Navigating the Illusion of Race

How a comprehensive understanding deflates its power

Lucretia Berry  •  August 8, 2023 

“We didn’t know if you’d be a boy or girl, but we knew you’d be Black!” 

As a child, I heard this phrase a number of times. It speaks to the significance of racial identity – to the certainty and weight of race in our society. It’s a slap in the face of race-colorblind ideology, which asks us to pretend that race has not played a major role in shaping our nation’s social, economic, and political landscape

“…, but we knew you’d be Black” references the centrality of race in shaping not only culture, but expectations and outcomes. In other words, being Black is essential to my identity and lived experience.  Growing up, I never thought to  question this notion. My world was Black and White. From my worldview, White people, culture, and expression was simply the background noise to Black people, culture, and expression, which for me was the norm – the default. But when as a graduate student, I was invited to take an education course on anti-racism, my assumptions about race could no longer go unchallenged and remain intact. 

Currently, at the beginning of each new school year, I ask my high school students, “What is race?” to which I usually get, “race is your skin color,” or “race is what you look like.”  I then lead them on a lengthy journey over several weeks, where we slowly, meticulously, with precision unpack and understand what *race actually is. 

Race defined:

Race is a socially and politically constructed category used to classify groups of people based on presumed shared physical and biological characteristics. It emerged historically as a product of colonial expansion and enslavement by European nations, where it was initially defined by class inequalities rather than solely by skin color (for example, the English defined the Irish as a “lower” race). Over time, race evolved into a system where people of color were considered “lower” races, perpetuating a racial hierarchy that granted power and privilege to White people, who considered themselves the norm (non-raced).

Contrary to its early historical roots, race later was assigned to skin color as a defining factor in order to solidify a racial hierarchy and institutionalize unequal relationships between differently racialized people groups. White Europeans used “whiteness” as the standard of humanity and the pinnacle of human achievement, establishing race as a means to assign human worth and social status. Consequently, racial identities are enforced upon individuals, assuming they reflect their ancestral heritage.

The most significant societal consequence of race lies in its role in legitimating disparities in wealth, opportunities, and access to valuable resources. Despite being devoid of biological validity, racial distinctions have acquired social significance through continuous enactment in various spheres of life, encompassing stigmas, exclusionary policies, microaggressions, and the establishment or absence of adequate laws.

It is imperative to comprehend that race is not biologically real but rather a construct forged through legal, public policy, and social practices. Its influence persists, perpetuating systems of inequality and shaping human interactions and experiences.

Comprehending race involves a critical examination of its historical origins, its impact on contemporary society, and the potential for racial categorizations to be reappropriated and utilized as forms of resistance by marginalized communities. 

Berry family in Havana, Cuba

Once I understood that race is NOT my phenotype – what I look like – but the notions, ideas, and social practices imposed on my phenotype, I could no longer allow it to maintain precedence over my whole identity. I was compelled to navigate the complexities of race, acknowledging its origins in oppressive contexts while also recognizing its role as a tool for empowerment and social change when reclaimed by the Black community and culture. 

I now see race as a weak idea with a powerful, long-lasting impact. When we refuse to dissect and address its intricate manifestations, race oversimplifies the essence of who we are collectively and as individuals. Questioning and challenging racial assumptions gave me permission to see more of me – who I am beyond the racial imposition, to acknowledge identities that transcend racial categories, and allow these identities to take up far more space than race. 

I am an introvert.

I am a woman.

I am brilliant.

I am a mystic.

I am a wife.

I am a mom.

I am an enneagram one/two.

I am a manifesting generator.

I am an author whose words bring hope and healing to millions of people. 

I am Black. 

Forsaking the intentionality of race also allows me to see the humanity of those who are not in my racial category. Not to be equated with race-colorblindness, I see the work that race has done to distort our human family, contorting us into specious outsiders, but I also hold space for the whole person. For me, classifying our twenty-one years of marriage as ‘interracial’ feels asinine. The illusion of race is so powerful that when two people like my husband and I are winning at love and life, our hyper racialized society denotes that the socio-political construct stake its claim in the relationship. Nonsense!

*A comprehensive understanding of race necessitates a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating perspectives from sociology, anthropology, history, and other related fields.

Lucretia is a wife, mom of three, and a former college professor, who founded Brownicity with the purpose of making scholarly-informed, antiracism education accessible in order to inspire a culture of true belonging and justice for all. Her 2017 TED Talk, ‘Children will light up the world if we don’t keep them in the dark’ is well received, as well as her books and courses: