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.
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.
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.