The Dream of Taking Back "RACE"
Updated: Apr 18, 2018
... and Destroying the Otherness of the Brown Box.
The other day, I was filling out an application where I had to check the box that read “Black/African American” (as if the two are interchangeable- they’re not), and it got me thinking about how we place so much importance on race. Most places that require checking a box identify people of different shades of brown or “otherness”, usually including a box for “other”, against “white”. What if we could take back that identifier, completely do away with it, and live life? It is not enough to simply "reclaim" race, because there really should be no need to claim it at all. Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jabari Mahiri speak at UT Austin on his new book Deconstructing Race, and he raised many of the broader ideas behind this thinking for me.
We categorize ourselves based on judgments: either how other people see us, and/or how we see ourselves, and that is why I call myself a black educator. People see me as a black educator, and therefore my educational experiences are molded by that identification, for better or for worse. It would be nice to be able to simply call myself an educator and have that be the catchall title that encompassed my work, my research, and my positionality in the classroom but, like it or not, it is not so.
When I taught at a predominantly black school, my race helped me form quick and sudden connections with students who looked like me. Was this attraction a natural occurrence or one that happens as a result of societal conditioning to seek familiarity based on physical appearance? When I taught at predominantly white schools, I found that my blackness (my race) was so easily identifiable that the few black parents of my students literally thanked me for being at the school and impacting their children's lives before the semester had even started! I was pulled over for speeding, and the officer already knew who I was and where I worked. I was given weird looks from soccer moms and I was followed around Target because I was seen as a foreign figure in a small white town.
When it comes down to it, we are all the same race (human), "we all have the same innards," as one of my student teachers mentioned in class today. Race is not scientific- we created it. And the intention of that creation is achieved every single day. Whiteness gives way to the idea of blackness because we live in this binary world where people think that we should be easily, and arbitrarily, categorized into one or the other even though it is not at all that simple. I have some real questions that challenge the accepted thinking of many who reside in what we call a "democracy": Differences in skin color, hair texture, or nose shape are in no way determinants of worth or success beyond the power that we have given them, and what problems has that power solved? How many lives has racial identification (other than white) saved? Why is it not enough to acknowledge that we are all people and that we are all human in the exact same way?
All of this is not to say that we should be colorblind either because, at the end of the day, we have already made race a thing. As a black person who proudly identifies as black, I know for a fact that many of my experiences are impacted by my skin color, which is such a ridiculous notion. After 28 years of living as a “good” person, gaining all of this education, and working in a field that is built on knowledge and research to help all kinds of people continue to learn and grow in an ever-changing world, some of the simplest interactions have gone left based on a first-glance recognition of the amount of melanin in my skin.
At the same time, embracing that difference is part of what gives me pride. While I don’t believe that every single black person in my bloodline was once viewed as a king or queen, there is something quite regal about being able to live as a member of a marginalized group in America, while still being able to rise above adversity. There’s no denying a sense of pride and self esteem when my locs are piled high on my head, my shoulders are back, and I stand tall and speak just as confidently on things that are so separating, such as race, class, gender, and identity, as I do the latest episode of Insecure.
If it weren’t race, it would be nationality. If it weren’t nationality, we would always (and we do always) find some way to make it impossible for equality, fairness, and a non-Trump led America to become a reality. So how do we take back race when it has been so instrumental in creating and destroying our perceptions of one another? How do we get everyone to realize that racial identifiers are made up ways to justify power, privilege, and prestige in the world? How do we get such a racially stratified society to come to repentance, then completely change the way we operate in law making, policy, and even conversations about how race has tainted the experience of our ancestors, ourselves, and those to come in future generations? How do we get statements like “Black lives matter” to be met with agreement instead of the fallacy that is “all lives matter”?
Teaching is political- never forget that. Encouraging and facilitating these kinds of political conversations in the classroom, that often get fiery and confrontational, is essential to teaching our students how to function in a world where race, the very imaginary thing that man created, molds our life experiences in much of the world. In an ideal world, we would be able to say that people came to America and displaced other people, killed and enslaved people, and forced enslaved people to build this country up from what it originally was. But, as we know, this world is far from ideal. While taking back race is not impossible, the concept creates a mental and social dilemma with which everyone must grapple in order to navigate his or her own experiences in this world.
Knowing the truth of humanity is one thing. Sharing understanding of that same truth with others around you is something that we can never be absolutely sure is achieved. I cannot know the heart of someone of a different skin color, no matter how equally they may treat me, especially in a world where race is currently such a huge identifier. I can, however, know the truth of everyone’s humanness, regardless of race, for the sake of my own sanity. I can still live and operate under a racial system while knowing that it is complete bullshit. I can embrace the fact that the good things that come along with being identified by race are not as implicit as the negative, and take pride in the creativity that unifies people who look alike when it is not at the expense of others. Thankfully, that means that being a black educator does not devalue the role of any other educator who identifies as otherwise. Though unfathomable, I imagine that it would be awesome to be able to simply be an educator, destroying the otherness of any “brown box” on a form.
Race is the difference between a closed-mouth nervous smile and an acknowledging head nod on campus, in hallways, and in the workplace. It factors into the choices that we make on a daily basis, and it is so deep-rooted in our culture to see and know race that it's going to take a miracle to do away with it completely. I love being black, but I also wonder what the world would be like if everyone saw my black as just as human, just as valuable, and just as worthy of life as their own skin. Until then, taking back race will remain nothing more than a dream, and I will continue to thrive in mine.