This is a letter to my son that I am not sure he will understand now, but one that I hope will provide clarity during times of confusion and exclusion. It is also a letter for a world that in so many ways wants something different, but cannot imagine how complicit it is in keeping those hopes from becoming realized.
To my beloved son,
You were only 10 when you saw that American miracle, Barack Obama, sworn into office as president of the United States of America. Innocence seemed to be reclaimed in that moment as so many heard, in the president’s oath, centuries of guilt absolved. “To a post-racial future!” some exclaimed, hopeful for a unity that seemed difficult to grasp even in our so-called enlightened time.
And yet, two years later, you have come to discover the true “Curse of Ham,” the refusal of difference that ferments beneath the surface of every society and that reveals us all to be more savage than civil. You have now glimpsed just how much we humans thrive on difference, how we seek it out even in its most subtle forms, and that 7th-graders seem particularly adept at abusing it!
But, as these realities seem so often to reveal, our present is never quite the simple repetition of the past. You, the child of a mulatto man and a Korean-American mother, are the sum of many parts, places, stories, and possibilities. In so many ways you encapsulate what many people wish for when they imagine a “post-racial” hope.
It has pained me so to see you discover that post-racial is, in sad fact, simply a poor recalibration of an awkward arrangement made long, long ago when there were only whites and coloreds. You have stumbled into a world where a few white boys will exclude you, call you black because you are not white, and a Latino can call you a nigger without the slightest hesitation, his ignorance and his malice equally heinous offenses.
So here you are, in post-racial America.
This does not have to be the end of the story, the end of our possibilities. But you should know the world you have entered and what peculiar space you occupy. Welcome to the nebulous space of the “inter”—the in-between, the not-quite—to racial ambiguity.
In the first 12 years of your life, the question about “what you were” was a pleasantry, a curiosity. But now those innocent questions have more attached than you realized—whether it’s not looking Asian enough to be easily absorbed into the Asian table, not dark enough to find a home among African-Americans, or, as some told you to your face, too dark to be white. Welcome, son, to the neither/nor.
You are not the first and not the last to feel the constriction of this space. In fact, you are now a second-generation “in-betweener,” and sadly the world some of us hoped would emerge, where the curiosity of the mulatto, the half-breed, would be no more, has not appeared.
If left to ourselves perhaps we could hope for the space to become true individuals, to become our full selves apart from what others desire us to be, to be free of the chains of cultural expectation.
But our world is not a world of endless possibilities and autonomous individuals. You and I are bound to each other. You and I are bound to those who refuse us and those who welcome us. All of these histories, realities, wellsprings of cultural achievement and tragedy flow through your veins, in your face.
You and I are people of the in-between, people who cannot easily seek to be simply “who we are” because our “who” is inexplicable without these peoples. Our life is not our own. We belong to many peoples, but above all we belong to God (Of course you knew this was coming!). This makes us, as some Christians have said, “foreigners in every fatherland, and in every foreign land, a citizen.”
If being post-racial means anything, perhaps it is this: that we are always at home, and we are never home. If being a Christian means anything, it is that we are always at home, and we are never home, and because of this, the exclusion and the refusals we so often endure are never the entirety of our lives.
Much, much love,
Brian Bantum is an assistant professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University and the author of Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010). He lives in Seattle, Wash., with his wife, Gail Song Bantum D’09 and their three children. This essay was published in Stony Roads , the blog of the Office of Black Church Studies.