At some point when I was in college, my landlord told me our neighbor, who I’ll call Ed, was planning on renting the vacant room above mine. I had only interacted with Ed once before he moved his things in, but he immediately struck me as odd. Most of Ed’s possessions from what I remember were books, and many of those books were filled with graphic images of lynchings, pictures of mutilated bodies hanging from tree limbs surrounded by crowds of people young and old. You would have thought those events would have been traumatizing for the children in attendance, but apparently they weren’t. I guess they didn’t see anything even remotely like themselves in the charred, dangling corpses.
But Ed did. You could tell by his accent that he was from the Windsor area, the nearby Kent region of southern Ontario which was the terminal stop on the Underground Railroad and became home to countless descendants of escaped African slaves who crossed into Canada to seize their freedom. Ed was by all accounts one of them, carrying the emotional burden of the physical trauma depicted in the books that lined the room upstairs as he prepared to move in.
My last memory of Ed is permanently seared into my mind: the red ember of his lit cigarette glowing as he faded into the shadows of the front porch across the street. It was the night before he was supposed to follow his belongings and move into our house. I’m probably the last person to see him alive. The police showed up the next morning asking if we were missing an extension cord.
Ed was probably haunted by demons other than slavery and lynching. But I’m not convinced it’s pure coincidence that he hung himself. Thinking back on it, it seems to me that Ed identified too strongly with the history of mutilated Black bodies—just as the children and adults in the photos of lynchings identified too little with the Black bodies that had been destroyed for their amusement. And while not comparable morally, both involve a ratification of race to a place that absolves us of something core to our common humanity.
Some are convinced that having whites identify with the worst actors in Western history is the best way to address our dark past. But I think the goal should instead be for them to see a bit of themselves in Emmet Till—or even in Ed, for that matter.
You don’t accomplish that by reifying the same racial segregation that convinced the children in those photographs that they had nothing in common with “Black” bodies. You don’t do that by inducting today’s children into groups of oppressors and oppressed. You certainly don’t do that by segregating white victims of police brutality from Black ones, distinguishing morally between the Tony Timpas of the world and the George Floyd s.
You do it by eliminating the barrier to empathy between races. In other words, by eliminating the perceived reality of race.
To some extent we have done this before. Elijah Muhammad, the famous Black separatist and former leader of the Nation of Islam, encouraged his followers to abandon their last names, which he saw as a vestige of their ancestors’ enslavement. While many associate that strain of thought with excesses in Black radicalism, I’m convinced Muhammad didn’t go quite far enough: It’s not just slave names we need to get rid of, but our obsession with race.
The most insidious residue of America’s foundational sins—those created to perpetuate genocide and the horrid institution of chattel slavery—is our system of racial identity itself. And while there is now widespread consensus about the evils of discrimination based on race, the pseudoscientific idea that we’re categorically distinct from others in our species is sadly one that remains alive and well—and is being spread by those allegedly attempting to fight racism.
How can I argue that we need to do away with the concept of race and its application in everyday life? After all, we can all see each other’s race with our own eyes. But here is the key: Race is less about what you see than what you choose not to see.
Of course, genetic populations exist with respect to a given set of nucleotide polymorphisms. But consider the fact that genetic diversity among humans is greatest on the African continent—and yet in our current North American paradigm, everyone in Africa is “Black.”
Does that sound scientific to you? Without racism as the rationale for classifying humans one way or another, it’s doubtful we could reinvent the wheel in this way. But science prides itself on repeatability, so we must ask from a scientific perspective, would the demarcations be the same if our history was different?
Moreover, what purpose do these categories serve? Where is the utility? The only answer I can come up with is feeding our tribal impulses—ones best left behind.
Yet, instead of dispensing with race, we cling ever tighter, kicking and screaming that the concept will be taken “from our cold dead hands.” The enlightened tell us we must exorcise the racism from race so we can rehabilitate this construct and not have to worry about it coming back to bite us one day.
It doesn’t work that way unfortunately. Because dividing people is divisive. We’re tribal by nature. In reifying our differences, there is no guarantee that people will also embrace our construal of history. Instead, people have a tendency to reinterpret stories in a way that exonerates them. Thus, “They kept slaves, we didn’t.”
The only way forward is to do away with the concept of race altogether.
This is not a denial of discrimination, which persists and must be fought. Nor do I deny that it takes a certain amount of privilege to advocate that we dismiss racial boundaries. But that doesn’t serve as a refutation; we should see it as a principal goal of our societies to extend privileges, not scale them back. So yes, I am absolutely privileged to see myself principally as a member of the human race. And it is from that position of privilege that I make it my goal to extend that same privilege to others as well.
Since the phrase colorblind has been co-opted and conflated with blindness to discrimination, I generally prefer to call my ethical framework “cover blindness,” as in, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the only way this works is if we’re not oblivious to the fact that some still do just that—judge people based on race.
An aspiration to see race as irrelevant is not the same as seeing racism as irrelevant; quite the contrary: Discrimination makes even less sense when you see your reflection in the other’s eyes.
This is ultimately how we end racism: by reducing the barriers to seeing ourselves in others. The future we should long for is a non-racial one.
Rienard Knight-Laurie is a former black nationalist turned transracial humanist. He is a gourmet gourmand and has a BASc in mechanical engineering. Find him on Twitter @godsven3loquist.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.
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