Race 2012, What is Race

I received a request to answer the question of “what is race”, directly from Monica who is our fearless leader and coordinator for Race 2012. Then today Totsymae also asked the question along with, “what does it mean to you?” These are difficult subjects especially during these days; we have tried hard in this nation to pretend we don’t have a race problem. Perhaps a better way of saying this, as a nation we have tried to pretend with the election of Barack Obama we no longer have a race problem, obviously we elected a “Black Man as President”.

What is race? Do we have the language, polite or otherwise to answer that question adequately?

I am adopted. I look different from my family; in fact, I was told not infrequently I looked ‘exotic’. Being visually different was my first taste of what it meant to be different, my father said it didn’t matter. It did though. Not because children are discerning or born biased, they aren’t but they are born with an eye for what is dissimilar and an ear to learn what those differences mean, or to fear those differences. Fear translates into hate, humans hate what they fear; humans hate what poses a threat to their survival. Eventually those reactions become visceral if not addressed, thus a new racist is born.

What is race?

It is what defines our differences; these are purely physical characteristics. Without the physical characteristics, the markers of ‘race’ we would be unable to visually identify a person as belonging to specific racial groups unless they self-identified. The truth is race is a social construct that allows us to demonize or aggrandize a group of people based on nothing more or less than their physical characteristics. Humans have used differences, be they cultural, religious or the obvious physical to commit atrocities against each other since the dawn of humankind. We haven’t changed since we first learned to walk upright; we have only gotten more creative in our genocidal tendencies.

What is race?

When we look at our President, we don’t say we elected our first bi-racial President. We don’t acknowledge his Anglo Saxon heritage, indeed, we also forget his Indonesian stepfather; we only see his Blackness and for many White Americans that Blackness infuriates. That fury has broken the barriers of polite discussion of race; it has pulled out all the stops of racial etiquette and public avoidance of accusations of racism. Truthfully, there are

Ann Dunham and a young Barack Obama

those who take great pride in their blatant racism, forgetting our President had a very ‘White’ mother and was raised by very ‘White’ grandparents. Instead, they demand his Birth Certificate, certain this very Black man could not be born in the United States of America. Never has a seated President been treated with such disrespect, during his term in office. But then, never has a President of the United States appeared to be a Black Man.

What is Race? It is part of what we hold up as who we are. It shouldn’t be relevant, but it is. I am first Human, then a woman, then American, then part of an amazing and somewhat dysfunctional family that happens to share the DNA of many different cultures and going back generations.

What is race?

It is nothing more than a way to group and identify those unlike ourselves based on differences that have no real relevance other than our personal notion of beauty. In this nation, what is race? It has become something more, hasn’t it? Race has become an insidious and ugly framework for Class, which is really just another way to say ‘poverty’ and ‘wealth’. Race is a social construct, made up and sustained by those who would hold on to power. It is that, nothing more and nothing less.

Race is a grouping and a tick mark on the Census, the employment application, the TSA checkpoint or the show me your papers police check. It is that, nothing more or less. Race is what we agreed would define us as groups of people so we could pick and choose who would win or lose in society. Race divides our cities creating pockets of destitution, hopelessness and lost opportunity for our children, our future.

We have developed an entire polite language, a racial etiquette for our public discourse. One day soon, we will have to say enough, we will have to begin to hold each other and ourselves accountable and allow ourselves to say

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

what needs to be said without being offended by whose lips say it. We will have to allow talk across the lines of the construct of race, reach through the smog of polite speech and recognize each other for our good intent get our azzes off our shoulders and begin to speak plainly about the problems of Race within the country. We will have to speak across Color, Culture, Religion and Polite Society and across the Racial Etiquette, we have developed if we are to ever fix what is broken and truly achieve the dream that was spoken on the 28-Aug-1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Finally, what does it mean to me?

