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  • Zachary Green

Racial Inquiry: A Question of Common Humanity and Unique Individuality

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

- Langston Hughes

In this moment of racial awakening, the urgency to “get it right, right now” can often create a rush that crushes any degree of nuance in the discourse. We become like a broken-winged bird whose flight is cut short by even the slightest deviation from course. Why are we not fully listening to each other? Why not find another way?

Racial Inquiry (RI) is an answer, but it is certainly not the answer. Indeed, RI is an approach to personal and organizational leadership development as well as racial equity dialogue that is not for the faint of heart. It is not recommended for the newly “woke” or those who lack agility in navigating their fragility. While RI has various general learning applications, it an orientation to racial equity work that demands a reckoning with oneself as well as an unflinching willingness to encounter “the other” — including when that other is the shadow within ourselves. The primary characteristic of RI is a stance of curiosity about the relative role of race in situations that we face personally or professionally. This approach acknowledges the centrality of systemic racism in nearly any context that is given focus. As such, issues of power and privilege related to race are not subject to debate. RI begins with the presumption that such core tenets have been explored deeply and personally, even if ambivalently. RI asks for a different level of action-oriented, deliberative dialogue where the effort and energy is no longer placed on offering evidence on how there are inequities in how we treat one another and how such inequities are related to race. No time is devoted to presenting the data to educate parties about the degree of disparity that is present in access to opportunities. There is little attention given to the incredulity that comes when the nature of scrutiny and sense of security as a lived reality as a function of race is voiced. There is no illusion or confusion about whether implicit bias, microaggression, and discrimination based in racial attitudes are present in a dynamic. The RI difference begins with the acknowledgement that such elements of racism are givens. The work of RI is to transform the impact of such racism on personal development and professional attainment. RI places the emphasis on a process of ever-emergent learning that moves beyond known and cherished narratives to create the conditions for practices that change the place and face of race in our behaviors and lived experience.

At present many efforts that take an equity mindset to dismantle systemic racism rooted in white supremacy may also serve unwittingly to perpetuate this process. The degree of racial trauma experienced by Black Americans is undeniable and well-documented. From an RI perspective, the urgency of contemporary efforts to rapidly educate whiteness about blackness leave out a corresponding inquiry. The question of whether our racial constructions are real in the first place is left largely unanswered. RI incorporates and expands beyond the current diversity, equity and inclusion approaches. The central question in RI thereby becomes one where what we call “race” remains a core subject of exploration as we also embrace a deeper inquiry into the complexities of our relationships to one another and within ourselves.

The objections to raising even this basic inquiry are understandable and predictable. The strongest such argument is that the windows of opportunity to have race, and anti-Black racism in particular, garner such full attention by so much of the populace rare. History teaches us that we will likely need to wait for another 50 year cycle before we again see such depth of focus on race. RI recognizes that evidence of social and historical oppression based in race is irrefutable. The lived experiences of Black Americans now and for centuries are rooted in surviving and thriving in the face of a dominance culture where violent degradation, debilitating exploitation, and sanctioned discrimination remain normative. We see the impact of these pernicious practices in racial disparities. Data on wealth and economic prosperity, infant mortality and life expectancy, education and incarceration, reveal that quality of life indicators for Black Americans lag well below those of whites. Yet, it is precisely this continued attention on such factors without the corresponding inquiry into why that reinforces imagery of white supremacy. RI does not suggest color-blindness. More directly, RI calls on color mindfulness whereby there is the practice of releasing attachment to the embedded assumptions, beliefs, constructions, history, polarities, and even aspects of ascribed identity based in race. In short, RI sees color and recognizes it representation in human interactions while questioning the ways race is made essential, central, and exceptional in determining how we live into who we are. In short, RI acknowledges systemic racism and the need to dismantle the white supremacy patriarchy that promulgates it. RI asks what now?

At present there is investment in the use of whiteness and blackness to reify identities and affirm realities. RI invites us to continue to hold these identities AND asks the question about how do we begin to define ourselves, our identities, and our relationships to one another differently. RI does not seek to deny the presence of race but does entreat us to make efforts to begin inquiry into and beyond race. What RI holds to be more essential than race is both common humanity and unique individuality. Race alone, from an RI perspective, delimits all parties who subscribe to such singularity of identity of our personal agency beyond learned and prevailing narratives. RI invites us to explore other dimensions of self-definition as well as set an intention to see race and more in our relationship to others — perhaps to the point of seeing ourselves in them; and they allowed to see themselves in us. Further RI seeks to ignite discovery of our particular talents, capacities, and abilities to encounter a world of our own creation. RI takes the default off of experience and simply asks, “what else” may be present.

In writing about Racial Inquiry, there is a recognition already of how this thinking has the potential of being abused and misused. Some will critique it as minimizing the impact of power and privilege on Black Americans or the larger Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) collective. Some will use this model and skip the required work and difficult conversations about racism, trauma, and reparations that are presumed before beginning RI. Others will see RI as an apologist treatise that is suggesting that race does not matter and is simply touting the “all lives matter” mantra in different words. Even more disturbing is that some will see the premise of Racial Inquiry being one that excuses us from discussing race — moving on to the part about common humanity and unique individuality without inquiring into systemic racism, patriarchy, hegemony, and white supremacy. If any of these uses of this framework are present, then the practice is other than Racial Inquiry.

Racial Inquiry sees such critiques as evidence of an investment in keeping things as they are, recycling the well-worn chosen narratives, and denying ourselves the opportunity to question our own behavior beyond the known and the familiar. RI requires courage to look directly at what already is to see what also may be.

Please, in our next conversations on race, may we take a moment to notice what we are saying. Please find the stillness and substance beyond the automatic and well-practiced remarks. Let’s allow ourselves to embark on a new journey — and ask ourselves these questions:

“Why am I saying this now?”

“How did I come to believe it?”

“Why not a different way?”

In these questions, we begin Racial Inquiry. As we continue to ask why the face of race will change, beginning with our own.

“Some…see things as they are and say ‘Why’? I dream things that never were and say ‘Why Not’?”

- George Bernard Shaw

Previously posted on on July 13, 2020.

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