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.
Social Constructs, transgender, transracial, transformational, transcendent, transubstantiation.
for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart
The Old Testament reading, for those following the Episcopalian lectionary for this coming Sunday, is 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13. It is about Samuel anointing David and talks about how the Lord sees mortals.
It is interesting to think about this in light of the big discussions online this week about Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.
A week and a half ago, a friend posted on Facebook:
I'm wondering if Caitlyn Jenner was to come to your church would she be embraced or rebuked? I'm preaching the Gospel this morning and you don't have to say amen....
I know that God loves me more than I can understand or comprehend. I know that God loves me in spite of things I have done that others, and perhaps even God, doesn't approve of. I know that God has commanded me to show that love to all.
I am sure that the church I attend would show the same love from God to Caitlyn, to myself, or to any other Jew or Gentile that comes.
Now, people are arguing about Rachel Dolezal. I wonder what some of my friends are thinking now. Does God love Rachel Dolezal the same way God loves Caitlyn Jenner? How are we called to love one another? If you want to be really radical and really muddy the waters, throw Eric Casebolt into the mix.
Concerning Rachel Dolezal, a friend posted,
Chances are, if she had been honest about her actual race, she would have been sidelined as a candidate for any type of diversity-related positions she applied for. It's a little disingenuous for anyone to say, "She could have done such good work if she'd just been honest with everyone."
For good or ill, my observation has been that white applicants are *never* seriously considered for these types of jobs.
As a white male who was named a CT Health Foundation Fellow in the fight against racial and ethnic health disparities and as co-chair of the communications committee of CT Multicultural Health Partnership, I've found that white people are often accepted and welcomed in diversity related positions, at least here in Connecticut .
Another friend posted about being more concerned about Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas saying,
"My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up."
Here, I go back to some of my experiences with the CT Health Foundation Fellows class and the idea of the Conscious Competence model.
To me, this fits nicely with the Conscious Competence model. For any issue, we start off unconscious and incompetent. Then, we become consciously incompetent. Then, we develop competence and become consciously competent. Ultimately, it becomes second nature and we become unconsciously competent.
The discussions these days seem to be around the painful awakening of our country's history of racism. Yes, in the sixties activists fought for civil rights. Blatant racism such as around segregation and voting rights were addressed, but subtle racism around driving while black and white privilege perhaps wasn't confronted by most people. Now, more and more people are seeing their unconscious racism and getting to the point of struggling with it. That is, with the exception of people like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
So, where do we go with all of this? I’m not sure. What does it mean to be male, female, black, white, transgender, transracial, racist, sexist, or part of so many other constructs?
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
“It’s what all the cool kids are doing,”
she said in all earnestness.
“I never tried to be cool.”
Although it wasn’t exactly true.
I had tried desperately to be cool
when I was a kid,
but failed miserably.
So, I wondered,
who defines ‘cool’ anyway?
What if me and my friends
could have our own form
So we became conformed
Which in the end
wasn’t that cool either.
So, I wondered,
who defines ‘cool’ anyway?
What if the ultimate arbiter of ‘cool’
said we’re too die for.
As we sat around the dinner table at my college reunion, one of my classmates told the story of a friend who left his wife. My classmate saw what might be described as the friend’s awakening to his sexual orientation. She told her friend and his estranged wife that she thought he was gay. Something both the friend and the estranged wife denied, but soon enough, the friend came out as gay.
Another classmate at the table talked about when he came out, only to find that his friends knew before he knew. It is easy to think about this in terms of concepts like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ and ‘male’ or ‘female’ are social constructs. It is easy to think about this in terms of others knowing us better than we do.
So, I am struggling with my own identity, not along gender or sexual orientation lines, but more on philosophical and theological lines. We do I believe?
I’ve chosen the title of this post to be ‘Coming Out as a Post Structural Christian Mystic Poet’. A high school classmate of mine who is a writer looking for ideas to write about asked her friends on Facebook for topics, and I suggested Post Structuralist Christian Mysticism.
I don’t know if ‘Post Structural Christian Mystic Poet’’ is really a label that fits me. Each part of the phrase needs so much unpacking. Is my thinking post structuralist? I just participated in #rhizo15 where we explored Deleuze and Guattari. I’m not sure my thinking is any more clearer now than it was before #rhizo15 started, but I found the ideas appealing.
Of course the concept ‘Christian’ is also a social construct. People have been fighting for centuries about what it means to be ‘Christian’. I self-identify as ‘Christian’, even though it seems less as less popular to do so these days. The same can be said about mysticism.
As to being a poet, that is a similarly slippery slope. Who really is a poet? What really is poetry? Can I call myself a poet without being pretentious?
Of course the combination of these nebulous terms creates something even more nebulous. Can some of these terms even be used together or are they contradictory?
With this, I return to the idea of coming out. When my classmate talked about coming out as gay, many people already seemed to know. So, can I call myself a Post Structuralist Christian Mystic Poet? Will some of you say, “Well, of course. That’s what you are. We always knew it.” Will others say, “No, those ideas are contradictory.”
What do you think a ‘Post Structuralist Christian Mystic Poet’ really is, and do you think it applies to me?