“You’d be Really Pretty if You were White”: Jesus and Race in America

Editor Note: Today’s Guest Post is by Doneila McIntosh. Doneila is completing her M.Div. at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN and is a wife and mother of two boys. 

A few nights ago, as my family was sitting down for dinner, my three year old Levi asked, “Mommy is Levi white?” As I hesitated to answer, he replied “everybody is white, Levi is brown.” At that moment I realized something: Levi had begun to articulate the racialization process that he will undergo the rest of his life.

I don’t remember becoming racialized, but I do remember, during my senior year of college, sitting on the bus next to an older Caucasian woman who turned to me and said, “You would be really pretty if you were white.” I don’t remember how old I was when I first realized that I was black and that I was deemed lesser than a white girl, but I do remember being in high school and having a guy that I liked tell me he would never date a black girl. I normally do not think about those memories. Frankly, many of them just hurt too much. But when Levi told me, “Everybody is white, Levi is brown,” it crushed me. I cried for two hours later that night as I thought of all of the defining moments of my life and realized that 95% of them were moments that defined me racially. I do not want my kids to experience the pain and rejection that I have throughout my life, but it is inevitable.

As I continue to process the racialization of my sons into black men, I have begun to think critically about how, as a black woman, do I steer my children into a understanding of black flesh that resists the identity of black flesh as rendered by whiteness (i.e. stereotypes, stigmas, racial profiling, etc.)? Further, how do I help them articulate an identity of black flesh that resists violence especially against female black flesh (i.e. prostitution, domestic violence, sex trafficking, etc.)?

To me, the mountain top that Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed the night before his death is not one I will see within my life time nor shall my children. Look, for every Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey there are thousands of Trayvon Martins. In the community where I live, tragic death is more of a reality than is success. I believe that Dr. King’s vision and many like it are beautiful yet abstract and theoretical views of the world. However, as Christians we must not forget that we live in a fallen world that is not only susceptible to sin, but also to the demonic powers that control the systems of the world. Despite our theologies of hope and liberation, we may never see the fulfillment of a society that overcomes its own racialization. This does not mean we stop fighting for freedom. It means that, along with theory and dreams, we must become more practical.

My husband and I have decided that we will intentionally teach our sons what it means to be racialized. We will not teach them in the way that we learned: those implicit, tacit messages that told us because we were black, we were inferior. My husband and I are committed to teaching our sons that being racialized does not mean they are of little value. It does not mean that they cannot achieve their dreams. It does not mean that others are better or more handsome due to the color of their skin. Our goal is to teach our sons how to embrace themselves as well as to embrace others who are different from them. We are all members of the same family—fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who is far more diverse and racially mixed than we can imagine. We have made it a goal to teach our children different languages and to expose them to different cultures within our own larger community of the Twin Cities. My three-year old does not understand complex abstractions of race relations that tell him that all people are created equal. We must show our sons that all people, whether black, white, latino, chinese, or native are all God’s beloved, all created in his likeness and image.

On this side of eternity, my sons will never know what it means not to be racialized. Though a life truly freed from the domination of racialized oppression seems a hopeless dream, I believe that there are times when I experience small tastes of a heavenly freedom that propels me beyond my racialized flesh. These random moments give me hope for what is to come. In J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account, Carter seeks to redirect our understanding of race by pointing to the significance of Jesus’ Jewishness. For me the true significance of the Jewishness of Christ is that Christ himself, God with flesh-on, experienced life on earth and the imprisoning systems that abound. Yet he overcame them all in order that one day my children will be set free from the shackles of race and racism.

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