Mildred and Richard Loving, 1967

It means beyond Loving vs. St. of Virginia my husband and I can go out to dinner anywhere and anytime without some ijit with an attitude giving us the stink eye, failing to provide us with service, or worse offering their opinion of our pairing.

Other times it means I have to revisit the scene of the crime, the day three young Black men kidnapped and shot me simply because they wanted to kill a ‘White Person”, each time they come up for parole I am reminded hate and prejudice runs both ways. Still other days I have to defend my personal position on Racism and Prejudice, why I don’t hate an entire ‘race’ for the act of three individuals. Yes, I am asked this often by both sides and my answer is always the same; I don’t even hate them why would I hate perfect strangers? Or even better, all three of them were teenagers should I hate teenagers? It makes as much sense. Yet even when I explain, most people think I am lying.

What does it mean to me? It means someday, maybe not in my lifetime or even in the lifetime of my children, we will finally destroy the construct of ‘Race’, when enough of us finally stop relying upon it to divide us or define us.

My humanity, gender and experiences define me. My appearance and gender define me only if it limits me by the decisions or perceptions of others. The perception of others as to my race it is just that perception and assumption, I never self-identify.


  1. The Storriteller Post says:

    I’ve made this argument many times, and no one wants to listen (as you’ve pointed out very well, above): If we are “Free of race” issues in this country, why in hell isn’t the President referred to as White? or Half White? No, it’s always focused on his being black. Who the cares? It’s exhausting to listen to the blah, blah, blahs about it from the far right. It has to stop.

  2. I am grateful that things did change in this country.

  3. Val, I am undone. . . I’ve just started reading your blog and catching up on past post and did not know your life’s story. (Eventually, when my heart can take it, I will go through the Crime and Punishment section and read all the stories.)

    40 years ago before I met my husband, I remember saying over and over again (almost like a chant), “there is nothing no white man can do for me.” 40 years later having known and loved one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met, I now know what this “white man did for me”: he taught me how to love and be loved. It would have been quite the simple thing for all of us to have been homogenous. But learning to embrace, accept, love, and appreciate our differences, therein lies the definition of love. And love is the greatest gift of all. The next greatest gift is forgiveness, and you have had a chance to experience both. You are one blessed woman, my friend! Excellent, excellent piece of writing!

    • Today I am plagued with compassion and forgiveness, not having either. But I still believe it is possible just not today, not today. I am just hopeful, most of the time. I believe we can be a nation that has both opportunity and compassion.

      I agree with you, love is the greatest give. I hope I get there today.

  4. Beatiful. Profound. Powerful.
    And how utterly apt to end this post w/ one of the greatest speeches ever written.
    Xxx WOW.

  5. It is a thoroughly thought out account of what race means to people. Awesome job, Valentine!

  6. Very profound my friend … and outstanding! Yes, maybe someday … and I hope so to.

    Your post takes me back to visiting a travelling exhibit called Understanding Race. It was fascinating and it stimulated a lot of thinking … much thinking.

    Here’s something from my archives … and in it is a linking to the post I did about the exhibit – and that post has links as well.

    • Thank you, and thank you twice for the link to your earlier blog I enjoyed it greatly. I am with you, maybe someday. I don’t hope though, Someone recently said hope is not a strategy and I agree we need more than hope we need solid thinking and active participation in real actions.

  7. Great post…All that being said and what’s been done, I’m not convinced there will everbe a resolution. I’d like to not think along those lines and I hope I’m wrong. Too much to lose for those who’ve held power for so long, which is why we’re witnessing this blatant contempt toward Obama. He has folk thinking differently, or at least his supporters and as you say, there lies the fear, as it opens the door for others. There have been legislation across the nation to suppress the vote and disconnect people from their own government. Every lifeline has been thrown out there.

    • Thanks Totsymae, it barely scrapes the surface though does it. You and Monica asked the question(s). I simply answered from my point of view, it is only one.

      You are so right that every lifeline is being thrown so those who fear their power is being lost will cling. I am dismayed and yes, even sickened. I wish it wasn’t so. I have a four year old grandson I wonder if it will be different in his lifetime.

