In the past few years I have tried to go outside of my comfort zone and get to knows a few teenagers in our community and school district, even mentoring them when I’m able. A high school girl of color I was talking with started joking around, not even realizing the implications of what she was asking:
“Were Adam and Eve black?”
“Yeah, that’s very possible.”
“What?! Adam and Eve weren’t white???”
“No, definitely not. They were some kind of brown, probably either African or Middle Eastern. But they definitely weren’t white. Actually, Jesus wasn’t white either.”
“So how come in all the pictures they’re white?”
“Because white people drew them.”
And in that moment, in my own simple answer to her simple question, I finally understood the privilege I’ve experienced in my life.
I’d always thought of the whole race issue as being complicated, but yet fairly straightforward underneath. I already knew that white people typically (but not always) have a head start in life due to socioeconomic factors, inherited cultural values, and family situations. I knew that much of the time white people don’t have to work as hard to prove their professionalism or their honesty. I knew that I was privileged, but I’d never truly understood how it goes beyond socioeconomic status.
When I thought about it, I started to realize the significance of racial relatability and power. For hundreds of years, white people have been in control of the information western society receives about historical, Biblical, and current events. White people have also been producing most of our art, music, fictional books, and movies.
That’s a big responsibility, and instead of using it wisely and fairly, we used our power to twist public perception. We misled the world about the racial makeup of humanity. Instead of presenting the facts and honoring different races, we lied. We lied about Jesus. We lied about Adam and Eve. We lied about history. We lied about discrimination. We would rather lie to make white people look better than faithfully represent the truth.
Why am I saying “we” when I really had nothing to do with the portrayal of Adam and Eve? Because it’s time that I took responsibility for the role that my race has played in this issue, and not just on the large scale. It’s time I took responsibility for the small but still significant ways that I contribute to the problem. Most importantly, I say “we”, because by identifying myself and my people group as being part of the problem, I am identifying myself as being necessary to the change.
Do we white people even realize what we have done? Probably not, because as white people, we barely notice that anything is wrong. It seems fine to us, because this twisted reality actually fits our reality.
It could be easy to make excuses, to say it’s not really like that. It would be so easy to say that artists and writers paint and write what they know, and that’s why Jesus and Adam were always white. It could even be said that there are two sides to the historical stories. It would be even easier to dismiss the whole thing and say, “It’s just art.”
But I don’t think that’s fair to the girl who asked me that question. I don’t think it’s fair to all the brown people of african, asian, latino, native american, and middle eastern descent who make up the majority of the world’s population. Actually, I don’t think it’s fair to white people either, because we’re missing out on so much beauty, perspective, and culture in life.
I’m pained when I think about the fact that non-white kids in my community have almost no one of their own race to look up to and who can honestly present the facts to them. I feel their disinterest in literature when I realize that all the books I read have main characters that are white. I get angry when I remember it’s because of my own race that they didn’t know that Adam and Eve looked more like them than me.
We need more people to write, paint, and create the truth. We need black people, asian people, and all races to give the world their perspective. We need people of color in the media, presenting our news. We need them writing our history books and our classic literature. We need to see the world through the lens of their cameras.
We need them to create art of a brown Adam and Eve.
I had told that high school girl I would look up the answer for her, so a couple weeks later I found her again. This time I had an article that discussed some of the genetics and natural selection involved in creating race. I hoped to be honest with her, but also to inspire her.
“I did some research for you. There’s obviously no way to know for sure, but it looks like Adam and Eve were probably a middle brown color. People who are middle brown have the genetics for both very light and very dark skin so they would have been able to have both white and black children.”
“Thanks!” she said brightly.
“That article says at this point there’s no real difference between the races, so it shouldn’t matter. But yet it does matter and I think it’s stupid. We need your voice and your perspective.”
“Thanks,” she said seriously, sincerely, quietly.
At first that was the end of the discussion. But that conversation paved the way for another conversation about her singing and song writing talents, I encouraged her to pursue her singing, not only because she’s a great singer, but also simply because the world needs to hear her story. The world needs the perspective of young women of color like her. Maybe as an adult she will be a part of presenting the truth to the world or creating art and music that honors perspective and racial diversity. I hope so.
We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. People of color can begin to share their perspective through art, music, and writing, and everyone, especially white people, can start to listen. We can buy the music, read the books, and not ignore black voices. We can use our privilege to empower others.
Real societal change happens in life-on-life relationships and in the everyday heroism of speaking and listening, not just in legislation. That kind of organic change takes much more work, but if each of us worked towards this goal every day, maybe we really could change the world and make one where all races have influence.
Featured Image: The Fall of Man, Hendrick Goltzius, 1616.