This past week I was invited to join the panel at Quiet‘s production of Spinning Into Butter. The topic of the evening was on race, identity and institution. For those of you who haven’t seen the theater production or movie you can check out the short synopsis that wikipedia put together. Obviously, ethnicity and race is not just about skin color. It is very much about identity formation. How one sees her/himself? And to whom he/she identifies? It is a big conversation– one wrought with complexity, nuance & personal experience. It is never meant to be one dimensional.
Anyway, about Saturday– 6 hours before I was to be at the panel I found out that I needed to tend to some things for my kids that made it impossible for me to physically be at the panel, which bummed me because I think these conversations are SO important and they are meant to be dialogues. However, because I was unable to physically be there and I had spent a great deal of time prepping for it I asked if I could send along some of my thoughts to be used/read (if helpful) at the panel discussion.
I’ve decided to share those thoughts here. I’m not sure if they are helpful or if they will give us a platform to continue to discuss this important topic, but I thought what the heck I’ll give it a try. Feel free to chime in. This conversation is nothing without safe places to dialogue. Also take note that there is reference to the production in what I’ve written. I’ll put those references in italics. For those of you who haven’t seen it I hope it’s not a distraction or creates confusion. I think there will be points made where everyone can find a place to identify. That’s my hope. Also, this is not a complete, comprehensive conversation– it’s a piece– albeit, a very small piece.
For what it’s worth here it is:
Acknowledge that this is painful. After seeing the film I felt immediately flooded with all kinds of thoughts, feelings, desires to act upon and so on… I realized that I needed to stop a moment to acknowledge what was below this motivating energy and I realized it is sadness.
Pain. This is painful data to absorb. It is painful because it is the opposite of data– it is real and it is truth and the reason we know that is because on some level– no matter where we are on the spectrum we have experienced it. It has been a part of our story, our experiences, our psyche, our society and how we interact with the world.
Experience to Justification. No matter what are experiences have been– no matter where we fall on the spectrum one of the ways that we know the truth of racialization– its polarizing effects on our life– the sadness and painful reality that the construct of race has done is it’s created a chasm in the flow and open path to know another human being. We feel the weight of that barrier often– daily, perhaps.
It only really takes 1 or 2 negative experiences to create a system based on justification. It can be 1 or 2 negative experiences– (experiences where we feel humiliated, put down, anxious, uncomfortable, in danger, awkward, etc.) that awakens something inside of us that says, “I will never let that happen again”. Or we see something happen to someone else that makes us feel uncomfortable and we say to ourselves, “I will never let that happen to me”. This statement leads us to a place of justification. We justify the necessity to create a system or structure that keeps us from being in any of those vulnerable situations with other. Sarah (in the play) created her system based on justification. She felt uncomfortable at Langley. She wasn’t heard. She felt intimidated and scared and perhaps even at times in danger. She felt threatened at Langley and the justification to keep herself protected and not at risk was to say, “See, these are dangerous people. These are lazy people. It’s not me. It’s them. They’re making me uncomfortable and unsafe and I can’t let that happen”. So she creates a system– a system which she sees clearly on her travels on the bus. Every day looking for a white woman to sit with first and then a white man and then a black woman and if there were no seats by folks of those characteristics then she’d stand, but never would she sit by a black man. This became her system and the system was embedded and maintained because it was based on a justification that rose out of a negative experience.
It can take 1 or 2 negative experiences or it can take being told by someone you trust or who is in authority to you that the ‘other’ is not safe– not good– not right, etc. When I was in 3rd grade my very best friend Marcie and I were playing in her room. We were listening to the song Gloria and dancing on her bed. It was a great afternoon when out of nowhere Marcie said, “My dad told me I was better then you”. I said, “really, why”? And she said, “because you are brown and I am white”. I’m not sure Marcie knew what that really meant. I sure as heck didn’t know what that meant. It was at that very moment that I remember needing to second guess or question myself because for the most part up until that point I thought I felt very proud of my delicious brownness that was year round.
For Marcie she wasn’t a bad kid. She wasn’t a heartless person. She was a kid who trusted and believed her father who was the ultimate authority figure in her life.
That experience rolled in motion a justification that then motivated a system that would forever change the way that I interacted or didn’t interact with other people. I haven’t known Marcie into adulthood but I’m certain that experience shaped her too.
