For the past few days, I’ve been very focused on the story of Rachel Dolezal, the woman in Washington who has passed for a black woman for many years. You can see this in my recent blog posts. Why are we, as a country, so interested in this? Some suggest that it is because she lied. However, politicians lie all the time. So much so that there is the old joke:
How do you know if a politician is lying?
His lips are moving.
So, I don’t buy that it is because she is lying. Some of this may be because it is manufactured by conservative bloggers, who seem to dislike anyone who works for civil rights. Conservative blogs appear to be really enjoying this. Some of this may be because of issues of cultural appropriation. Although, when you look at it, it appears as if her she has appropriated much less and is much more friendly to the culture she is adopting from than so much cultural appropriation we see today.
For me, perhaps the biggest issue is one of identity. How do we identify ourselves? Black? White? Male? Female? Straight? Gay? There are many labels we can use on ourselves. There are many labels we can use on others and others can use on us. Yet these labels may not always feel right. We may feel that our real gender is different than our biological gender. We may feel that our sexual orientation is different from what is dominant in the culture. Perhaps, we may feel that our race or ethnicity is different from the race or ethnicity we were born into.
As an aside, it is curious to think about how social media is feeding this. As I write this, my youngest daughter says, “Can you guess what decade I belong in?” She had just completed one of those many quizzes that suggest our identity might be different from how we were born. Social media is telling us about the fluidity of identity.
Add to this, advertising. If we want an identity that will be accepted by others, all we have to do is buy the right products to look darker, lighter, have straighter or curlier hair, wear the right clothes, etc.
Recently, I’ve had some experiences that have gotten me thinking about my identity. Who am I, really? What do I desire? How does this relate to how people see me? How does this relate to how God sees me? How does what I desire relate to what God desires for me?
In one book I’m currently reading, “The Wounding and Healing of Desire” has a great line, “It is the wisdom of Christianity to understand that we are so wounded we do not know who we are.”
Now some people will suggest that at least we know who someone’s parents are. To go back to Rachel Dolezal, her biological parents are both white and say she is white. Yet this comes back to another idea from Christianity.
In Mark 3:33-35 Jesus says, ""Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.""
I would imagine that for her, and for many of us, doing the will of God means, at least in part, fighting for civil rights. Who is Rachel's father? Whoever fights for civil rights. Yes, Rachel perhaps has many black fathers.
Here, I will go to another verse. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “To the weak I became weak in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some of them.”
So, by becoming black, Rachel is standing in the tradition of the Apostle Paul.
Then, there is the artist angle. Rachel received her Masters of Fine Arts from Howard University as a white woman married to a black man. One aspect of art is to get people to look at the world around them in a different way. As a piece of performance art, intentional or unintentional, Rachel has excelled in this, propelling the discussion about the social construction of race into the limelight. This is an area I’m especially hopeful about. By getting more people to think about racial identity, she may do more than all the handwringing Facebook posts about police brutality.
This gets to why what she has done is so radical. It joins with a great Christian and artistic tradition of challenging the way we see the world, in the way we understand our identity, and ultimately, in the way we live.
Perhaps it comes from a position of white privilege. Perhaps it comes my interest in post structural thought, but I’m fascinated, even optimistic, and not offended by Rachel Dolezal saying that she considers herself black. I’ve been having lots of discussions about this topic, intermingled with discussions about police brutality, on Facebook, and I want to explore these a little more deeply here.
One friend wrote, “We must acknowledge the issues of taking on someone else's race is deeply offensive to some people, and those feelings are valid, especially with the social inequalities that still exist across ethnic and skin color lines.”
This was in a discussion about comparing Rachel Dolezal taking on blackness, with Bruce Jenner taking on femaleness. I acknowledge that some people can be deeply offended by others taking on their race, or gender, and that these feelings are valid. However, I don’t feel any sense of ownership of my race, gender, or culture. Again, this may come from my place of white privilege.
To me, the discussion about the nature of our racial constructs is important and an area where I am most optimistic. What is it that makes someone ‘black’? Is it how you consider yourself? Rachel says she considers herself black. Is it how others consider yourself? I don’t know the details, but it seems like many people considered her black, at least until her estranged parents spoke up. Does it have something to do with a legal definition of being black?
If we go back to famous law cases, we have Plessy v. Feguson which found that if you were one eighth black, you were still black. There were also the cases around the Naturalization Act of 1906 requiring people to be ‘white’ to be eligible for naturalization. This excluded people from Asia and India. Even Rachel’s critics note that she has “traces of Native American ancestry” and isn’t purely white.
My mind goes back to the ‘one-drop’ rule, the idea that having one drop of black blood in you, of having one ancestor from Africa makes you black. If you look at early human migrations, it seems like we all have ancestors from Africa.
Then, there is the famous scene from Show Boat. Steve swallows blood from his wife’s hand. His wife, a mulatto, has been passing as white. The sheriff is coming to arrest him for being a white man, married to a black woman. Yet now, he has more than a drop of black blood in him and dodges the charges.
