My mother and my uncle brought my brothers and me, the three Years old, to the tracks near our home to watch the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy's body. I can still remember the train passing by, and my uncle crying, though I had no sense of its significance at the time. They were aware of something I wasn't: the harsh realities of racial prejudice and discrimination. They knew how hard it had been for blacks to gain acceptance as fully human. Now, they watched an iron horse carry what seemed to them their brightest hope away to the grave.

My world, on the other hand, has been vastly different. I always assumed that most of America's race problem had been solved by legislation. Born in 1965, 1 came of age when busing and other civil rights measures were already in place. My experience was one of racial harmony (or indifference). My world was free from the scars of racism.

I am a true child of integration. It's not that I have never been aware of my race-my early years were full of curiosity about whether our family was black or white, and what that meant. All of this curiosity, however, faded significantly by the middle of elementary school, when my classes were nearly half-black and half-white.

From that time on, while I was aware that there were people of different races, I had also internalized the rhetoric of integration. (Some, I know now, would call it "assimilation" or "cultural set lf -suppression.") I was on the path toward living a color-blind life. In my world, ethnic and racial differences were incidental. This view made me quite different from some of my AfricanAmerican friends, who were far more race-conscious. From elementary school through college, I ambled along as though people were people.

Mom and Dad, on the other hand, were both born in the Carolinas in the 1930s, and their experience of living in a segregated world, followed by the victories of civil rights legislation, shaped their view of race. They have been very accepting of my white friends, but they do not have the kind of interracial relationships that I do, nor does it seem likely that they ever will.

I have not been subjected to harassment or discrimination because of my pigmentation. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been called names, and I cannot explicitly remember any experiences of discrimination--socially, vocationally, or otherwise.

Two vivid instances of my neutrality toward race took place on ski trips to Breckenridge, Colorado, with groups from the Navigators, an evangelical (and predominantly white) campus ministry. At some point during the first trip another student came up to me in a souvenir shop and asked me a seemingly random question.

"You're not into that, are you, Vince?" he said.

"Into what?" I asked.

"That" turned out to be a heightened sense of race consciousness that my white friend had encountered in black students back at school (the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina). I quickly set his mind at ease: I didn't make race an issue I said, and I was uncomfortable with black students who would even imply that race was a factor in anything. I truly felt that race was overplayed--the roots of most conflicts lay elsewhere.

Three years later, now a volunteer leader with the Navigators in Memphis, I went on another ski trip. A few other guys and I raced down the mountain, defying common sense and risking injury to beat one another to the bottom of the hill. It was thrilling. I told a black friend about it when I returned. She said, "Well, you know that's how they are."

I had no idea what she meant, until she explained to me how whites (I suppose particularly white males) always have to compete and always have to win. Funny, I didn't know that was only a white trait. Rather than debate, I changed the subject. But I had to wonder. Assumptions about race were clouding either her, or my, perceptions of reality. Whose was it?

In 1990 there were "X" caps everywhere--even in suburban Chicago, where I was starting seminary. I was quite uncomfortable with Malcolm X's resurgent popularity. A fellow black seminarian thought my reaction was too strong. He challenged me to read Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X--something that never would have occurred to me a few years earlier.

Aside from being a great read, the book forced me to open my eyes more fully to the depth of racism in our society. I no longer saw Malcolm and Martin Luther King as polar opposites, one a revolutionary and the other a peacemaker. Instead, I began to see them as different men from different backgrounds and locations who had different, but not completely opposed, approaches to the issue of race. While I hardly became an "X" disciple, Malcolm helped me see more clearly that race did matter, for good and ill, in America.

Now what? What do I do now that I have "color" vision? What do I do now that I realize that humanity's kaleidoscope is not going to melt into one harmonious hue-now that I recognize that my otherness does matter? It is here that the postmodern turn, though fraught with its own dangers, might help.

The postmodern era has called attention to the "other," to difference and diversity. Postmodernism can provide a way to rationalize isolation-even, at its extreme, to justify ignoring those who don't come from our narrow enclave (since communication is impossible anyway). But I see a theological opportunity in this emphasis on otherness.

First, postmodernism has helped us to recapture the startling idea that humanity's kaleidoscopic diversity is made in the imago Dei, the divine image. If God is truly three in one, then being in the image of God cannot mean anything less than relationality between differing persons. As a postmodern Christian, I must reckon with the fact that a substantial aspect of my faithfulness in reflecting the imago Dei will be my relationships, especially with those who, racially or otherwise, are different from me. The integrationist dream of unity without differences is not only implausible to a postmodern world, it is sub-Christian.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad