Tag Archives: identity

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.

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Who Am I?

This question has haunted humankind for eons.  Most people resolve the issue readily be donning the “suit of clothes” proffered by their family/community but for many of us that necessary “fig leaf” ceases to work at some point and we begin to wrestle with the essential issues of identity inherent in the question.  I realize now that assuming an identity in my youth was challenging, even very early before I was even conscious.  The angst did not really become conscious until pre-adolescence, then it beat the hell out of me for several decades, before I gained the maturity to begin to wrestle with the issue with an increasingly mature spiritual grasp of the matter.

Now let me reassure you, if you get to even middle age and give too much thought to “who am I?” you might go to your physician and seek a pharmacological easy way out!  For the quest to answer that question is a process and the answer will come in realizing that the process…like all things that are “process”…will never be completed.  This involves real work, spiritual work, spiritual work that cannot be resolved by the “well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” even if they come from your favorite holy book!

Here I want to share a lovely poem from a lovely soul that I left behind in Fayetteville, Arkansas just over two years when I moved to Taos, New Mexico, Sue Coppernoll.  I did not know her well, but well enough to know she was a fine poet and a keenly sensitive spirit whose spirituality, like mine, had its roots in very conservative fundamentalist Christianity.  Here Sue so eloquently captures the fragility of an identity, particularly in its early formulation, and the resolve she had to “carry on” even when life dealt her hard blows.

MEMORY

Words

Worked out with toothpicks

On the royal blue carpet

On the living room floor.

 

First

My name,

WILLIE FAYE

Biting my lip in concentrated effort

Laboriously arranging wooden sticks

Into recognizable patterns.

 

I’m Real!

I have substance.

See, there I am,

Right there on the floor.

WILLIE FAYE

That’s me, I exist, I AM.

 

My baby sister crawls

Onto and through

My toothpick words.

 

My heart is broken.

 

I gather up the scattered sticks

To begin again

The construction of my self.

 

WILLIE FAYE

 

 

I wish I’d have gotten to know Sue better.  This poignant expression of a child’s heart just past the threshold of coming “on line” into conscious existence is riveting.  And the child at that point is so vulnerable and the mirroring from “momma” and the rest of the family and world is so critical.  But this validation is never perfect and even then Sue recalled having the experience of clinicians call “ego integrity,” allowing her to repair the damage to a particular disappointment.  And though, as noted above, I do not know Sue well, I did get to know her well enough to know that life dealt her more than her share of the Shakespearean “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too” and that she has continued to employ that “ego integrity” and is today a beautiful soul and a beautiful woman.  In the terms of Judeo-Christian tradition roots that she and I hailed from it is the “Spirit of God” that provides that “ego integrity” which is a Presence described in the New Testament as that “by which all things cohere”

Fundamentalist Christians and Sexuality

Fundamentalist Christians offer us a frequent display of their hypocrisy regarding sexuality.  Now to be fair, this “hypocrisy” on this matter is not exclusive to this group as all of us have sexual whims and fancies which we don’t want to have exposed to public scrutiny.  But the issue for these fundamentalist Christians is that they have this need to hold forth regarding their purity and nobility only to have their dishonesty exposed too frequently often by leadership and its elite.

I grew up in that culture and remember the repressive atmosphere about sexuality and recall so well how dishonest it was.  I now realize that the root issue is the fear of the body and its impulses most of this fear being focused on the greatest temptation—SEX!!!  But this disavowal of the body overlooks a central teaching of the Christian tradition, the Incarnation, which was the idea of “the Word” being made flesh.  Yes, lip service is given to this teaching but there is not recognition of the layers of meaning in the teaching that would have us apply the teaching to the warp-and-woof of our life as we understand and experience the teachings of Jesus as not merely doctrine…cognitive precepts that we have accepted…but “cognitive precepts” that have become meaningful down in the guts of our life, in that “foul rag-and-bone shop of our heart.”

But deigning to see “layers of meaning” in spiritual teachings is a scary enterprise.  For, it will entail a simultaneous acknowledgement of experience of the “layers of meaning” in one’s own life and heart.  This brings into question the very nature of reality and the fear of coming ungrounded.  This brings one to realize that he is more than who he “thinks” he is, that he is not something he can cognitively grasp, but he is a mystery very much like the mystery that God is.  This brings one to the adventure of faith and when this adventure even tempts us it is so easy to immediately turn back to what has given us comfort to this point, cling to it more desperately, and even shout it out more loudly.  As W. H. Auden noted, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Thoughts About Identity

Identity has always been a fascinating subject for me because, I now realize, I had such a hard time constructing one in my youth and maintaining a sense of identity through the course of my life. But I’ve always been blessed with some core sense of who I am, some basic center, which has allowed me to function well though often with self-doubt and insecurity.

A Spokane, Washington woman has just made the news with her parents exposing her duplicity of passing herself off as a black woman for years even though she is white. With her dark complexion and hair style, she has adopted “black-ness” for decades and achieved some prominence in the Afro-American community. (http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/rachel-dolezal-tried-really-hard-be-black-why?sc=fb)

This is just a fascinating story and I’m so curious about what motivated her to perpetuate this ruse when there was so much she could have done for the Afro-American cause as the intelligent Caucasian woman that she is. But she had some deep-seated need to be “black” and that this ruse has been exposed, I’m concerned for her. All of our identities are a pose in some sense and to have them suddenly torn from us, to be exposed, is to open us up to the nakedness that underlies our persona.

