A Wicked Inquiry into the National Conversation on Race: Why You Should Read My Book

Race is not a tame problem like those of mathematics or popular games. Tame problems thrive in systems with defined internal logic and operational clarity.

Race is a wicked problem. There’s the easy label of the human race; and then, the more difficult divisions into tribe, clan, sect, class, nation, and other forms that can be viewed in opposition──the We versus the Them. Race has been combined with oppressive systems including slavery and second-class citizenry. It has been thought of metaphorically as being in one’s DNA; it can be offered as an explanation of disease that may, upon further investigation, be understood in terms of geographic ecology. Race is offered as a dominant explanation to the legacy of social disparities, but, upon closer inspection, those disparities yield to other empirical explanations.

In sum, race is a wicked problem──one that lacks a precise and consistent metric. It raises doubt for some and certainty for others.

I decided to write a book, I And The Other: A Wicked Inquiry. On the surface, it is about black and white──the way in which the race problem is generally framed despite our far more colorized society. At a more profound level, the book is about I and the Other. Understanding one’s Self rides an ocean of competing desires, perceptions, and thoughts; understanding the Other rises from that ocean as mountains, hills, and valleys with seasonal moments of calm and tempests. Together, I and the Other is a doorway into the theater of tragedy, comedy, and the absurd. Now, combine the surface of black and white with the profound aspiration of knowing one’s Self and the Other.

That’s the book. That’s my struggle to gain a foothold on the national conversation on race.

I asked my friend, Max Eternity, to offer me an opening quote that might help set the stage for my commentary.

How white people are indoctrinated into the culture versus how black Americans and Native Americans are, is the difference between hyper-individuality and conscious consensus. With some exception, Whites see the power of individuality and hold an unyielding belief in “choice” above all other forces moving in their lives, whereas Blacks and Natives are more likely to see systems and structures that create predetermined outcomes. And while it continues to shift, the centuries-long cultivated hyper-individuality of White individuals serves as the myopic driving force in our broader shared culture.

Max is black; I am white. As I think about Max’s view, I ask myself: Is race what frames our respective understanding of each other, of how the world works, of what we can accede to in our lives? Or is this just Max and me? Maybe the world is far too complex to summarize in a single quote.

[Related: “Reparations or Ransom?”]

I looked for other another quote to inoculate the reader against a quick, easy answer. I found one from Salman Rushdie, who is an outsider to our national debate, but who reminds us of the range of human experience:

[We can be, we are, many selves at once…not] the straitjacket of a one-dimensional national, ethnic, tribal or religious identity.

So, our microscopes have different magnifications, and different specimens from which to focus on this conversation about race and our humanity.

The book, I and the Other, is an adventure. Initially, it is my adventure. As you read through the layers of understanding, you might find a new variation on your Self in this wicked inquiry.

Layer 1: Memoir

Narratives composed of memories can be used to document and overcome a life challenge or a lingering grievance. They can command the height of popular reading lists.

My memories are more mundane.

They begin in a housing project, undergoing ethnic change from white to black; the same with the public schools. There’s me skipping Double Dutch, handclapping ‘who stole the cookie from the cookie jar,’ and watching a nighttime stomping. There’s me, the anthropologist, in a squatter settlement, listening to a Shakespearean resident proclaim how poverty is not the same. There’s me listening to Cassie, telling the story of life with her two fiancés──one a man, one a woman, and her working to regain the children she had abused. There’s the student revolution on a college campus deciding whether one childcare center is sufficient or whether there needed to be a separate one for black students. There’s collaboration in art education.

Mine is but one of over eight billion stories. 350 million or so in the United States. We can listen to each other, but the question is whether there is sufficient commonality to arrange a single narrative.

Of course, there are common histories. However, it is impossible for even one history to contain all these memories. And yet, there are important questions that require simplification. Some are about the causes of wars and protest marches, or about working to salvage what is left after a natural disaster. Or how gas prices are rising as gas stations service thousands of cars each day. We do need useful, cookie-cutter summaries of complex lives. This may be sufficient for invidious aspects of racial disparities, but engaging each other in dialogue or community requires less cookie-cutter and more listening to each other. The former is a reductionist enterprise and lends itself to policy; the latter seeks the nuance and texture of the variation we each experience──a metric of Self rather than of social condition.

The book takes up policy questions in the Appendix with a dozen essays addressing the complexities of teaching about racism, of the unreasonable use of force, and of our national aspirations in the Ballad for Americans. But a thorough conversation about race and Self invites a departure from an immediate leap into policy. The adventure detours into the human mind, exploring how knowing is circumscribed by language by making guesses at what others experience, and how paradoxes can arise by our very attempt to impose a metric on reality. Some may argue that we have sufficient workarounds to forego an inquiry into the limitations of the human mind. But even the ancient Greeks were aware that we often saw the world as shadows and that any prophet would be hard pressed to convince others that these were in fact shadows. Modern technology has not resolved this issue.

[Related: “How Diversity Promotes Racial Rancor”]

Layers 2, 3, and 4

The book’s strategy may be flawed by expecting readers to move from a societal problem (race) to a psychological (memories) and philosophical one (epistemology). Having followed the adventure thus far, why not further exploit this flaw and move to a religious perspective (mysticism)?

We often talk about the disadvantages of splitting education into different disciplines or silos, each of which arrange our certainties about how the world should be understood.

This book spelunks the human in a complex world. Isn’t that a way to traverse the dilemma Max sees between how whites and blacks see themselves and each other──from choice to structure and back again? Up and down our respective caves.

