Crossing the Divide: The Fiction of Race Post-Babel

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed time and the boundaries of their dwellings…” Acts 17:26

Readers, I’d like to submit to you that race is an opportunistic fiction. It is a story that European men composed for the purpose of justifying the enslavement of African peoples. It is a novel written on the epidermis of every person, causing melanin to serve as the text we are all forced to read. Race is a socially constructed system of categorization based on superficial biological determinants for the purpose of economic classification. I was not born black. I was born human. Society looked at me and deemed my physical features as belonging to the race called “black.” But Race is no less a fiction than Peter Pan and his lost boys. Welcome to Neverland because Race is not real.

What is real is the daily-lived experiences we have depending on the racial categorization that society has determined we belong to. Racism is real. Racism is the systematic oppression of a particular group of people based on their nationality or the color of their skin. Racism is more than name-calling. It’s more than looks of disdain. Racism is more than unwanted followers in your shadow as you shop. Racism is the lived experience of the socially-deemed inferior that oftentimes ends in a death sentence. Race is the fiction that maintains Racism’s reality.

In the book of Genesis we read that God made Man (humanity) in Their image – male and female. Made from the dust of the ground, there is no Scripture in the Bible that speaks to the physical appearance of the first man and woman. All we know is that they were formed from the soil that surrounded the rivers Pishon, Gidhon, Hiddekel, and the Euphrates. This indicates that the first man and woman lived around what we would consider to be the Middle East: Northeast Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Such knowledge still does not guarantee that they possessed the phenotypical characteristics of those who currently reside in such parts of the world.

The complexion of Adam and Eve remains a mystery to us today and I believe it is the absence of such knowledge that enables us to read their characters instead of their colors. In the same way an unnamed character in a novel is a device an author uses to encourage the reader to see anyone as that character, such erasure of race within humanity’s origin narrative also permits every reader, regardless of heritage, to identify with Adam and Eve’s creation, their Fall, their life, and their death. Because the biblical narrative inhibits us from having any knowledge of how melanin expressed itself on their epidermis, every human being can relate to Adam and Eve’s existence and their experience. At the beginning, Race was not an ingredient used to compose the holistic ontology of humanity. Such reveals that race is not needed for community, solidarity, or even the understanding of human nature. The only thing that is needed for humanity to experience community, solidarity, and the understanding of human nature is membership within the human family.

The book of Genesis goes on to tell us how the human family grew in number, but also in their distance away from God. The sin of their foreparents partnered with their own complicity caused the Antediluvians to drift further and further away from the Creator. This division sin perpetuated between humanity and God caused men and women to follow in the desires of their flesh and disregard the holy, good, and loving nature of God.

Genesis 6:5-6 in the NKJV says,

5Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”

In this passage, the author shares how our thoughts, our words, and our deeds, caused the all knowing, all powerful, and ever-present God to feel like He made a mistake when He made Man. The God who we believe can and does no wrong, who makes no mistakes, here in verse 6 is regretting that He even made Man, to the point of deep grief.

As an act of cleansing, God flooded the entire Earth and aimed to restart the human race with a faithful few who were part of Noah’s family. The descendants of Noah grew and as they multiplied they inhabited the Earth. While humanity’s residence upon the Earth was expanding, they were all ultimately connected by the fact that they all shared one spoken language. This enabled them to build and create as one. At one point the people said,

Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” -Genesis 11:4

Desiring to rise to the Heavens and elevate themselves to the place of God, these children of Noah sought to glorify their own names rather than the name of the Creator. Recognizing the power of a united language, the Bible says,

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” -Genesis 11:5-9

In scattering everyone all over the Earth, God created and instituted difference, diversity. This scattering did not create race.

