Thursday, February 23, 2012

What does it mean to be who we are?

This is the column I've written for the March issue of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church's monthly bulletin.  I promised that I would use this blog throughout the month as a place to explore these ideas more fully.  To do this, here's where it'll begin:

As I write this I am in between the reading of two books.  I’ve just finished How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston.  (Whose inside jacket flap defiantly declares, “If you don’t buy this book you’re a racist!”) I’m following that up by reading Who’s Afraidof Post-Blackness:  what it means to beblack now by Touré.  Both of these books are giving me new insights into the richness of that “us-ness” that is part of the reality of being “one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”  Both of these books are explorations of identity, travelogues on these authors’ journeys into being who they are.  The scenery along the way is both different than anything I’ve ever experienced and ever so familiar.  One human family, indeed.
One (of the many) thing(s) that stand out for me in both books is the intentionality of the question – what does it mean to be Black?  There is a powerful moment in the extraordinary documentary The Color of Fear in which one of the African American participants asks one of the European American participants why it doesn’t freak him out that he’s never even thought about what it means to be white.  (Not his exact words, but that was certainly the thrust of it.)  It becomes clear that this is one of the differences between these two experiences – whites don’t have to think about their “whiteness” because it is held to be normalized; Blacks, on the other hand, have their blackness thrust in their face every single day.  They have to think about it.  And this turns out to be a positive.
Above the entrance to the famous Oracle of Delphi in Greece were carved the words, “Know Thyself.”  This is not always an easy thing, to be intentionally, consciously exploring our own identity.  Yet this is, of course, one of the purposes of the religious endeavor – to ask ourselves what it is we believe about ourselves, about one another, about the world and the universe around us.  Then we can look at how we live in the world – how we behave, what we do – and see how that aligns with who we have learned we are.  Sometimes this calls for a change in behavior; sometimes it calls for a revision of our self-understanding.  Always the process continues – reflection/action, reflection/action . . .
This is important for congregations, too.  Who is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church?  What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist congregation?  What does it mean to be this UU congregation in this place at this time?  And from this, of course, then action/reflection, action/reflection . . .
For now, I toss out the questions.  As we continue “cultivating connections,” let’s see where those connections lead us. 
In Gassho,
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Shirley P. said...

This is a wonderful discussion, Erik, and I hope many will chime in. As a Co-Counselor (, I have worked on my own unconscious racism quite a bit, and co-counselors around the globe are asked to work on this as much as possible. Seems to me that racism is at the root of many of the world's upsets. I hope others will add to this - I'll be interested to hear from them.



Jeanne said...

From 2002 'til 2010, before we moved to Cville, my husband and I lived as a minority right here in the U.S. (we're both white). We feel it was a privilege to learn how so many "others" live, plus a privilege to be able to move out of it, back into the majority, when so many can't because of our ingroup-outgroup prejudices. I wish everyone could know what it's like to be suspect, his or her presence not really desired and more, experienced as intrusive. I fear, though, that many of us in the majority would just be angered by such unwarranted treatment (as we sometimes were) -- all simply because of the color of our skin. And wouldn't it be something if we all got angry about injustice based on skin color.