Compassion, Compassion, Compassion I have been in a ton of these conversations. I’ve helped establish classes and workshops on the subject… I’ve taught on this topic. I’ve processed my own story– it feels very much a part of my conscious and the things I’m passionate about to this day. In that passion and also through the cathartic process of knowing my own story I’ve been a fierce proponent of justice. Perhaps part of that justice has meant making “wrongs- right”– perhaps it’s meant advocating and getting others to see– perhaps it’s not sitting down and sitting back to take any more of this– to state that this is wrong and inappropriate– something must be done. Yes, it has been probably a combination of all these things.
It’s good but it’s missing something. Justice without compassion is a steamboat blowing steam but unable to exert the kind of energy that will get it from point A to point B. I suggest us apply a little compassion to the dynamic. And the compassion has to start with self, because the thing is… we all have systems of prejudice and discrimination. Some of us would say well by golly I do and I have every right to– I don’t know that person or this person. We discriminate daily about who we will spend our time with based on what we believe to be very straight and right and moral values– spending time with the other may not factor into ‘what we believe’ or ‘what we value to be right, good, moral’.
Others spend a great deal of time in shame. We are shameful that yes, we had that mom or that dad that regularly shared racist jokes. We’re shameful because we are the recipients of white privilege. We’re shame filled because some of us have been able to assimilate and ‘pass’ more effectively then others. We feel shame and then to admit and say that we too have some kind of system of prejudice or discrimination at play feels like too much. The thing is– the truth is– it’s painful to face– but we-all-have-systems. We can continue to deny it or push it aside or deflect it onto something or someone else but it doesn’t make it go away… It doesn’t change anything much less ourselves.
Remember Sarah. She was trying to forget, trying to deny… maybe even using her justification to say it was okay to hold on to her system of prejudice.
Remember when her and Ross begin to write out everything that they believe about folks that are black and those that are white– all the stereotypes and negative images and painful names were brought to light.
That was the ‘a ha’ moment.
The other day I was walking along three men of color were walking in my direction. I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time but we were probably about 3-4 yards from each other when I decided to cross the street. While I was crossing one guy yelled to me, “I wasn’t going to hurt you or anything”. I can’t tell you how horrible I felt at that moment. I wanted to yell back, “Hey, yah I didn’t think you would– I teach workshops on this subject– I know about this stuff”. My defensive posture made me ask what was going on inside of me. Why did I feel the necessity to defend myself to a complete stranger– I realized I didn’t want to be thought of as racist or scared or discriminatory not because I believe I am but because of the appearance of it. Which made me ask a more honest question of myself: is there something I’m putting out there that I am not aware of because I am fearful?
Yes, this happens to me, too. A woman of color who thinks I’ve got a handle on this conversation– on my story– on the plight of the ‘other’.
Folks, we have to have compassion because we have to move past the walls of denial and justification so that we can accept ourselves and then from that place evaluate and dream about what change can look like. This gives more space for authentic change to occur.
Building Bridges of Safety: I think once we’ve moved through or are aware of the first few steps in this process then we can begin dreaming about how to construct a bridge of safety that leads me to you and you to me.
The construct of identity is such a sacred and personal one. It is a journey that can’t be named or determined outside the individual but it happens within the beautiful and wonderful soul-searching and knowing of the individual. We see that with Patrick at the beginning of the play/movie when he talks about how he identifies as Nuyericon. Yet, he feels the pressure, the dehumanizing system of categorization from the ‘powers that be’ to be identified, as opposed to revealing/sharing who he is. In our society it seems so simple– check a box. Check a box? That box doesn’t reflect story, soul, experience, her/history. It is disempowering and dehumanizing.
In Soledad Obrien’s piece that she did for CNN entitled, “Who is Black in America?” She uncovers the feelings and experiences of those who feel that they have no choice to say who it is they are– AND not only do they not have the choice but they don’t typically find the support to figure that out on their own.
Danzy Senna in her book: Where did you sleep last night? She takes us on her journey of discovering her identity when she uncovers the herstory on both sides of her family. She is bi-racial– her mother white and her father black– finding that the dichotomy does not just exist externally but it also is within, as she tries to figure out how to hold both.
If we want to create a bridge to safety then we have to allow each other to come as we are. We have to let each other identify as we are– bringing with us all facets and dignity of our humanity AND getting to choose which ones we would like to share and which ones we would like to keep for ourselves.