Some scholars would have you believe that after the dispersal of people to various ends of the Earth that racial variety was thus created. While the tropical, dry, moderate, continental, and polar climates are all environments that affected the skin of the inhabitants differently, producing variations in color and melanin levels, such manifestations do not constitute the classification “Race.” Such merely reveals that when God made Man, He equipped our flesh with the ability to adapt to our environment for survival. Race, then, is man’s attempt to name variation within the human family. This need to identify difference was exponentially heightened during the European Expansion.

Between 1450 and 1750, European explorers traveled across the world “discovering” not just new lands, but new people. With the goal of economic and political conquest in mind these explorers had to validate the slaughter of an entire people, and the enslaving of another. The Irish were one of the first people groups conquered and enslaved. Being similar in appearance, these European Protestants, newly enlightened by Martin Luther’s Reformation, determined the Irish were inferior because they were Catholic.

As colonization continued and European explorers ventured into India, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, Europeans continued to conquer and enslave. But the rule was that only non-Christians could be enslaved. Once a slave converted, they were to be released. This rule proved problematic as both Irish and African slaves began to convert to Christianity. It was at this moment that Europeans found that the most lucrative difference they could capitalize on was humanity’s difference in skin color.

Orchestrating an entire economic system on the purchase and sale of black flesh, Europeans composed the language of Race and finally created a spoken language that all of humanity would use. Now at the peak of globalization, there is no place you can go in the world that does not possess a color caste. There is no country that does not operate on a system of skin-based racial categorization. The language of race is the one spoken language that all of humanity speaks, and it is the one spoken language that has allowed some to climb the tower of social privilege. But they couldn’t even keep their story straight.

Once Race was created, it changed depending on which particular group of people Europeans needed to exercise power over. As stated earlier, the Irish were not always considered White, neither were the Jews, nor the Italians. This is why I can say that Race is an opportunistic fiction. Race is an ever-changing story that those classified as “white” tell so long as it fits their economic and political needs.

Jacqueline Jones, in her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, states, “Race signifies neither a biological fact nor a primal prejudice, and it lacks the coherence of a robust political ideology; rather, it is a collection of fluid, contingent mythologies borne of (among other imperatives) fighting a war, assembling a labor force, advancing the designs of demagogues, organizing a labor union, and preserving voting and public schooling as privileges reserved for some, rather than as rights shared by all” (xi). In other words, it is the one spoken language since humanity’s dispersal that has effectively united us unto disunity.

This means that our first step to crossing the divide of Race is to disavow ourselves from the language of Race. (Let that sink in.) I’m not saying you need to turn away from your culture and heritage. Culture and heritage are the fruit of difference that God intended to birth by scattering humanity to various parts of the earth. What I am saying is that your attachment to the socially constructed classifiers “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” etc. bases your humanity on the color scheme of your epidermis. Genesis shows us that our humanity lies not in the color of our skin, but in the colors of God’s image reflecting within.

The beauty of being human is that my being is a reflection of the very image of God. Yes, my form has had certain experiences that have shaped my worldview and my cultural heritage. But because my humanity roots my very inward parts in the nature and essence of God the experiences my flesh has had, and is attached to, are required to submit to the God who put on flesh – Jesus Christ. When we have a choice to connect and find meaning through the beautiful gift of God’s reflected image in humanity, why do we continue to choose to find our essence, our being, our significance, in a mere cell created to help protect our flesh from UV radiation?

I champion my blackness more than I champion my reflection of the image of God. I defend my blackness more than I defend my reflection of the image of God. I embrace my blackness more than I embrace my reflection of the image of God. This, my friends, is why we cannot be reconciled. This is why we struggle to cross the divide: because we continue to seek to have life and being within the lie.

So long as my identity privileges the sin language of Race, my worldview will never be able to see racial reconciliation as inherent to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ken Wytsma in his latest book The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege says, “A new commitment to abolish walls of division flows out of the incarnation, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (45).