Does Rachel have ‘black blood’? Perhaps from her ex-husband, who is African American, their son, or her adopted black brother. Is blackness based on experiences instead of ancestry? Like her experiences as a graduate student at Howard University or working for civil rights?
Is blackness something that can be adopted? Appropriated? Is appropriation good or bad?
This brings me to a second issue. We tend to look at things in a binary manner, black and white, as it were. Good or bad, male or female, straight or gay, black or white. Yet reality is much more nuanced. Myers Briggs tests don’t say that we are introverted or extroverted, they say how introverted and how extroverted we are. It is a continuum. Many suggest that the same applies to sexual orientation, and clearly when you consider people of mixed race, there is a continuum there, not to mention the continuum of how dark or light skinned you are.
Perhaps, by getting people to understand that race is a social construct based on many variables, including family history, skin color, shared experiences, we can change the construct, we can get more people to embrace their commonality with others with different skin colors. Perhaps we can bring equity to issues around health, around policing, and around so many other factors that confer privileges on people with lighter colored skin and present challenges to people with darker colored skin.
Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook
What do you think? Yesterday I said, "racism makes "good" people do "hate-filled" things." I believe there are different kinds of racists -- some are conscious and focused, cruel people (whom I can't do much with) but many are oblivious and unaware. Yes, some of my "friends" are naively racist. They are good people raised in non-integrated environments who go to church, try to do right, but have absorbed dominant culture ways around people of color. They have lived an unexamined life when it comes to race and might hold their purse tighter when the unknown black man gets on the elevator. Do you think good people can be racists? Perhaps I need to hold on to hope.
In my news feed, it came right after a link to an article in the Hartford Courant, 17 Arrested After Blocking Hartford Road During Rush Hour.
Police arrested 17 protesters who blocked Central Row during rush hour Monday afternoon as part of a Moral Monday demonstration.
The protest began at 4 p.m. as protesters locked arms and stood in the street. Many held signs saying "Black Lives Matter."
Immediately following my friend’s post was a link to Texas Cop Caught on Video Going on Violent Rampage at Pool Party.
Here is the comment I left in response to my friend’s post:
I tend to think that racism, and other 'isms' is part and parcel of the human condition. To speak in theological terms, of being sinners, of being fallen people. To speak in psychological terms, the fear of the 'other'. Who is like me? Who is different? Who is a good person? Who is a sinner? Who is a racist? Who is deeply loved by God?
To me, that last question ties it all nicely together. I strongly believe that God deeply loves me, in spite of things I've done. I strongly believe that God deeply loves those I would consider racist. I strongly believe that God deeply loves that that would consider me racist. In that, no matter what your skin color is, your reaction to other people's skin color, your gender, your sexual orientation, your reaction any of this, at the most underlying level, you are no longer 'other', you are just like me, deeply loved by God.
Perhaps, proclaiming this radical nature of God's love is core to combating racism and other 'isms'.
“Are you a leader? Are you a follower? Are those the only two options?” That old quote has come to mind a bit recently.
In the Rhizomatic discussion, we are currently talking about “what is the role of the facilitator/teacher/professor where we are using learning subjectives”. Are you a teacher? Are you a student? Are those the only two options? My initial approach was to talk about the importance of someone creating a structure, a safe place to learn.
Another context is a cartoon I shared on Facebook. A speaker addresses a crowd of people asking “Who wants change?” and everyone raises their hands. The same speaker addresses the same crowd asking, “Who wants to change?” and no one raises their hands. It seems like we see this all the time of Facebook. People trying to change everyone else’s opinions, but not being willing to change their own opinions.
Perhaps we see this best in current online political discourse. It is also showing up in the political process. Who are you supporting for President (for my U.S. friends)? Is this a person that represents your views, who you think will be most effective in getting polices that arein line with your views, elected? Can we get a transformational politician that will say something like,
The biggest lie people like me tell people like you at election time is, if you vote for me, I’ll solve all your problems. The truth is, the power to change this country is in your hands, not mine.
As much as I like this idea and the politician I’m quoting, it makes me think of the scene in Life of Brian where Brian tells the crowds, “You are all individuals, and they change back in near perfect unison, ‘We are all individuals’.
The power to change this country doesn’t come from voting for the candidate that promises change. It doesn’t come from voting for the candidate that tells us we have the power to bring about change. No, the real power of change comes from being the change we want to see in the world.
So, are you a leader? A follower? A teacher? A student? Do you have power, if so, what is it?
It has been a very long day, starting off with people wishing “May the Fourth” be with you, or singing, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” I thought about Kent State. I was there ten years later. I thought about Baltimore, and Texas and how divisive our politics has become. Some friends have been saying it’s going to be a long hot summer.
But I had work to do. I took the day off from my paying job to volunteer to help get the vote out in the Woodbridge municipal election. There was a lot of data entry and number crunching, but not much time for reflection.
Now, I’m finally home, and I can reflect, but I’m too tired to go into detail. The incumbent Democratic First Selectman, Ellen Scalettar narrowly won re-election. The Republican under ticket did well, and it looks like, after a very divisive campaign, we will have mixed government in Woodbridge, perhaps doing as well as our mixed government in Washington has done.