the status quo. The truth is that we cannot succeed in deconstructing the concept of race if we simply keep doing what we typically do.

My next post will further explore these ideas, while also revisiting the concept of “blackness” in order to discuss why some of us need to be willing to let go of being “black”.

Rethinking Race, Part 4: Why “Black Lives Matter” Doesn’t Matter to Mainstream America

To me, the “Black Lives Matter” movement that is slowly building across our nation serves as an illustration of why the “black” identity needs to be eliminated (which was the topic of my previous post).

As we know, the “Black Lives Matter” movement is primarily a reaction to a string of incidents involving “black” Americans who many believe were unfairly treated by law enforcement officials.

In the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and most recently Christian Taylor, unarmed African-American men who were suspected of mixedcommitting crimes were killed when Caucasian police officers used questionable methods while attempting to detain them.

For “black” Americans, these incidents are merely the latest and most obvious examples of longstanding systemic racism among law enforcement agencies and in our nation’s criminal justice system. The argument is that “blacks” are being unjustly targeted and that if the individuals involved had been “white” instead of “black” then they would never have been subjected to such inhumane treatment.

Hence we now have a movement whose claim is essentially that mainstream America doesn’t value the lives of “black” people.

And whenever some people attempt to expand upon the movement’s slogan by saying that all lives matter, their words are viewed as being insensitive to the plight of “blacks” who, unlike the rest of America, are subjected to racism on an ongoing basis.

Now, I think most Americans will concede that the loss of lives in the incidents cited above was indeed tragic, especially for the families of those who were killed. I think most Americans will concede that in most or even all of these incidents, there was some extent to which the officers involved could have handled the situations differently so that the suspects didn’t end up dead. And I think many Americans would even be willing to admit that race was probably a factor in how the suspects were treated by the officers.

Yet, beyond these concessions, the honest truth is that many of us have a problem with siding with the “victims” in these cases.

You see, a common thread in the incidents we’re discussing here is that the “black” people in each of these incidents were evidently engaging in – or had recently engaged in – some kind of unlawful or criminal activity. In each case, the encounter with law enforcement that led to the suspect’s death was preceded by some act of disregard for the law – i.e. a theft, an assault, an illegal cigarette sale, or some other crime; and in their encounters with law enforcement, the suspects were resisting arrest and/or being non-cooperative with the apprehending officers.

And herein lies what I think is the crux of the matter: In the minds of mainstream America, that’s what “black” people do. They commit crimes. They disrespect authority. They sell drugs and shoot people.

And from a statistical standpoint, it’s hard to argue against that perception. In today’s America, the occurrence of crime in the “black” communities of our nation is so high that it has virtually become part of the “black identity”.

And what’s bothersome to many Americans is that no one from the “black” community seems to be doing anything about it – on the contrary, we seem to be encouraging it.

Some of the most damning evidence of this can be found in the songs being written and marketed by “black” urban hip-hop artists – songs that glorify violence and drugs and gangs and insubordination to authority.

The popularity of these songs and their creators (note the current box-office success of the movie Straight Outta Compton) has resulted in a self-perpetuating culture of self-destruction: since there is money being made by record labels and artists, those profiting from the music have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo in which continued crime and violence provides artists with new material for the next studio recording project.

So crime continues unrelentingly, in part because it sells records, and the result is that conditions in the “black” community grow increasingly deadly and devoid of hope.

The point of what I’m saying here is that when mainstream America looks at the “black” community, it sees a segment of the population that sometimes acts as if a different set of rules applies to them.

The problem that mainstream America has with supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement is that people don’t want to endorse a culture that seemingly doesn’t want to address its problems.

People don’t want to support a culture that doesn’t seem to be teaching its youth to respect authority or to obey the law.

People don’t want to endorse a culture that constantly views itself as the “victim,” blames the “white man” for its lack of progress, and takes no responsibility for cleaning up its own mess.

To underwrite the actions of such a community would serve to perpetuate the problems in a way that ultimately has a negative impact upon all American citizens.

This is why the “black” identity, in which African-American people are being held hostage by the “black” mindset, needs to be deconstructed as part of the larger task of deconstructing the overall concept of race.

When we stop dividing ourselves into two Americas – mainstream America and “black” America – we can start dealing with issues in our urban communities as American issues instead of “black” issues, and work toward solutions that benefit society as a whole.