Racial reconciliation is not a trending activity. It is a part of how we walk in discipleship with Jesus Christ. So long as we use the language of Race our attempts at reconciliation will continue to run into the wall of incompatibility. So long as my identity privileges the sin language of Race I can remain in disunity and separation with my brother and believe that I have reconciliation and unity with God. It is in rebuking the sin language of Race and replacing it with the salvation language of Reconciliation that my humanity finds its ontology in the Triune God-head. Such a realization stirs my heart toward the work of racial reconciliation because it is through this lens that a white man ceases to be my oppressor, and becomes my brother.

I leave you with this: if Cliff (my biological brother) ever deceived me, took advantage of me, or even exploited me, at the end of the day the story would still read that he was my brother.

When is the Church going to rise up and speak a language different from that of the world? When is the Church going to rise up and champion a social story that truly unites the human race? When is the Church going to rise up and show the world that our differences exist to simply reveal that God appreciates variety? When is the Church going to rise up and see whiteness and blackness for what they are – adaptations to environment passed down?

It is time we embrace that Race is not real. That Race is a fiction. Such an ideological framework will begin to transform our hearts causing us to see that the other is neither the privileged nor the lazy; the oppressor nor the oppressed. The other is not even “the other.” She who does not look like me is the sister whom God gifted me that I might know Them, God in three, through diversity.

He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…For we are also His offspring.” -Acts 17:26-28

Claudia M. Allen is a third-year PhD Student in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, College Park specializing in 19th and 20th century African American Literature. Her research focuses on Race and Theology within African American Literature. She is an avid speaker and a frequent guest on Hope Channel's Cross Connection. This paper was originally presented at the 2017 Adventists for Social Justice Summit, November 3-5, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / B S K

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8373

I wonder if there have been any studies showing that the various “races” could have evolved to stability within time limits of a young earth. We’re talking about a lot more than melanin here.

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Here’s some good science on the topic. Good read:

This article is on point. If we are truly stand against the lies of satan, this is one that has to be dismantled immediately. The lie of race has permeated the world and racism has stifled the work of spreading the truth of Jesus Christ.

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No it doesn’t. The rivers so named existed BEFORE the flood. The flood destroyed everything, changed the geography, and we have no way of knowing what was there before the flood or where it was. People have forever adhered to the practise of naming their new home territory after the previous one, hence in Australia we have New South Wales, as obviously the settlers thought the area reminded them of South Wales. There are numerous place names taken straight off the map of the UK. Not too far from where I live we even have a Stratford on the river Avon.

So the post flood people named features and places are their home in Eden. Notice that the Tigris (Hiddekel) today doesn’t exactly flow east of Assyria and there is no river Gihon which flows around the whole land of Cush. The geography has changed completely. The post flood inhabitants simply named these places the same names that they were used to, for reasons of memories and comfort.

However the rest of your essay makes good points. Let me simply add that different cultures have different ways of life, some of which are mutually incompatible and highly irritating to each other. And not all of these are value neutral. Some need addressing and arresting (and have been in the past), for example female genital mutilation, sati, cannibalism. So it is completely natural to be uncomfortable about some aspects of another person’s culture. However other aspects bring variety to one’s life.

The mixing of cultures as is happening today needs to happen with discussion, understanding and respect, but all sides need to be prepared to give up some cherished aspect of their culture if it is detrimental.

@vandieman I think you’re not comprehending the full meaning of the English word “fair” especially going back a few hundred years when the KJV and a few others were written. Fair simply meant beautiful, lovely, good, nice etc. It had nothing to do with light or white. Look up Gen 6:2 in Strong’s.

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Astonishing article.
This is needful to repeat: > our first step to crossing the divide of Race is to disavow ourselves from the language of Race To a melanin challenged northern european like me, one whose skin is not evolved for equatorial climes, I welcome and embrace this language. I have often opined - in rather less elegant verbiage, that our continued harping on the scabs formed by past injury (both by the too frequent narrow-souled color-blinded legion evinced by a previous poster and by a minion perhaps conveniently egreged on the other side) ensures we can never heal. The pendulum of power will merely switch poles, back and forth, gaining momentum until it swings over the center pole.

That God enjoys diversity-and created life in untold forms, with innate ability to adapt to its environs has broad implications to much more than mere “race” (word hesitantly used).
Imagine-a God of no limits-of time, space, creativity.
That so preposterously some audaciously would impudently represent God as limited by skin tone (or gender) is so far beyond the pale I cannot comprehend it.

I pray God is a black skinned woman.
And I somehow know she has sufficient grace, even for the oldabes.
I remain convinced that meeting her is the only way some will bend their knee to God,
and if they choose not to, their own choice will separate them from her…

(Thankyou @timteichman, i could not have answered that tripe without excoriation, even if only with a pen)(2nd edit; I can understand why oldeabe comment was deleted, sorry yours was as well. I too well understand web editors/moderators job, but if I could wish two things-which might cancel each other-that first, folks would not entwine their personalities so tightly wound around their too sacred opinions, and thereby be more civil, less acerbic, might I counter Christ like, and second, that Spectrum would examine its chainsaw approach of "one comment’ which serves only to chop the tree before it has even organically grown and branched. These boards could be oh so much more…

@Sirje , thanks for so well stating the essence. I call it a “malingering racism”, when a group seems to refuse its inalienable god-given equal right and instead clings to a complicated historic wrong.

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If genetics is to be trusted, ironically, the human species walked out of Africa as a woman - both groups having to fight for equality through the ages. This makes white skin a genetic mutation; and males genetically weaker (the XY factor). But then, we have Genesis, where Adam came first, and poor Eve was designated as “help-mate”. After the apple incident, Adam has, ever since, fought for superiority, finding himself succumbing to Eve. So we have whole civilizations elevating muscle strength over brain power :wink:.

Racism is economically driven. For a myriad of reasons, white Europeans went searching for economic superiority when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Ever since Marco Polio brought back spices and silk, the race was on. When the church got involved, “the heart of darkness” took over; and in the name of Christian missions, racism spread across the globe.

At this point in time, history has created a black culture that is as much racist as the white culture they are fighting. The American experience will not heal as long as the African American population sees itself as inferior and needy; and the white population keeps trying to pay for the sins of the fathers. Is there a racial divide - of course; but both sides are guilty of feeding it, while politics finds it advantageous to ride it into power.

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i don’t think there can be any question that the scattering of humanity into all parts of the earth, after god created and imposed language variety at the tower of babel, led to the development of the various human phenotypes we see today, and that the mechanism for that development was genetic adaptability to the environment over time…if we look at humanity just a few centuries ago, before the industrial revolution created a middle class, and before inventions in travel led to the kinds of immigration and general population mixing we’re seeing today, the known human races, like indigenous animals and plants, all exhibited genetic mutations that helped them thrive in their relatively fixed environment…that is, their phenotypic characteristics were an index into the environment they were from…

but whether the racism we know today arose as a tool that europeans invented and used to dominate others is a separate question…for one thing, african enslavement has apparently been a 5,000 yr phenomenon, beginning at around 3,000 BC (https://www.newstatesman.com/international-politics/2013/08/should-arab-countries-pay-reparations-slave-trade-too)…in addition, the arab slave trade, involving the enslavement of 28 million africans over 14 centuries - 12 centuries according to some sources - is a relatively well-known phenomenon ( http://originalpeople.org/the-arab-muslim-slave-trade-of-africans-the-untold-story/)…

it is also of interest to note that passages in the old testatment show a definite light-skinned bias in the case of women, where light skin appears to be synonymous with beauty …for instance we read that the righteous line of the antediluvians were attracted to the daughters of their unrighteous counterparts because they were “fair”, Gen 6:2; sarah was a hazard for abraham because her light skin was a magnet for the egyptians, Gen 12:11-20, as well as the philistines, Gen 20: 1-18; rebekah was a hazard for isaac with the philistines for similar reasons, Gen 26:6-11; and miriam’s antipathy against zipporah, moses’ wife was because she was “an ethiopian”, Num 12:1, meaning she had a “darker complexion”, PP:383…

