“Who am I really?”
I first asked this question as an undergraduate student at Buffalo State College.
It is not an unusual question or an unusual time to pose it. Away from family members and all things familiar, now was the time to find out who I was.
Who was I when my parents were not looking and, more importantly, who did I want to be? I was not just choosing a major but deciding on who I wanted to be in the world.
First, I would challenge my mother’s point-of-view, choosing to major in English even though she said it wouldn’t pay off.
A second pushback was like it.
I had long considered race a member of the family. It had been introduced as one intimately related to me, a part of who I was and would always be.
To live as a so-called Black woman was the traditional me. She was passed down, a hand-me-down whom I was expected to be upon arrival by both society and family whether it fit or not.
They didn’t know who I would be as a woman, but they were certain of who I would be as a Black woman, how I would be perceived and treated, what I would need to do to protect myself from the “white gaze,” “white micro-aggressions,” “white violence” and how I could be successful in the “white man’s world.”
In return, I had nothing but questions. The most irritating ones for my family members always began with “Why?”
“Why do we have to identify with a color and not a country? Why does a color have to go in front of everything related to me? Why do we live on these terms?”
They didn’t understand me, but Howard Thurman did. “The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being,” he wrote in “The Luminous Darkness.”
Still, I carried it and carried on, minoring in Afro and African American studies. The more I learned, the less I liked what I saw in the mirror.
I cut off my permed hair and shaved my head. I learned Kiswahili and wore African-inspired attire. I even thought about changing my last name.
I was conscious, woke – or, at least I thought I was.
I still wasn’t satisfied. Living as a color was too confining. I needed more space than was allotted people like me.
Black identity, created in comparison and as the opposite of white identity, just didn’t make sense to me. This aesthetic human being and belonging just wouldn’t work for me.
I graduated and continued to wrestle with this racialized identity.
In seminary, the super-Christian me wanted nothing to describe my Christianity, and consequently, my human being. For the former, Christ had already done that; the Word made flesh, he had said it all and didn’t need an adjective.
To the latter, Galatians 3:27-28 spoke to the center of me, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Colossians 3:11 repeats the refrain and Ephesians 2:14 brought it together for me, “For he is our peace; in his flesh, he made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Jesus is not our cultural representation, our prized possession, our mascot to be paraded during our race games. No “both sides” arguments to be made here; Jesus is not on our side.
His cross becoming the big stick we carry around. Hands extended on a cross, Jesus came to break up the fight.
And my Christian identity was picking a fight with my racialized one. Unable to find conversation partners, I journaled and talked back to myself. One day, I asked a question that answered me.
“Do I have to be Black?” I had questioned race, and it loosed my tongue in a way I cannot explain. With that, race had lost its place. It would never be in front of me again.
I assumed persons would question race with me, but Stanley Hauerwas makes the point perfectly.
“When you are trying to change the questions, you have to realize that many people are quite resistant to such a change. They like the answers they have,” he writes in “Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir.”
Yet, race does not answer for me but addresses some prepackaged, stereotypical human being. Race allows us to not think about who we are really.
And I want to be named specifically. Its colors are the wrong terms.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week on racial justice. The other articles in the series are:
Your Church Can’t Separate Faith, Anti-Racism Work | Aurelia Davila Pratt
As Monuments Come Tumbling Down | William Brackney
Some Still Revising South’s Reasons for Civil War | Terrell Carter