Checking the boxes as our family registers for school in America is a startling exercise. What race are we? Does race have to divide? In fact, what does race really mean?
In our family there are two adopted children and three biological children. Each child is unique. Yet, we are all one family. We share a common culture, understanding, and covenant of care.
The race boxes tell us to divide. The race boxes tell us that three children are Caucasian and two children are African American.
Yet, that is divisive to our family.
My son, Ethan came up with a solution. We are an “other.” Our other is American African.
Four of our seven were born in Africa. Two of us carry Ugandan passports. We all have lived in Africa a significant portion of our lives. We use the pronoun “we” much more than “I.” We reason in community. We believe real food is always cooked over an open fire. We can always find room for more to sleep in our home. We always have enough tea and food for visitors. We are most comfortable in English, but we know varying degrees of French, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, and Luganda. Our hearts and minds dance to African drums.
Yet, we all carry American passports. Those of us who earn incomes pay taxes in America. Some of us vote in American elections. We have relatives who serve with America’s armed forces and we pray every day for them when they are deployed.
American African is a good “other” box to describe who “we” are.
Yet, you may say, “Make a choice. Conform to the understanding.”
How should we conform to the understanding?
One of us has freckles. Three of us have moles. One is described by those from East Africa as brown. One is described by those from East Africa as dark or black. Five of us have skin that gets darker in the sun. One usually burns in the sun.
One of us has red hair. One has mostly gray. Two have curly black hair. Three have varying degrees of blond to brown. One of us has hair that gently curves when it is long and when the mullet comes back in style he’ll look awesome.
The dictionary tells us race means shared distinctive traits ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race .)
Ok. Four of us are males. Three are females. A couple of us are described as tall. A few are described as short. Three are good soccer players. Two of us run. One is flexible enough to do yoga. Two of us have worn braces. One has a gap in his teeth that implies he is descended from East African kings.
Are we just being ornery?
Maybe, but being ornery is caused by offense. A year ago I read a new thought in Soong Chan Rah’s, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Professor Rah made the point that race is a relatively new concept in humanity’s description of one another. When you follow the historical trail it appears that race became defining as slaves were traded from Africa to Europe and the Americas. The barbarity of slavery required the creation of another that we could easily portray as sub-human. The consequences of such barbarity still remain with us generations later as we define humanity through the categories of race.
When I looked closer at the school forms requiring me to make a race choice and put on my missionary lens the categories are almost pure nonsense. The race categories tell me nothing about what languages one prefers to sing and dance. They tell me nothing about which languages one prefers to use in school or business. You can’t write a song book or translate the Bible in race. They tell me little about preferred food. You can find a few foods at a church potluck that are influenced by race, but really food is more about culture, available supplies, and creativity. Race tells me nothing about religious preference and that’s my big missionary issue. Race tells me almost nothing about the formation and maintenance of nation-states. As a missionary I need a passport and a visa. Race is again almost irrelevant. Those nation-states tax, make policies, choose leaders, and during dark days go to war. The perception of race may have some implications on nation-states. However, a proverb tells us, “There are only two things in life that are certain – death and taxes.” Soldiers from many races die for single nation- states. All races pay taxes to their nation-states.
What if the race categories are actually just jargon to minimize the effects of systematic and generational sin?
Here is what I propose for the categories for census and school registration in the United States:
Check the appropriate boxes:
_______My ancestors likely violently stole land
______My ancestors likely had their land violently stolen
______I’m mixed. My ancestors both violently stole land and had their land stolen.
______I’m a newbie in the United States. My ancestors neither violently stole land nor had their land stolen.
______My ancestors likely made some type of profit through kidnapping of humans in Africa, trading them as property, using their labor to build a national economy, and then when they were given freedom it was as second class citizens who were vulnerable to acts of terrorists.
______My ancestors likely were kidnapped in Africa, traded as property, and were not compensated as their labor built the national economy. When freed they were second class citizens vulnerable to acts of terrorists.
______I’m mixed. My ancestors both likely profited from slavery and segregation and were victims of slavery and segregation.
______I’m a newbie in the United States. My ancestors neither profited through slavery and segregation nor were victims of slavery and segregation.
Race is not as simple as a form. The form just makes the systematic sins of America more palatable. No wonder my family wants to be called American Africans.