By Starlette McNeill
Someone asked the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” Someone else answered, “One bite at a time.” I don’t know who eats elephant or thinks that they can eat it all. I never have and don’t think that I would have the taste for one. Who wrote this menu anyway?
Still, for those who don’t mind the gray mammal that can weigh some seven tons or 14,000 pounds, what happens when you don’t want another bite? When you are sick of leftover elephant, don’t want to see another elephant, when you become nauseous when you hear the word elephant? How many dishes can you make using an elephant? How many times can you open your mouth when you don’t have the appetite, when you cannot stomach another race-related incident?
Oh, yes. Race. That’s the elephant in the room, on the dinner table, passed around and passed over. Yet, we promote it.
Can’t make sense of race but can’t understand ourselves apart from it. Can’t make laws fair because of it but need it to balance the justice system. Can’t love in its presence yet race dictates whom we love and why.
We believe in race and its ability to categorize us, to make sense of us. We believe that it claims us, molds us, shapes us, that race is the potter and there is nothing that we can do about it. We even use race to categorize God and the Church, referring to Christ’s Body in black and white. Apart from Scripture, we use race to determine our righteousness, our worth, to separate the believer from the heathen and to define cultural supremacy.
There is something to gain with this dish so we eat up. This is why it remains an entrée, a local favorite, the chef’s special that is “as American as apple pie.” We do not tire of the taste because we believe that there is nothing else to eat, no one else that we can be. There are toy prizes, privileges and social benefits that come with the elephant meal.
We bite and chew, smile and compliment the cook as if it is the best thing we’ve ever eaten. We mull over and meditate on the social coloring of our flesh and its deification, which is the definition of race, only to come up with the same conclusions. We are good, better and the best of all humanity.
It is not our fault; it is the way that God made us. We cannot help ourselves and we cannot help them. Our hands are tied with a color line, a string attached to centuries of hatred. We are bound to our culture, our people only. It’s natural. We were made to rule other human beings. This is the gospel of race.
But race was not in the beginning with God (Gen. 1.1; John 1.1). This social construct was not a part of the divine group project. That’s a different narrative, a second Genesis. And herein lies my problem with race. It conflicts with what God says about me, my neighbor, my enemy, the immigrant and the stranger.
We Christians know better or at least we should by now. We should know that God loves us better than race suggests or has determined, that God does not judge us according to our outward appearance, that God is not concerned with the shape of our nose, the size of our lips or the texture of our hair, that God does not show favoritism, that in Christ, “there is no Jew or Greek” (1 Sam. 16.7; Rom. 2.11; Col. 3.11; Gal. 3.28). We should know by now that God is bigger than the elephant in the room.
And there are some of us who know the taste all too well, know how the conversation goes: “I hate you. You hate me. Now, what’s next?” They are tired of eating the elephant. So they pass on the conversation, too full to say another word. There are others of us who cannot take another bite and so some push away from the table, ending the conversation. “Check please.” Others of us are asking that the elephant be taken off the menu, banned from establishments that serve the human identity.
Still, the elephant keeps coming, parading itself around the room with more deaths involving European-American police officers and unarmed African-American men and women, more protests, and now we have buried two police officers in New York City and two more were fired upon in Los Angeles. We can’t exactly hide an elephant, ignore its presence, pretend that our senses are not affected, that the room is not a lot smaller because of it.
It is a new year with the same old elephant. There will be new people born with the same big elephant in the room. But we don’t need a new year but a new mind. We must reposition race as the problem, redefine it as the outsider, the one to be marginalized, found on the outskirts of our being.
Race is a wild thought that should not have ever left the minds and mouths of Enlightenment thinkers. It should not have been house-trained, domesticated, legalized, led into the room and placed on a menu for those desiring to satisfy their understanding of human identity and purpose. No, the Church should have spoken up, declaring that we do not live by race but “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4).
Maybe we could change the diet of our thoughts for the New Year and lose the weight of race. And while I am certainly not the surgeon general, I will leave you with this warning: Race is bad for your health. It can cause the death of individuality, separation from God and conflict in cross-cultural relationships.
Put that fork down. Don’t take another bite.