Beyond Black & White

Everyone wants to move beyond the black/white conversation. I've heard it more times than I can count. Church leaders, congregation members, training attenders, school administrators all want to know when can we finally stop talking about the history between white and black people in America.  

Despite the widespread desire to stop talking about 'the black white binary', it is essential that we are fluent in the development of race theory if we are to be committed to the work of racial justice and reconciliation. The very idea of race was created in order to establish white superiority and thereby justify the institution of slavery for the profit of white America. Racism was no accident, no misstep, no misunderstanding. It was intentional because it was profitable. Racism continues to be profitable for some and detrimental for others. By getting to the root of the sin, intent, and strategies used to create 'the black white binary', we give ourselves the opportunity to move the conversation forward. By starting here, we can effectively and honestly including the racism experienced by other groups. 

The desire to move so quickly beyond it, does not offer us any real possibility of getting to the root of the conflicts between other groups. We may dig up stems but we never uproot the source. So I do not suggest that it is not valuable to talk about other racial groups and their experiences, both past and present. Rather I suggest that studying this phenomenon from the beginning will allow us to better identify and understand how racism has purposefully been used against (and between) multiple racial groups. By identifying how racism has since impacted various communities- noting similarities and differences-  we can begin the work of dismantling racism, not for one group but for all.  

When we are in conversation with one another and demand that we skip over white black history, we commit the following: 

  • We rob ourselves of the language that can be used to talk about current forms of racism. Racism is not new. By going back to its beginning in literature, laws, and practice we offer ourselves the fullest conversation possible. 
  • We eliminate the lived experiences of history and how history has created the present. When discussing history it is very easy to forget that we are talking about humans who lived- not actors in a movie, but real people. I have often heard it asked, "Why must we keep talking about slavery? It was so long ago." To this I reply that my grandmother's grandfather was enslaved. It may feel far away to you, but to me its only a few generations. I have his picture. I have his handwriting. He remains in my grandmothers memory. He lived. And he was enslaved. His enslavement effected the choices, opportunities, lives of ongoing generations. So we cannot skip over the hard parts because they seem irrelevant. 
  • We reinforce the idea that we are post-racial in any way. I know we like to give ourselves lots of pats on the back for ending chattel slavery and jim crow, but this seems like an awfully low bar. Surely we can do better. Part of the reason we haven't done much better than removing these atrocities is that we refuse to have meaningful conversations about it. We talk around it. We allude to it. We claim spaces where we say we'll talk about it, but then the conversation goes off track, and before we know it- not one mention of how our history is connected to our present.
  • We also rid ourselves of nuance. Racism has presented itself in so many ways, through so many avenues. Housing, criminal justice, environmental justice, health, media, income, job opportunities, education… the list goes on and on. Each has a connection to history. The racial differences that exist within each issue did not pop up from nowhere and often they are connected. We must give ourselves opportunity to explore those connections. 
  • We have a hard time connecting the historical dots that will help us understand the broken relationships between minority groups. By starting at the beginning and analyzing the similarities and differences used to divide minority groups, we give ourselves the opportunity to heal everyone rather than vying for the position of who was victimized worse. There is so much room. We can appreciate the histories of us all. Lets start from the beginning so that we can see all the connections. 
  • Ultimately we allow the lies of whiteness (as a prop to superiority) to survive. For as long as we hop over the beginnings of racism, we allow the root of it to survive, to live on, to be enacted and reenacted.  

There is great value in talking about the histories of others. Each racial group has had a very specific journey with racism in America. Those journeys should be explored and taught with gusto. The number of inspirational stories of survival and resistance should be studied with regularity. I continue to be amazed by the number of connections racial groups have in dismantling the worst of racist systems throughout history. We dismantled the worst of the worst. Now I wonder if we can create- not by moving away from 'the black white binary' but by diving into it and making all the important connections along the way.