As a child, my parents encouraged me to journal. This was pre-Internet, before blogs; at the time, it was popular for kids to scribble their private thoughts in padlocked diaries at bedtime. I doodled cartoons and wrote bad jokes or riddles. I also mulled over broader philosophical questions and I thought a lot about race. “Race is mankind’s greatest question,” I jotted down, “and knowing mankind, there is no answer.” Maybe it was around the LA Riots in 1992 or perhaps I had just learned about Vincent Chin or the internment camps, but I wasn’t unique in wondering these things. As we grow up, we are confronted with the stark reality of race, a reality that we chew and digest for the rest of our lives. Even when I speak to my own children about race, they are confused. Why are we designed in different colors? Especially when those categories are so politically charged and can cause division and injury?
My brother Larry, a pastor in Boston, was on the sidewalk. “Hey, Chinese guy!” this man yelled. “Are you gonna cross the road or do Kung-Fu?” Instead of picking a fight or swallowing the remark, Larry approached the driver with a word of introduction. It wasn’t until they were talking that Larry realized the man was wearing a The Hundreds hat. Over the course of a patient conversation, they actually became friendly. As he was driving off, the man told my brother, “Only real gangsters can wear The Hundreds!”
Sometimes, this anecdote reads as hopeful, sometimes I laugh at the absurdity. But mostly, I’m infuriated. Why did this dude feel the need to level a stranger like that? As I write about in my book, racism abbreviates a complete human being. I think that’s why it’s so viscerally repulsive. It’s beyond ignorant and uneducated. It’s against our nature.
I’m older now and as lost as ever on why race exists. Sure, it provides community and endows people with a firm, distinct identity. But, perhaps race also gives people a reason to cross the street and meet at an intersection. I think about the world that white supremacists want and the homogeneity sounds incredibly boring, if not depressing. Race, meanwhile, is an immediate distinction between you and another person, one that can be a curious unknown. What if differences aren’t meant to keep apart, but to coaelsce? What if borders between nations aren’t there to demarcate, but to bind together? All these years later and I’m in the same place. I do have to say, however, that I was wrong about knowing mankind there would be no answer. I think mankind IS the answer.