i've had a lot of conversation and contemplation about race these last few days.
how it defines us while not really defining us at all. how it's both real and fallacy. how it contributes to our stories.
how we say it comes up all the time these days in this our "post-racial America," but we actually don't really talk about it much. we talk around it. at it. conversations of race are often accusatory or defensive or, my least favorite, dismissive. we cling to words like "colorblind" and "tolerance" or say that people are too sensitive about race. we start sentences with "i'm not trying to be racist, but . . ." as if this qualifier is anything more than weak potpourri in a very very pungent bathroom.
how when i visited South Africa, and my dear and sweet coloured friend kept referring to the black people as "darkies" in negative ways. how i shuddered. how i asked about it after several references since, obviously, i look more like the black South Africans than the coloured South Africans. how he replied, "but you're American." and i laughed at race because in America he would be considered black. racial identity demands context, construct.
and in that moment i was reminded about race. how it defines us while not really defining us at all. how it's both real and fallacy. how it contributes to our stories.
story. i'm reminded of how someone once invited a group of people to tell the story of the first time we realized what race we are--the first time i realized i was black.
i know there are marches and conversations and speeches tucked in corners of my childhood memory in smalltown Dillon, SC, as my parents were very involved in conversations and movements in regard to race, rights and reconciliation.
but the story i call my own first was in first grade. in january, i believe. i was starting a new school mid-year. just a month or so before that day, my dad--a pastor--announced that we were moving to a church with a library, a nursery, a gym and 2500 members and that we'd be the only black people there and how did we feel about it. i remember my sister and i saying, "a real gym inside the church?!?! cool!" i was six. and i had nothing to assign to race at the time.
on the playground that first day at the new school. i remember running to the magic metal half moon-shaped wonder in the middle of the playground and just before i attempted to climb, a girl said, "nuh-uh! you can't get on here!" i stared. or maybe i asked the stringy blonde haired jungle gym guard why. i don't really remember. but i do remember her saying, "the last black girl who got on here did yada, yada, yada, and so you're not allowed on here . . . yada, yada, yada."
i ran to the teacher (who was actually a substitute that day). i remember knowing this wasn't right, and i remember the teacher confirming this for me. she happened to also be one of the 2500 members of our new church, so she marched over to the girl and said, "you can't keep anyone off of the jungle gym. that's not right. and you need to get to know Ciona," she said. "she's going to be in your sunday school class, too. you remember the new pastor we've all been talking about? this is his daughter."
i remember how easy it was for the jungle gym guard to, well . . . let down her guard when she was told it wasn't right and was educated on what we had in common. how easy it was for me to shake hands and laugh and play with her, her white friends and my new black friends whom i invited to join us (how long had they been rejected by the guard? and why didn't they tell on her?).
i remember how i went to her home for sleepovers and still have photographs with her at my 6th grade birthday party. how i would later find out her grandfather was one of the 2500 members who left the church because we were there. how easy it is for children to learn--both the wrong and the right.
i have many race stories. most of them are more subtle than my parents' or my parents' parents' stories. some of them are a lot more messy than this one that ended so cleanly wrapped in a pretty United Colors of Bennetton bow. some of them are beautiful and inspiring. but this is the one that launched me into identifying by race and assigning various meanings to being black. made me realize that others assign meanings to my being black. made me realize that justice depends upon the intelligence and compassion of those in power.
that's the conversation around race i want to invite people into having--about their personal origins around race. when did you realize you were red, yellow, black, white or brown? when did you assign meaning to what your race is?
thanks for hearing my story. i'd love for you to comment with your story--maybe you, too, were 6 or maybe you were 26. whatever, whenever. i want to hear it.
if you have a beef to pick, a cause to defend, a slur to utter, though, i don't want to hear. i can guarantee i'll delete your post when i read it. not because i don't value and honor free speech or because i am imposing my personal beliefs on you. it's just that the best conversations usually start with stories--sometimes messy, complicated and hard to hear stories even. so i invite my fellow storypeople to please honor this and take a moment to share a few paragraphs or just a short sentence even about the day and age you realized your race. all others, just listen for now, please.
may we always tell our stories. it's all we truly own. may our stories, however, not own our every day. and on this day, may you be filled with grace.
(image by my talented sister Lanecia Rouse)