I rely on Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī, or simply Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet and mystic. When I’ve discussed identity in classes on cultural anthropology, I ask students to travel back in time to explore this meditation.

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,

did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace

of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

 

We could easily add:

Not white, nor black, nor any color.

As with my students, the book seeks the human apart from the categories that society imposes on us, one of which is race, sometimes defined by culture, sometimes by genetics, sometimes by skin color. All are arbitrary, especially from the unity one encounters in a mystical (or meditative) mindfulness.

We cannot sustain the mystical frame of mind for long. Perhaps a nanosecond. We need to return to the world of stereotypes in order to navigate physical and social realities.

That is where I hedge my argument. I would be a hypocrite if I argued about the limitations of the human mind, and why certainty evades us──so, yes, hedging is necessary. But, creative hedging . . .

A Final Thought

This book is not about whether Max or I is right. We both have our own adventures. But we can climb together. We need to if we are to reach the next plateau, the common ground for more than survival, for enjoyment of the Other, and the wicked I that is still figuring it out.

Joe Nalven

Joe Nalven is a Lecturer of Anthropology and Research Associate at the University of San Diego.

4 thoughts on “A Wicked Inquiry into the National Conversation on Race: Why You Should Read My Book

  1. I and the Other.
    Does anything more really need to be said?

    Black, White, Fat, Thin, Tall, Short, Curly, Straight, Fast, Slow, Smart, Not So Smart, Talented, Not Talented, Rich, Poor, Mean, Kind, Gentle, Hard, Coastal, Fly-Over, Steak, Chicken, Basketball, Football…the list is endless. And if we can only see ourselves and the world through the lens of these opposing dualities, then life is very hard indeed.

    I’m that and not this. Whatever you are, I’m not. It’s SYSTEMIC! It’s OPPRESSION! It’s Racism, Sexism, Classism, Ageism, Whateverism! Your piece is always bigger…and Mama always liked you best! Yellow makes me sad.

    But what a giant pile of pathetic that is! How childish can we possibly be?

    Surely that is not who we are? The mewling complainer, miffed & upset because someone has more? The helpless victim who from their newborn crib cries out: “You owe me!” Is that really what we’ve become? Is that what full-grown American Adults truly require to make their way in a hard world: the Nanny State to kiss it and make it all better?

    A ‘National Conversation on Race’ – it’s hard to imagine a bigger waste. To do what, exactly? Help each other understand that the Sneetches with Stars Upon Thars are not the best kind of Sneetch on the Beach? To push the Other Sneetches through the Star-On Machine (run by Sylvester McMonkey McBean!)? It’s a Seussian tale that evidently we have yet to understand.

    No! Why not just say NO? No we don’t need a conversation about the nominal neediness of a nominal group. Nor should we engage in those exceedingly Aryan conversations about guilt being blood-borne and passed generation to generation. No! Let us refuse.

    I am not a member of any group; I do not speak for the demographic population categories I inhabit. Ask me what men think. I can only tell you what I think. Ask me what White believes. I don’t have a clue. I can only tell what I believe. What about Midwesterners; can I speak for them? No, again, it’s only my voice that you’ll hear. Neither do I represent by graduating class….my age range…my health category…my car ownership group. I’m always only me. Aren’t we all??

    So let us embrace the fact that we are all born innocent. We are all born fresh. And the raw demographics of ‘who’ we are, as we left our mothers’ wombs, is entirely immaterial. It is only what we do that counts; it’s the only thing that counts. So no, please, no more griping, grousing, belly-aching, quibbling about Sneetches. No more insistence that it’s time we have a talk about Belly Stars. NO!

    Time to grow-up. It really shouldn’t be this difficult.

  2. Oh please. We’ve been having a “national conversation on race” continuously for more than 50 years. The problem is the left in this country just won’t let it go and far, far too many people won’t get off their rear end to improve their lives.

    For more than half a century we’ve had affirmative action programs, racial hiring quotas, racial set-asides for government contracting (including award of research grants), affirmative action admissions to colleges, black only scholarships, black only dormatories, black only graduations. Name the major college that doesn’t have a black student center fully funded by student activity fees.

    The list goes on and on with no end in sight. Why not? Simple. Because the left derives power, influence and money by keeping this pandering going. They are not about to advocate its end. Look at all of the—highly paid, I might add—bureaucrats working in the diversity, equity and inclusion offices at your local university. Think they want to give up their gravy train? Not hardly. So, they need to keep the discord going. Have to keep those paychecks rolling in.

    Then we have that segment of the population who loves playing the victim card. Boo hoo. I can’t get ahead because you won’t let me. You keep discriminating against me. If only you would stop being so racist, I could succeed. What a contemptible lie. There is nothing society can do to improve an individual’s life if that person is unwilling to help themselves. As long as applying oneself in school is deemed “acting white”, as long as dropping out of school is treated with apathy, when getting pregnant at 17 is consided no bid deal, then it doesn’t matter what society does, no matter how much money is spent, that individual’s life is never going to improve. Ever. Besides, NGOs are making way, way too much money keeping this mindset going.

    And so, 50 years from now, we will still be talking about finally having that “national conversation about race.”

    1. I don’t think that the middle will hold for another 50 years — there are way too many p*ssed off White males.

      We are now THREE generations into Affirmative Retribution….

      1. Of course I should also mention that the group that has most benefited from Affirmative Retribution is White Women — and the middle isn’t going to hold on that much longer, either.

        White Men are already walking away from academia.

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