When our “black” communities resolve to stop self-destructing and address their problems instead of remaining in what is essentially a downward spiral, they will find that others in the world community are willing to come alongside them and offer meaningful assistance.

In my next post, I hope to spell out in more clearly defined terms what this looks like.

Rethinking Race, Part 3: The Case for Getting Rid of the “Black” Identity

Okay, so let me cut to the chase:

When it comes to race relations in our nation right now, I think the concept of blackness is part of the problem.

What do I mean by the concept of blackness? I mean that, in our human construction of the concept of race, we have historically created a subset of humanity, consisting of individuals of African descent with heavily pigmented skin, and we have labeled such people “black” as a means of distinguishing them from the majority culture which created the category.

Furthermore, throughout history, instead of challenging the premise that human beings ought to be grouped into categories, those of us who fit the criteria for being called “black” have endorsed the classification system created by the culture at large. Those of us whom the majority culture has labeled “black” have come to embrace that label, with many of us wearing it as something of a mark of distinction or a badge of honor.

And throughout history, the net effect of endorsing this distinction has been the creation of a culture within a culture, in which those whom we’ve labeled “black” view themselves (and are viewed by the majority culture) as being fundamentally different from the mainstream human population, in ways that I will argue are ultimately more harmful than beneficial.

In this process of subculture creation, the word black has come to represent not only the people themselves, but also a set of ideas, presuppositions, and generalizations about people of African ancestry. This means that any concept that has the term “black” attached to it – e.g. black entertainment, black history, black politics, the black community, etc. – is subject to being shaped by those ideas and presuppositions.

Thus, what I mean by the concept of blackness is simply the perpetuation of this socially-constructed distinction, both by the individuals whom we’ve labeled “black” and by the culture at large. Simply put, the concept of blackness is the longstanding agreement among human beings that some of us are black.

And in the quest to deconstruct the social construct known as race, the concept of blackness represents a fundamental problem – perhaps the fundamental problem – that needs to be dealt with.

Please note that I’m not saying that black people armixede the problem – or, to put it more precisely, the people whom we’ve historically labeled as “black people”; for, as I will emphasize over the course of this conversation, people are people, and yet, by creating this concept called race, we’ve advanced the false notion that there are different categories of humanity – but rather, what I’m saying is that the designation of some people as “black” is the problem. I’m saying that the idea that some of us have to be classified separately because we’re descended from dark-skinned Africans needs to be challenged.

Before I continue, please allow me to express the following acknowledgements, which I feel I must give voice to in order to be heard in this conversation:

I understand that, for many people, blackness as a concept has functioned throughout history as a sort of anchor – a unifying factor which has helped people of African descent to survive centuries of unjust treatment.

I realize that, in past historical contexts, ideas such as black pride and black power and slogans such as black is beautiful have provided many people with a sense of self-worth and empowerment that they otherwise would not have had.

I realize that within the social context of blackness our world has witnessed many outstanding and noble achievements in areas such as the arts, literature, sports, business, and other spheres.

I realize that the institution known as the black church has been an influential and powerful force throughout American history and has produced some of the world’s most important and influential leaders.

I understand the seductive appeal of maintaining a distinct black identity and continuing the customs and traditions associated with that identity, because uniqueness is something that we human beings value.

Nevertheless, having acknowledged these things, I think that there are a number of reasons why we as a culture need to let go of the concept of blackness. And what I’ve written below may not adequately or clearly convey what this means or what I think the reasons are, but I felt that I should at least make the attempt, and I do think that the following thoughts come close enough to what I’m thinking to allow us to have some dialogue about the issues I’m raising.

That being said, here are five reasons why we need to jettison the concept of blackness:

1.) Blackness serves as a continuous reminder and creator of racial division and hostility between Caucasians and African-Americans. We need not look very far to see that there still exists a deep racial divide in our country – a divide which decades of new legislation and even the election of our nation’s first African-American president have not done enough to fully resolve. This division is re-created and reinforced every time we refer to people of African ancestry as “black” and Caucasians as “white”. This is because, in matters of race – as in every other aspect of our culture – black and white are seen as opposites that exist in a mutually exclusive, dualistic, antagonistic, “us versus them” relationship with each other. The contrasting nature of these labels is carried over, whether consciously or subconsciously, into our interactions with one another. In our society, with its rigid classification system, a person must be either one or the other – to the extent that even people with mixed ethnicity are still commonly referred to as being “black” if their ancestry includes African-American blood. When it comes to race – and especially the black race – no middle ground seems to exist. If we want there to be harmony across ethnic lines, this dualistic relationship between black and white must somehow be eliminated.

