#BlackLivesMatter & #AskRachel: We Were All Wrong About Race in America

If the last twelve months have proved anything, it is the United States and most of the people therein are greatly confused when it comes to issues of race.

Let’s take for starters the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement. A hashtag on Twitter became a universal symbol of response to a number of unarmed killings of Black men and women in America beginning with Michael Brown in Ferguson…not quite. Unarmed Black people have been killed in the United States for decades…actually centuries.

It just rarely makes the news. Google it if you don’t believe me.

How did the Christian church respond? Most were silent. Some were delayed but eventually gave calls for “peace” and “moving forward” without questioning if justice was present. Others spoke, protested, and some have yet to respond. Social Media was equally varied in its responses. Many people around the world called for diversity training among police officers. Some people rallied automatically to the defense of police, in one instance giving enough money to Darren Wilson to make him a millionaire. Some stated “Black Lives Matter” is offensive, that “all lives matter,” and that Black people were simply complaining about isolated incidents. “True progress has been made. Look at the President for Pete’s sake.”

And then came Rachel….oh Rachel.

Rachel Dolezal has everyone scratching our heads.

First, she is clearly white. Not bi-racial, not quarter, completely white. Her mom said they are of “Dutch, German, and Swedish descent.” White, or Caucasian, in the United States is equated with wealth, power, and status. “White privilege” is a reality for most whites because they are the majority in the US. (There will be a “privilege” for any ethnic group in any place that is a majority.) Employment, economic opportunities, housing expansions (read gentrification) and quality education has historically favored white communities. The US Laws no longer favor whites as they previously did, but the damage to other ethnic groups, especially the Native American and Black communities, has been done. Yet, Rachel, oddly, gave all that up to become Black. But she didn’t have to, which brings me to…

Second, she didn’t have to switch races to accomplish any of her goals. She’s an African-American Studies Professor, was the President of an NAACP chapter, and is married to a Black man. She could have accomplished all of these things—maybe more— without having to switch ethnicities (referring to her resume, not her love life). Some articles stated she and other whites do it to gain empathy. Even more, there’s a dialogue about being “trans-racial,” that one can adopt a race by choice. (We’ll come back to this.) If she didn’t need to switch her race in order to accomplish her goals, then…

Third, why did she switch (and why did her mom put her on blast)? What caused Rachel to enter into this 10 year facade about her race and why did her mom decide to publicly state her daughter was white and not Black? Again, she could have accomplished everything she did and perhaps more without switching her race. As a white woman, she possibly could have been an incredible bridge-builder in helping both these historically clashing groups take a big step forward, but she didn’t. She left one race to “self-identify” with another. I love Jessica Williams’ summation of Rachel Dolezal, “We [Black people] need advocates, not replacements.”

Between #BlackLivesMatter and #AskRachel, one thing is clear: the country remains oddly clueless when it comes to race. There are four factors at play in all this: ethnicity, race, culture, and class.

Ethnicity refers to the genetic country of origin to which your family comes from. If you have familial roots in Asia, Africa, Europe, etc., that is your ethnic background. That will never change.  Culture, however, does change. Culture is the set of customs and practices certain people adopt in certain places. An African-American person (of African descent) raised in the suburbs may have entirely different cultural practices than a African-American person raised in the hood. They may both love Spades, Coming to America, and hate outdoors, but one may prefer khaki pants with dress shoes while the other prefers Timberland boots with Jeans. Culture is really more about environment than our country of origin. Ethnically, I am African-American. I am the descendant of African slaves and one American slave owner. I cannot change that.

That leads to Race. Technically, it’s not real. It’s a social construct that was created and is maintained as a means of classifying people based on how they look. Ethnically, I am African-American but when people see me, they see my race: a Black man. Race plays a crucial element when it comes to Class—categories ascribed to people based on income, education, and geographical residence. What do I mean? If a group of Black kids go swimming at a pool, the question (at least in McKinney) asked is “Where is the pool?” If the pool is in the suburbs, it is assumed, based on race, those Black kids aren’t supposed to be there. Why? Because being Black is associated with a lower class, or socio-economic, standing than other ethnic groups and as the mom remarked in the video “should return to Section 8 Housing.” In English, if you’re Black, it is assumed you are broke, unequally educated, guilty of something if on the wrong side of town, and a danger to society. Rather than address poverty in the inner city, quality less schools, and underemployment, we reduce these problems to being “race” oriented and the result of a lack of discipline and hard work. We ignore the words of Victor Hugo and Dr. King: “Where there is darkness there will be crime. The guilty are not merely those who commit the crime but they who cause the darkness.”

Insert Rachel.

Rachel can change her own cultural values—she changed her dress and hairstyle. She will never be able to change her ethnicity—her momma told us where they are from. She was able to change her race for about 10 years. Then her mom called her back home. (By the way, that is what it means to be in the dominate group ethnically in the United States: you make your own rules.) Rachel has the “option” to switch. I do not. Latinos do not. Asians do not. Native Americans do not. As much as I love and respect all ethnic groups, I cannot choose to “self-identify” with any of them simply because I want to. That’s not an option for me. If it was, I would opt to stop getting my license checked by every police officer that pulls behind in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. I would choose to speak about the issues affecting the Black community and people respond with Awareness, Action, and Advocacy, rather than dismissing my claims as emotionalism or contextual.

Here are a few of the issues the Church and America won’t talk about:

  • The differences between ethnicity, race, and culture. One is historical, one is prejudice and fictional, and the other is based simply on community. (Which one is discussed on the news? It starts with an “r” and ends with an “e”.
  • If racism doesn’t exist, if Black people are simply complaining about problems that don’t exist, and if being Black is that amazing, why haven’t millions of other whites done what Rachel did and check the “Black” box? There isn’t a line of white people running to switch races. The line that is forming is of Black people being forced out of their homes as their neighborhoods become more diverse. (Do you see it? If Black people move into the suburbs, property value diminishes. If whites move into the inner city, property value increases, and people in poverty have to move because they can’t afford to live there anymore…and they miss out on any potential equity. This is gentrification. And it isn’t discussed anywhere.)
  • Rather than avoiding issues around race and ethnicity, would it be possible to ask questions like “where are the places in which some empathy needs to be given to white people” and “can we please acknowledge that being in a sub-dominate group, like Black or Latino, in the United States means there are places where discrimination has and is occurring?” Can we not ascribe all problems to one group AND at the same time not dismiss the historically, fact-proven concerns of another? Can we expand the dialogue about race and ethnicity beyond Black and White, as though there aren’t other ethnic groups in the country that have concerns they would love to be heard?

Personally, I am beyond anger and lament. I am simply exhausted. I have a foot in two worlds. I serve alongside many people with middle and upper-middle class lifestyles of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and when I go back home to Houston, I drive straight to the hood (3rd Ward ev’ry day).

In 3rd Ward, none of these options are available or even discussed. There are no “trans-racial” conversations. There are no “Rachel’s” looking to switch races.

There are poor, hurting, unequally educated people living there. Not in every home, but in far too many.

I expect many of them will go to the swimming pool this summer. Hopefully, they will stay on their side of town. Otherwise, there could be an incident, and what will the hashtag be the next time a racial incident hits the news: #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, #AskRachel, #ImTransRacial, #JusticeForAnotherUnarmedDeath, #PoliceAreAlwaysRight, or something else entirely?

I know what it won’t be. It won’t be honest. It won’t be true. It won’t be respectful. It will be one-sided, because we still don’t know how to have a candid conversation about race and ethnicity in America.
Sean Watkins

2 thoughts on “#BlackLivesMatter & #AskRachel: We Were All Wrong About Race in America

  1. Deborah Danbee June 17, 2015 — 5:40 pm

    Great post

  2. Hey Sean,

    It was good to see you at Rec Week and have the chance to meet and talk. We never set a time for our next time to talk.

    We are on vacation and have blocked off some times for work, too. I read your new post here; there is much here for reflection and discussion, and one of the things that stands out is, “I am beyond anger and lament. I am exhausted.” I would love to hear more when we talk next.

    What does July 2-10 look like for you? Are there some times you are free when we could talk? Let me know and we’ll get something on our calendars- sometime during those days or suggest another time.

    Take care, friend, Phil


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