W. H. Auden had the following to say regarding the illusionary dimension of identity. In this poem a father is speaking to his young son:

I wish you first a sense of theater.
Only those who know illusion
And love it will go far.
Otherwise, we spend our lives in confusion
Of what to say and do with who we really are.

AFTER THOUGHT—A new development in this story answers all questions about this matter.  The family now reports that Rachel had four adopted Afro-American siblings while growing up.  

Belonging and Human Connection

It was morning recess in the 2nd grade in Magnet Cove, Arkansas and the “BMOC” of our class of 32 announced to the boys, “Alright, everyone with high top boots come with me and let’s chase girls!” Oh I was so proud as I was sporting a brand new pair of high top boots and could join the chase in this customary recess activity in the fall of 1960. It was delightful to realize that I “met criteria” and belonged and I’ll never forget that moment, certainly revealing that “belonging” issues have always been present with me.

Making connection with fellow humankind and “belonging” is a basic human need and we are hardwired to do so, allowing us to form tribes that are the basic unit of human culture. And to establish “belongingness” various “criteria” are always announced, sometimes overtly by decree but more importantly in subtle manners as it is the “subtleties” that really constitute the bedrock of tribal unity. These “subtleties” are the premises which are not questioned, and for the sake of tribal coherence should not be. But the converse of this group dynamic is also present—someone must be excluded as otherwise the group identity would not have any meaning, its “identity” would be tenuous at best. This group dynamic is not “bad” it is just how we function, it is just being “human.” And the same process of identity formation takes place on the individual level, with certain things being accepted as part of our identity and others excluded and often projected “out there.”

But focusing now on group dynamics, the goal for a group is that it will be composed of individuals mature enough to recognize that in the passing of time some of its defining parameters can be relaxed and some persons who have been excluded can then be included. At least the focus of the group’s psychic energy will not be merely on boundaries that constitute its self-definition but on some purpose beyond itself which reflects respect of and value for the world at large. If the focus is merely on what sets a group apart, the group will eventually become a self-enclosed fortress whose only purpose is to perpetuate its mythology. When this happens, the group will find itself at odds with the world “out there” and will often be quite proud of this. This is often found in sectarian religion.

Lessons We Can Learn from Autism

Autism research reveals so much to us about human connectivity. Though the autistic spectrum disorders (asd) is a classification for people who have problems with connection, recent findings reveal that these individuals merely have a different way of connecting. Though their way of “connecting” appears very limiting, it reveals volumes about the tenuous cultural contrivances that we have invented to give us our group identity.

There is recent article in the journal “Frontiers” which argues that those with “ASD” do have the capacity to connect but largely with others on the same “ASD” spectrum. The author also argues that those with “TD” (typically development) likewise have a proclivity to bond with those like themselves and find those who are dissimilar more difficult to relate to if not down right objectionable. This principle of connection with the like-minded reveals a key dimension of what makes us human and capable for forming into a social body. (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00124/full)

And I find that I’m guilty of this myself of preferring the “like-minded” and often realizing that the classification of people that I label “bad” appears to be growing by leaps and bounds. I have noted before, there is a frightening one-to-one correspondence with those who I see as “bad” and those who perceive and understand the world differently than I do. Hmm.

The critical issue in life is “difference.” How can I face difference and respect the phenomena without having my own identity threatened. And, yes, I see that the world is filled with people who don’t understand this and I want to tell ‘em, “Hey, just read “Literarylew” and get your head out!” But, alas and alack, “they” are staying away from “Literarylew” in droves and perhaps that is a valid stance in life???? Of course, we need to have people who look at life differently and it often takes more humility than we can muster up to respect them and at the same time make our own presence known in the dialogue of human concourse as we continue to, “We wage the war we are.” (W.H. Auden)

 

“Unaccomodated Man”–The Absence that we Are

King Lear gave up his kingdom, became estranged from his family, became very disconsolate, lost his eyesight and even  his mind,  and suddenly found himself out on the heath, pelted by a pitiless storm and retreating to a hovel where he lamented,  “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare forked animal…” Shakespeare saw clearly that man was other than he takes himself to be, that the trappings of his life merely cover up his internal nakedness. He realized and repeatedly emphasized the absence that we are.

And, when we get to the point in life where we entertain this spiritual impoverishment and experience the loss of our “kingdom”, the trappings of our ego-bound life that we have always taken to be of such great importance suddenly appear to amount to nothing. And when we get “naked”…as King Lear did literally after the above quote…we can discover meaning in our life and meaning for all of these trappings which until now have been merely “accomodations.” At this point many, if not all, of these “accomodations” can still be ours but they will not be the core of our identity any longer. We will have them. They will no longer have us.

Listen to what Thomas Merton said about this subject in his book, Seeds of Contemplation:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person, a false self. I wind my experiences around myself and cover myself in glory to make myself perceptible…as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface….But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structures of pleasures and ambitions have no foundation. I am my own mistake…..The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.

Shakespeare, Merton and other great spiritual luminaries recognized that entertaining this “absence that we are” is an essential task in life and is a spiritual enterprise. They recognized that only when we embrace our emptiness, not just cognitively but emotionally, can we find the fullness of our Source. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said that to find our life we must lose it, we must lose the ego investments in ephemeral things in order to embrace the Essential. And, this also often means “losing” our religion as we have to forgo the ego-ridden, “letter of the law”, approach to spirituality and this often feels like we are losing our faith. Sometimes we have to lose our faith to find it.