2.) Blackness carries with it the implication that some of us are something less than full-fledged human beings. For most of our nation’s history, the prevailing view has been that being “black” means being lesser in humanity than a “white” person. This attitude still prevailed even after the institution of slavery was abolished, as evidenced by blatantly discriminatory legislation and by political maneuvers such as the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787. And even today, despite how our country and our world have changed, referring to someone as black still carries the connotation of being less than someone of another race. Even people who are honestly and actively trying to overcome their own racial prejudice still wrestle with an almost innate tendency to view a “black” person as being lesser in some way than other human beings (here’s an interesting article that seems to validate this point). Indeed, it’s as if the word “black” itself is so heavily encumbered by its historical implications that the word acts as a sort of trigger for the attitudes of previous generations. Thus, by hanging on to the black identity, we are unwittingly perpetuating the notion that we who are labeled “black” are not on the same level as everyone else.

3.) Blackness still has vestiges of the slavery mindset attached to it. In America, whenever we talk about “black people” we are necessarily referring to the race of people who were once slaves in this country, since only “black” people can claim this to be true. Although in fact there may have been enslaved people in America’s past who were not “black”, it was only the transplanted African natives whose entire people group was subjected to slavery. And while we cannot erase this from our history, by identifying ourselves using terms that evoke the memory of slavery, we are still impacted to a large extent by something that I will refer to as the slavery mindset. Among other things, this mindset consists of the notion that “white” people are superior to us and are intent upon keeping us in submission to them. This mindset also includes the belief that being poor and oppressed is simply my lot in life – i.e. that I’m born into a subservient class of humanity and will have few opportunities, if any, to escape the limitations of my circumstances. (Indeed, the fact that “black” people today comprise a disproportionate percentage of the poor and uneducated in our country could be viewed as evidence of the impact of this slavery mindset.) As I see it, there is a legacy associated with being black, and it is weighing us down. The truth is that none of us, regardless of our ethnicity, wants to have our lives constantly viewed and evaluated through the lens of history. We don’t want others to make judgments about us based on what happened in the lives of people living before our time whose skin color was the same as ours. And yet, this is what we encourage contemporary society to do as long as we view ourselves and refer to ourselves as “black” people.

4.) Blackness separates some of us from the world community. As members of the subset of humanity known as “black” people, we’ve bought into the underlying assumption that the world at large is hostile toward us, and consequently, we’ve concluded that maintaining our black identity is necessary for our “protection”. Whether we realize it or not, the same separatist mentality that we condemn when displayed by “white” people (e.g. the Confederacy in the mid-1800s, the Ku Klux Klan, and “white flight” from urban communities) is displayed by “black” people when we place our racial identity above our identity as citizens of the earth. By continuing to identify ourselves as black, it’s as if we’re choosing to remain inside our enclosed structures, even though the doors leading outside have stood open for quite some time. The truth is that although there is still progress to be made, the world is far more embracing of our common humanity now than it was fifty years ago. As I will discuss further in my next post, instead of continuing the narrative that the world is different for “black” people than it is for everyone else, we who are labeled “black” need to step outside of our enclosed cultural structures and put ourselves alongside and in conversation with the world’s other citizens – people of other cultures and ethnicities – so that we can learn from each other.

5.) Blackness hinders some of us from seeing ourselves and our lives from a broader perspective. As I’ve already stated, people are people, and each of us is endowed with the ability to set goals, to dream about possibilities, and to envision ourselves in a future context that surpasses our present one. And yet, as long as some of us identify ourselves as being “black,” we are prone to limiting ourselves – both in our own minds and in the minds of the majority culture – to pursuing only the goals or attitudes that “fit” the black identity. I can’t help but think that this is why virtually all of the African-American boys in the urban Chicago community surrounding our church property want to be NBA players when they grow up. These urban youth see guys like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade succeeding as basketball players, and they buy into the notion that basketball is what “black men” do well, and so they decide at an early age that they want to pursue careers in the NBA. It’s as if these young men don’t realize that they, like everyone else, have unlimited potential and that there are numerous other possibilities for their lives, because they see themselves as black and because “black people” are only expected to do certain things and act in certain ways. The same can be said to be true regarding the thousands of “black” youth nationwide who are dropping out of school, getting involved in gangs, and finding themselves in and out of juvenile detention facilities before reaching adulthood. For these youth, actions such as those listed above are viewed as typical and normal, and being “black” functions as part of their excuse, because they’ve learned that our culture doesn’t expect very much of them since they are black youth. And as long as our view of ourselves is being shaped by the beliefs and presuppositions of the majority culture, we who are labeled “black” will only see ourselves in a limited scope rather than the broader one in which others citizens of our nation see themselves.

