Turning the Soil of Race and Racism

It’s not just the times that are changing.

Understanding racism and its impact first became important for me when I was about fourteen. I was riding in the car with my father, who had been playing a taped lecture by Yosef ben-Jochannan—a prolific author and teacher in African history.

I think he was curious about how I was interpreting what I was hearing when he stopped the tape to chat a little. In that conversation he asked me a question that made racism real for me. 

We were a seriously Christian family, and Poppa hit me with an arresting little factoid, “You know Jesus was black, right?” (That wasn’t the big question, btw.)

I most certainly did not know that, and I probably wondered if it was blasphemous to say so. I had only ever seen images of Jesus in his traditional long wavy hair, neatly cropped beard, mournfully resolute eyes—as if praying for all us sinners who know not what we do.

I had never seen nor heard of a black Jesus, but I was not about to directly contradict my father. Besides, he made a good case, quoting the bible and pointing out how many white guys were likely to be hanging around that side of the Mediterranean in those days (not many). Instead I turned the tables and asked—oh, so carefully—why it even matters, since Jesus came to save everybody.

I imagine we are at our cleverest when trying to preserve our view of how we think the world is. To grow in wisdom we must often be outsmarted, and our deepest convictions must be uprooted.

He asked, in return, “If it didn’t matter, why would they change it in the first place?”

🤯

This is the first time I remember recognizing racism was more than just stories from the past, but was actively affecting me personally—and I hadn’t even noticed.

In that moment, I changed. I didn’t yet learn the term, but I understood what it meant to be gaslighted. It took a few years and a few more plot twists, but that was the beginning of my walk away from the religion of my youth.

I got really good at doubting and questioning the sources of what I knew about the world and my place in it. For about ten years, my interest in race and racism was rooted in my need to know myself.

In fact, every interest I pursued was rooted in my need to know myself until, in my middle twenties, I came to realize my self-absorption was complete. Simultaneously, I also realized I needed to understand everyone else better if I wanted to fathom my next depths of satisfaction.

This changed my outlook, including how I looked at racism. I wanted to know how other people saw themselves—whether black, white, or whatever else. And I wanted to know how they saw me.

I think it was in this period that it really hit home that “white” and “black” people were largely invented as corollaries to colonialism. Those labels basically serve to justify European global conquest, and the inherent evils of that process, on the basis of the inherent superiority of white people (definitions of which are adapted to suit the context).

This orientation toward learning how others’ racial lenses work lasted until around the time of Obama’s ascent to the presidency, when my emphasis shifted again to considering how we might resolve this drama of racism. I took some time to consider the “post-racial” narrative that was popular around that time, but dismissed it as being more of a aspirational value some people might choose than a valid description of our shared reality.

I have continued to learn about race with an emphasis on finding our way to a collective resolution. While you’d have no trouble finding folks today who will tell you racism has already been resolved, they certainly don’t represent a consensus. Achieving a true resolution would mean knowing that our individual views on race and racism are like vignettes in a commonly shared story, each shedding its light on all the rest, so that we each could know that appreciating each other’s chapters helps us comprehend our own.

Times change, but not just the times. Our needs change, and so does our understanding. As we embrace this intentional look at issues of race and racism—some of us for the first time—I think we may have reached a tipping point. We may be cascading toward that resolution of all these centuries of strangeness.

Whatever ideas you have about this worldwide anti-racism moment, whatever motivates your present engagement (or disengagement), whatever sense it all makes sense to you now (maybe none), one thing is certain… change is coming.

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