  8. This is a very thoughtful, generous and profound look at a subject that has been skirted around for so long. I feel I must re-read and then re-read it again to take in all its implications.. I feel grateful to you for writing this… may only love prevail – eventually !1!

    • Thanks for stopping and reading Valerie. I am glad I could offer something worth the time. I agree with your sentiment, we can only hope in time love will prevail, someday.

      I wish I could have found MLK’s sermon, “I have been to the Mountaintop”. I would have posted that instead, it echo’s the sentiment.

  9. Reblogged this on unsocialite.

  10. How eloquent, Valentine. I cannot imagine anyone attempting this subject and presenting this post so beautifully. Bravo.

  11. Terrific post! I agree – anyone who assumes we have entered a “post-racial” age here in America, because Obama was elected, is not really seeing things clearly. If anything his election has just put a spotlight on just how much racism still festers in many corners of the country. So many Americans use race as a “go to” trait in order to define each other, but as you point out, it shouldn’t be that way.

    • Thanks Chris. No such thing as Post-Racial, not here and certainly not now.

      We exacerbate the problem by refusing to have open discussions on race. These have to be have. Not ever person is a person of bad intention, in 1968 we stood together as a nation those who thought Civil Rights were meant for all people and those who believed Jim Crow and segregation was the right answer.

      Today, 44 years later we are more divided than ever and lest trusting of each other. It is sad, devastating really.

  12. Awesome post Valentine. And I’m so sorry that someone would try and harm you just because of your race. Growing up in Alabama, I know 1st hand about the ugly face of racism. But what gets me through it that for every 1 person who hates me for my skin, there are 2 or 3 who love for me and not my skin. Thank you for sharing your story and your hope that one day we can all really truly live by Dr. King’s words.

    • It happens, it was a very long time ago. Thank you. The acts of children force us, or at least should force us to consider where such anger comes from. The acts of children should demand we look at society and do something to fix it. Unfortunately that isn’t what happens.

      My oldest son came home one day a few months after they were caught and said ‘I hate n*gg*rs”. I stared at him for a little while in amazement. Clearly I had not raised him right for him to utter such ugliness to me. Then I realized, he had heard me talking to my best friend of 20 some odd years, his “Aunt Kim” about the confessions. You see they had been caught and I had learned why they had done what they had done.

      My son, who was at the time 12, had gone to school and talked to some of his hard head friends, that was the result. So I stared at him and finally said ‘Okay, but then you have to call Aunt Kim and let her know you hate her.”

      “Oh no, I don’t hate Aunt Kim, I love her. I just Hate N*gg*rs!”

      “But honey, Aunt Kim is Black. Isn’t tat what you are saying? That you hate all Black People?”

      This conversation went on for quite some time. Back and forth, until he cried until he understood. His anger was misdirected. His ‘hate’ was wrong and also misdirected. Finally he could let go. He could be made at the three who hurt me but he couldn’t hang on to hate, not even for them and certainly not for their Blackness.

      ‘Now call your Aunt Kim and say you are sorry!”

  13. Another insightful post. That is tragic what happened to you. Do you have a past post that details that experience? Since I’ve only been following for a couple months, perhaps I’ve missed it.

    • Carrie, hi

      Yes I have written those stories. If you go to Crime and Punishment, start from the bottom (the beginning) I have written all the stories of my experience and my response.

      Thanks for commenting.


  14. Well said!! If you go below the surface of this, I plan to be here. Being a short, aging, Southern woman who writes about Mexicans as heroes (albeit, historically), I’ve come across a few idjits in my time. : )

  15. Good read Val!

  16. This is an intense subject and you have provided an excellent analysis of what race is. All of the above. Another great post, Valentine!

    • Thanks Monica, just my short take. There are so many intricacies to this issue. So many historical positions and juxtapositions, this barely scrapes the surface of where we are and how we got here.

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