So then, what exactly am I saying we should do? How do we go about the process of eliminating blackness as a social construct? Is that even possible?

Am I advocating a complete assimilation of the “black” identity into the mainstream culture, so that there is nothing that distinguishes us from other people except the darker hue of our skin?

Also, how much of what I’m saying also applies to “white” people and the “white identity” as well?

These are some of the questions that I will attempt to provide answers for in my next post.

Rethinking Race, Part 2: Race Versus Ethnicity – What’s the Difference?

In my previous post, I attempted to provide some foundational thoughts for a discussion about race – a topic which I plan to address in my next several posts. Toward the end of the post, I indicated that our next step would be addressing the issue of blackness, both as a race designation and as an identity.

However, I realized that before we proceed, I should alert the reader that much of what I will say in this conversation will presuppose a distinction between the terms race and ethnicity (or ethnic origin). I realize that in our society we tend to view these terms as being virtually synonymous, but for purposes of this conversation – for reasons which I hope will come to be viewed as legitimate – we will separate these two terms from one another, based on the definitions which I am providing in the paragraphs that follow.

When I use the term ethnicity, I am referring to the word that indicates a person’s native origin and typically identifies a particular geographical area from which the person’s ancestors came. Thus, terms such as Asian, Hispanic, and European woumixedld qualify as ethnicity identifiers. Ethnicity is the word that points to the convergence of biological, geographical, and genetic factors which result in certain physical characteristics (such as skin color) that distinguish groups of people from each other. Besides differences in skin color, ethnicity results in variations in the languages that are spoken in different parts of the world. (Nationality is a more specific term than ethnicity – it identifies the specific country or nation from which a person comes, and in most cases it also indicates the specific language that is spoken in that nation.)

By contrast, the term race is broader in scope. Race is what happens when we consciously overlay sociological and cultural factors on top of a person’s ethnicity. A person’s race is the term which, over the course of history, has come to embody certain thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices within a culture about that person; and although the person’s ethnicity is seen as the primary basis for drawing racial distinctions, these distinctions are actually rooted in the collective thinking of individuals living within a cultural setting. Whereas ethnicity is more of a scientific or technical term, race is a label created by culture – it is a social construct.

So, what does all of this mean? Among other things, it means that the terms black and African-American, despite how we use them interchangeably, should be viewed in this conversation as referring to two different things. “Black” is a race designation, whereas “African-American” refers to ethnicity. The same is true with regard to the terms “white” (race) and “Caucasian” (ethnicity).

By making these distinctions, I’m emphasizing the notion that, whether we intend it or not, calling a person “black” or “white” goes beyond merely describing the person’s ethnicity. As race designations, the terms black and white come with certain ideas attached – ideas which have been shaped over time by culture and may have little or no correlation to a person’s ethnic origin.

Consider, for example, the fact that each of these terms is a color. A friend of mine, Brian Jennings, has a great post on his blog which provides background information about how variations in human skin color developed over time. He cites research done by scientists whose findings suggest that, despite the variations in our skin colors, the world’s inhabitants are much more closely related genetically than we may have previously thought.

Nevertheless, we need to realize that, no matter how far back we can trace the origins of skin color, there are presuppositions involved in the decision to use colors as race labels. Just by virtue of calling ourselves “black” or “white” or “red” or whatever color we choose, we are presuming that skin color (or pigmentation) is a valid basis for dividing ourselves into distinct categories. This is a presupposition that none of us typically bothers to question.

In fact, it doesn’t even matter that we aren’t even getting the colors exactly right. As we all know, very few of us who are labeled “black” people actually have skin that is literally black. Almost all of us have skin that is some shade of brown. So, technically speaking, we should be called brown people instead of black people. (And I’m sure we also realize that “white” people aren’t literally white, either.)