the sad reality is that racism against blacks today appears to be an ongoing, universal phenomenon:








it doesn’t seem as though the need to identify difference during european imperialism is an adequate explanation…is it the case that the whole world hangs onto what europe decides and initiates…

perhaps it is time to quit the identity labels and with it identity politics. we should simply be christians or americans. not hispanic-, black- or african-, white-, native american-, etc.

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Claudia, great piece, but I disagree with the conclusion. I don’t think the path to reconciliation is to disavow the language of race. It is correct that race does not actually exist physiologically or existentially. It is correct that it is a construct. But if it is a construct then the necessary question is “who constructed it?” And “why was it constructed?” You rightly pointed out that it was constructed as a means to justify and create a support system for slavery. I️ would take it further though to say it was not just constructed as a concept, an ideal or as language, but it was constructed with policy, courts and laws. The legal and historical documentation is there that literally shows the evolution of race-based policies and laws being enacted. It was institutionalized, and enforced by law! So today white supremacy lives on, not just in the infamous exploits of Neo-Nazis and KKK advocates, but it lives on in policies of housing discrimination, voting rights laws, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. The path to reconciliation then is not simply a disavowment of the language, but it must be a destruction of the laws and policies that perpetuate the reality of white supremacy in this country.

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Such a courageous article, Claudia. Revolutionary, really.

My mind is ajumble after reading it.

I would so like to see you dialogue one-on-one with some other Spectrum writers who come from a different point of view, as I’m afraid I would come across as racially insensitive if I started saying that “race is a fiction.”

I know that race is not a fiction, but a fixture, in our culture; and yet you’re saying, with Paul, “Don’t let the world press you into its mold.”

That is truly radical Christianity, and I am very cognizant that in taking this stand, you have shouldered a very heavy Cross. I am in awe, really.

We need visionaries like you, Claudia.

This problem has existed for a long time. Teddy Roosevelt spoke against it over 100 years ago, decrying the whole idea of “hyphenated Americans.” Only in his day it was Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and so on. We’re repeating this foolishness today with “African-Americans,” for example. British Blacks don’t like being called that; and neither do Carribean Blacks. All these labels do is perpetuate division.

The hyphenated label always bothered me as well, Groucho, until I started asking the individuals involved to tell me their story, a portion of which was that the names that were assigned them by the majority were always pejoratively used.

One could argue that they should be happy to assume the simple name, American, and in part they are, but They were once Africans dragged here against their will, abominably treated and their race assigned various derogatory names by their captors, masters, or owners, then expected to delight in and keep those names post emancipation.

Or they were native to this continent, their ranks depleted through genocide and european diseases, then herded together onto “reservations” that in most cases were the least arable and productive land available. Time after time after time their treaties were broken and are still being broken to this day. They also were assigned names by their conquerers, because indeed that’s what we were, that robbed them of their identity as a people and that also were used pejoratively against them.

Would you prefer to keep an assigned identity in which you found only hurt and painful memories? Think about it carefully.

So what IS the answer? It’s all in the past, you say. Time to move on and accept the name American. But they are also a people who wish, to some degree, to maintain their identity as a people, part of which is in the name. Why would we, why would anyone begrudge them a name of their choosing?

The only possible answer to that question is either open bigotry or ignorance. My contention is that there is far more division perpetuated by demanding a people accept the label “American” than there is in them wishing to maintain some kind of identity as a people while acknowledging that they are now also American as well as African or Native.

I believe this debate stems from a very uncomfortable and unhealthy place within us who are of European decent that perhaps we might wish to work on, maybe even get on our knees about.

We’re all from Africa. So, we are all African-Americans.

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