PRE-POST-RACIAL AMERICA: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines. By Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2015. 154 pages.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 many Americans proclaimed that we had moved as a country into a post-racial era. They declared that we had finally crossed the river into a new land where Martin Luther King's vision of a day when people would be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. For many White Americans, this election meant that we no longer had to deal with issues of race. One more social issue had been crossed off the list. If you've been watching the news over the past six years you may have discerned that we may not have moved as far into this new land as many thought. While we’re not in the same place regarding race as we were in 1963—most of the legal barriers in place then have been overturned—our society remains largely segregated and racial tensions remain strong. This is especially in the church.
When I write on and reflect on issues of race and ethnicity, I must acknowledge my own social location. I am white, middle-class, male, and highly educated. I benefit from certain privileges that others who don’t share my social location can’t take for granted. At the same time, it is important that I become sensitized about the realities that others do confront every day of their lives. While some proclaim that they are “color-blind,” that they don’t pay attention to the color of someone else’s skin, such is not the case. Besides, color-blindness isn’t seen as a normal/normative condition. It is a malady that some suffer from. As for being a “melting pot,” well isn’t it better to use an analogy that celebrates the gifts of our differences. One of the blessings of living in the United States is our diversity. Of course, until recently diversity was tolerated by the majority because it was the province of a small minority. But that is no longer the case. We’re moving quickly to a time when European Americans no longer represent an absolute majority. That can be frightening for some.
It is this growing reality that Sandhya Jha, a Disciples minister and activist who comes from a mixed race family, addresses. Jha currently serves as director of the Oakland Peace Center and serves as an anti-racism trainer for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
While we’re certainly not a post-racial society, we might very well refer to a "pre-post-racial America.” As is often the case in America the story of race and ethnicity is complicated. Until recently the guiding principle was assimilation, which was something that European Americans found relatively easy to do (even if they wanted to keep some of their cultural distinctive). Persons of color could never join the “majority club,” because they didn’t look the part. That is still true in America. Of course there is a phenomenon that is challenging the way we define race and ethnicity. Growing numbers of Americans come from mixed race families. In the past people had to choose an identity—though for many this identity was chosen for them. Thus, even though President Obama comes from a mixed race family, he has found it necessary to identify as African American. Such identifications aren't always easy for us to comprehend. For instance, each year when I fill out the demographic report for the denomination there isn't a Mixed race category, just "other." So how do you choose to identify yourself?
The author of this book under review, Sandhya Jha, has chosen to identify as mixed race. Although due to being lighter skinned she can pass as white (especially since she has red hair thanks to the Indian contribution of henna as a hair dye), she shares two ethnic heritages. Her father is Indian and Hindu. Her mother is Scottish and Christian. Religiously she has followed the Christian tradition, but respects her father's religion. It is from this perspective that Sandhya writes this wonderfully powerful book for the church.
In the course of the book she takes from the Civil Rights Movement of fifty years in the past to the present situation. We are invited to wrestle with immigration, the stereotype of the angry black man, the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner (where are you from?), class issues, race and religion post 9/11, and more. For some of us the most important chapter may be the one where she deals with the issue of white privilege and how this is navigated. As one who is white and male, I appreciated her challenging but compassionate discussion of this issue. While we who are White benefit from certain privileges that we never asked for but have received anyway, we often feel uncomfortable talking about them. As she continues on she speaks to the challenges of living in a mixed race context, and what she calls the oppression Olympics. What is this? Well it has to do with the way in which minority communities are often pitted against each other. In this regard, she seeks to move us toward a more integrated self and an intersectional faith. What is intersectional faith? Well, it has to do with the fact that there are likely many layers to our lives, which intersect to form our identity, including our spiritual identity. These include things like gender, ethnicity, social class, religion, orientation, and more. While it is important to name these intersections, we also must move beyond them, so that they don't limit us.
The goal to which we are hopefully moving is the creation of the Beloved Community. Martin Luther King spoke of this, and I believe that Jesus himself envisioned it. What is this Beloved Community? Sandhya Jha writes that for her it is "where you and I get to express the complexity of who we are and share the richness of our gifts with one another in ways that benefit the whole community" ((p. 152). Beloved community emerges when we begin to listen to each other's stories, both the beautiful and the painful stories, and recognize our brokenness so as to find healing. In many ways we're not there, but that doesn't mean we can't move toward this vision, even as we seek to navigate life in "pre-post-racial America."
This is a powerful book that uncovers the richness of America’s diverse populations. While it is uncomfortable at points to read this as a person of privilege, and yes I benefit from White Privilege, Sandhya doesn’t allow us to wallow in guilt. The point is not to feel guilty about something I have little control over, but to move in a direction of listening, learning, and partnering. My ability to do this depends on my recognition that I have certain benefits due to my race, gender, and educational standing. Speaking from my own social location, I am greatly appreciative of Sandhya's message. At points it is a difficult message to hear, but at the same time she offers a word of hope for the future. That is a gift to be received!