And yet, despite how intelligent we contemporary humans claim to be – I assume we can tell the difference between brown and black, can’t we? – we haven’t bothered to correct our terminology.

Why? Because we all understand that, in our culture, being black isn’t ultimately about skin color anyway. It’s about something much broader in scope. The fact that the term we’re using is technically incorrect is largely irrelevant. In our culture, we all understand that the word “black” serves as a magnet for a collection of thoughts and ideas about people of African descent – thoughts which I will further unpack in my next post.

And these ideas are all being assembled on the unchallenged but debatable premise that we should view people in different ways based upon their skin pigmentation.

I’m pointing these things out because they reveal some of the assumptions that we will need to confront and question before we can move forward in this conversation. Honestly, our willingness to question our assumptions is what will ultimately determine how much progress we can make toward meaningful change in our society when it comes to race.

And now, I suppose, we can move on to the topic of blackness.

Rethinking Race, Part 1: It’s Time to Deconstruct the Concept of Race

Like many citizens of this great nation, I’m tired of talking about race.

But I’ve come to realize that if we ever hope to be done talking about race, we have to bring the conversation to some kind of conclusion – a conclusion that all of us (or at least most of us) can mutually agree upon. And doing this means, of course, that we have to keep thinking about and talking about the very thing that so many of us want to be done talking about.

Therefore, in spite of my wishes, the conversation must continue.

Right now, as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s quite a bit of talking going on about race, especially about what constitutes racism in how blacks are treated in contemporary American society.

And in the context of this conversation, many have taken it upon themselves to suggest solutions to the problems that our culture can’t seem to get past when it comes to the issue of race. Among other things:

  • We hear conscientious citizens advocating on behalf of justice and equality for people of all races;
  • We hear thoughtful people making the effort to put themselves in the shoes of those who feel as if they’re being victimized by systemic racism, especially in our law enforcement agencies and our criminal justice system;
  • We hear white Americans pleading with other white Americans to recognize and abandon their so-called white privilege and work toward helping those who seem to be disenfranchised by virtue of their skin color;
  • We hear religious people quoting their sacred texts and making appeals on the basis of their beliefs, which are rooted in universal principles such as love, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of others.

Well-intentioned, beautifully articulated thoughts. All of them.

But what we don’t hear, for the most part, is people questioning the very concept of race in general.

Granted, we do occasionally hear the popular refrain that in rea01a-DiversityFaceslity there is only one race, i.e. the human race, and each of us belongs to that one race, regardless of our ethnicity or skin color. Many of us – if not most of us – agree in principle with such noble sentiments as these. And if I’m being honest, the truth is that I’m writing this partly because I sympathize with this line of thinking.

And yet, even though many of us subscribe to the “one race” ideal, we still through our customary ways of doing things lend our tacit support to the notion that we need to draw certain lines and distinguish multiple races from within the one race.

In other words, even though we know in our minds that there’s really only one race, we feel obligated to live as if there are several. The notion of one human race works great in the ideal world, we say to ourselves, but the reality is that our world consists of human beings of many races living alongside each other.

Besides . . . what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to pretend that racial differences don’t exist? Honestly, is there any other way to look at ourselves and other people?

I think there is.

Or, at least, I think there might be. And I’m writing this because I’m interested in thinking this through a little further than we typically do.

I’m writing because it’s one thing to say that we’re all the same race, yet it’s a very different matter when we try to apply this concept to our real-life experiences with others.

I’m writing because we need to go a step further than simply saying that we’re all human beings, and actually change how we say and do certain things every day – otherwise, we perpetuate practices that foster hatred and division on the basis of racial differences.

One of the first steps is for us to realize and acknowledge that race is a social construct, which means that it’s something that has been created by human societies and cultures throughout history. Race is a concept that we human beings have developed over time, which we continue to build upon, because we feel that it’s necessary to group ourselves into categories and make broad assumptions about ourselves – assumptions based on how we look, where we live, what our ancestry is, what language we speak, and numerous other factors. Race is a kind of system that humans have developed over time that has come to dominate and define our interactions with one another.

