“Transcending race” (fl. 1964- ), strictly speaking, means rising above one’s race. In practice in the US, though, it is mainly said of famous Black people who have become Whitewashed enough to be “safe” for Whites to admire.
The Whitewash can be applied in one of two ways:
- By Whites who choose to remember certain things and forget others to make the Black person in question safe enough to admire without having to question their own Whiteness.
- examples: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Martin Luther King Jr.
- aka: being sanitized by White people.
- By Blacks to make themselves more appealing to Whites.
- examples: Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Whitney Houston, Gwendolyn Brooks in the 1950s, Anatole Broyard.
- aka: crossing over, selling out, passing.
Either way, race is not being transcended. Instead Whiteness is being more nearly approached.
The underlying message is Black inferiority: that there is something wrong with being Black, that one cannot be fully human and fully Black at the same time. It is like “You are pretty for a Black girl” or “You are not like other Blacks.”
Whites are rarely expected to “transcend race”. Obama is expected to “transcend race” to become the president of “all Americans”. Black Lives Matter protesters are expected to say “All Lives Matter”. But this is the first page on the Internet to say: “Hillary Clinton should transcend race.” It is almost an unthinkable thought.
Whiteness is not seen as something to transcend. Whiteness is universal, neutral, colourless, raceless, the Default. It is the measure of all, not in need of transcendence. It is other races which are limited, found wanting, lacking in full humanity. Whites see them through a deficiency model, a self-serving way for them to remain blind to the effects of their own racism, their own deficiency, their own lack of humanity. If anyone is in need of transcendence it is White people.
But can race be transcended? In the US, in this age?
- Ask the race transcenders themselves, like Obama, Oprah or O.J. They have hardly escaped racism.
- Ask anyone who has passed for another race. Rachel Dolezal was able to pass as Black, but she hardly transcended race. She just changed colour. The same for Anatole Broyard.
- Ask mixed-race people or Korean adoptees. Have they transcended race?
- Ask anyone who thinks of themselves as colour-blind or raceless or “just American” or “just me” or “just a human being” or “Christian”. Being blind to race in the US leads not to transcendence but to becoming its fool.
The closest thing I know of is when Black Americans go to France, like James Baldwin, Gordon Parks or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or when Malcolm went to Mecca. But James Baldwin himself would be the first to tell you that you cannot escape the history that created you simply with a plane ticket, that those who try to run from their history become its greatest prisoners.
– Abagond, 2016.
- racelessness / race conscious
- growing up Latino
- being universal
- White Default
- Anatole Broyard
- Rachel Dolezal
- Korean adoptees
- Gordon Parks
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- James Baldwin