In fact, race has become so embedded in our collective mindset that we don’t even bother to question the concept itself. To me, this is unfortunate because it’s obvious that race is at the heart of so many of our contemporary problems, especially in today’s America. From our vantage point, it seems that the result of the system that we’ve created has been centuries of strife, hatred, bloodshed, division, misunderstanding, and mistrust.

mixedAnd yet race is not an undeniable or immutable truth. It is a human creation. And if we humans can construct the concept of race, then we can also deconstruct it. Race may seem like a necessary and inescapable part of our human existence, but it isn’t.

And at this point in human history, when race relations in America seem to be moving backward instead of forward, I think we can’t afford not to question the concept of race. Otherwise, we run the risk of reverting back even further than we already have, and undoing all of the efforts of countless people who fought for equality and justice on behalf of all human beings.

So, where do we start?

In my next post, I want to talk specifically about the concept of blackness as it pertains to people living in America. I want to address the question, “Is ‘black’ (both as a racial designation and as an identity) a concept that we need to re-think, and if so, why?” I’m hopeful that by reflecting on these questions, we can find constructive ways to move the conversation forward.

And we need to move forward, simply because, as I’ve already stated . . . I’m tired of talking about race.

I Get What Rachel Dolezal is Trying to Say

Call me black. Call me white.

Call me a black man pretending to be white. Or call me a white man in a black man’s body.

Call me African-American. Call me a Negro – or even the variation on this word that rhymes with bigger.

Call me dark brown or colored or chocolate or dark-skinned. Or call me Oreo. Or transracial (which I didn’t know was a word until a few days ago).

Honestly, you can call me whatever you want to. It’s your choice. It really doesn’t matter to me.

Just realize that, no matter what term you decide to use, I feel no sense of obligation to abide by the “rules” that come with it, or to meet the expectations that come with your label, or to be bound by the limitations that your label of choice implies.

Why? Because I understand that no single race term or expression is adequate to define me as a person. None of these terms can capture the fullness of who I am as a human being.

I’m sure that the race term you apply to me might be helpful in some way to you and others. But it really has no bearing on my life whatsoever.

You see, while you and others are busy trying to figure out what race label best identifies me, I’m busy trying to be just one thing: myself. My sole concern with regard to my identity is to simply be who I am.

And the reality is that who I am has been shaped by countless factors – not only genetics, but also life experiences. Relationships. Places I’ve lived. Things I’ve learned. The family I was born into. And a host of other factors.

Besides that, who I am is constantly changing – it is a dynamic and evolving reality, not a static, fixed entity.

In other words, my identity can’t be boiled down to a single race term. And honestly, I’m really not interested in trying to fit into any one of those “boxes.” I’m not trying to be black or African-American or white or transracial. I’m trying to be me.

There’s a part of me that gets what Rachel Dolezal has been attempting to communicate over the past several days. In a nutshell, she’s saying that it would be an oversimplification to simply say that she’s a white woman. In her mind, to call her “white” seems inadequate when one considers the whole of her life and experiences. In her mind, there is more of who Rachel is that resonates – or identifies – with being “black,” according to how “blackness” is commonly defined in our culture. If we simply think of her as “white,” we may overlook the unique aspects of her existence tthhat set her apart from other white women. Rachel is afraid of being misjudged and misunderstood because of the connotations that come along with the term “white.” She wants to be known for who she really is instead of who others assume she is because of her ethnicity.

Honestly, I get that. I get it because, if you take the paragraph above and replace the word “white” with “black,” and replace the word “black” with “white,” and replace the word “woman” with “man,” then the paragraph could be used to describe how I feel sometimes.

To me, this conversation points to how, despite the fact that the English language has thousands of words – with more words being created each year – we still have a hard time figuring out how to communicate things that are seemingly so simple and so basic, such as who we are.

And that’s why I’m being totally honest when I say that you can call me by whatever race term you want to use. Ultimately, I see it as an exercise in futility – trying to capture a person’s identity using a single word or expression. You just can’t do it.

For the record, I do agree with those who say that, ultimately, we’re all just human beings, that we’re all the same race – the human race.

But, at the same time, each of us is more than simply a human being. We are all unique human beings. There is no other person on this earth who is exactly like you or me. We are all one-of-a-kind creations. Even as we affirm our common humanity, let’s be careful that we don’t become blind to the uniqueness that we all possess as individuals.

Bottom line: If you want people to think of you as black or white or whatever term you select, that’s fine. That’s your choice. After all, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

But personally, I’m just trying to be me. That’s all.