Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!

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Colonization Stories

Broken Tree DSC01792The theme at my congregation for November is “What does it mean to be a community of story?” Of course, stories can be truth-telling, or truth-hiding. For example, I have mixed feelings about the Thanksgiving holiday. I am very much in favor of gratitude. But the stories American culture tells about the holiday have been used to hide the truth about a deep crack in the foundation of our nation, and have distorted and corrupted the high ideals many cherish as the basis of our American democracy.

I am speaking about the colonization of this continent, a destructive process unparalleled in history. Millions of Indigenous people were killed, or died from disease unknown to them. Land was stolen. Treaties were signed and then broken, and then never talked about again. Most of our senators and representatives in Washington know nothing about the legal responsibilities of our federal government to the Indigenous nations within our borders.

Why should we care?  Those of us whose ancestors were among the settlers of the continent?  We have benefited from this colonization, but we have also been harmed by it. Colonization is at the root of the many of the problems that all of us are facing now: the destruction of the natural world, climate change, oppression of one group by another, the overarching greed that has bankrupted our economy. (There is a longer list I could make.) I don’t believe we can fix any of those problems without revisiting our history.

Sadly, churches were/are a large contributor to colonization. I am part of a new project here in Maine, called “Decolonizing Faith.” A few clergy colleagues and I, under the auspices of the Wabanaki REACH program, are exploring the history of colonization, and the role of the churches in it. We recently spent a long weekend with a few partners from the Wabanaki people, having deeper conversations about the impacts of colonization on Wabanaki people, and building trust for future work together. We hope that we might begin to envision how people of faith could help in the process of de-colonization, non-Indigenous people joining together with Indigenous people for the benefit of all people.

Our next plan is to create and hold day-long workshops for people in faith communities to explore these questions together. But we realized this topic is so huge, that perhaps we should start by encouraging people to attend the Ally workshops that are already being offered here in Maine by Wabanaki REACH. These workshops look at the history of U.S. Government relationships with Native people, explore the dynamics of systemic racism, and ask what non-native people can do as allies. Once people have this basic foundation, they will be better prepared for looking at how churches were involved in the problems, and how we can be part of the solutions.

I would encourage folks in Maine to sign up for the ally trainings–you can find out more at the Wabanaki REACH events page.   These trainings will be a prerequisite for the first Decolonizing Faith workshops we hope to offer this winter or spring.

Projections from the Shadow Side of History

Turkeys DSC02379Thanksgiving is a holiday that always fills me with mixed feelings. Gratitude is wonderful, and getting together with family and friends can be a blessing. But I know that the stories we celebrate are white-washed versions of a history that has brought devastation to so many. I always remember that many Indigenous people call this the Day of Mourning.

The only time that foreign immigrants actually brought disease and destruction to this continent was when the English, Spanish, and French came to settle on its shores. Millions of Indigenous peoples died from diseases to which they had no resistance, or were killed in ongoing campaigns by the newcomers to destroy them and their way of life.

So while I give many thanks for my life, it feels sacrilegious to give thanks for prosperity that was built on the suffering and death of so many others. But it does illuminate for me, in a social psychological way, the possible roots of our American fear and hatred of foreign immigrants. I wonder if perhaps these feelings are a form of projection from this unacknowledged shadow side of American history. People imagine that new immigrants will bring destruction because the first settlers were the immigrants who did bring destruction.

This fear of the foreigner never proved realistic with later immigrants—with the Irish, the Italian, the Chinese, the German, the Jewish, the Puerto Rican, and so many others. Despite being hated and derided, they eventually became a part of the fabric of American life. Perhaps there is a link between facing more honestly our own shadowed and genocidal history, and letting go of our fear of the other.

Hard thoughts for a quiet holiday at home. But so many are cold and hungry and desperately seeking a safe harbor. And the tide of xenophobia and racism in our country seems to be rising out of control. Let’s help our friends and neighbors to keep their heads about them. I believe that when we are lucky enough to have shelter and food and clothing and safety, we are responsible for sharing what we can with those who are in need. To me, that is what thanksgiving should be all about.

Changing Lanes Without Signaling

"Ta-Nehisi Coates" by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, is a powerfully devastating window into the experience of living in a black body in America, a body that is constantly vulnerable to assault, to capture, to torture, to destruction, to death.

I am a white woman who has long been involved in the white anti-racist struggle–I say this, not with any attempt at boasting, but merely to point out the map that my reality has followed over the last more than thirty years of my life. But even so, Coates’ words painted a picture of soul-shattering fear that struck me to the core.

I grew up with a general feeling of safety. I belonged to a working class family in Michigan, living in suburban Detroit for the most part, raised to believe that “all people are the children of God,” but also living in all-white communities where racial violence was something that appeared only on our television screen. A liberal white world aspiring to be “colorblind,” in the “Dream” that Coates describes as the place where white America lives as if asleep, unaware that it is built on the violence against black bodies.

I was asleep like that, but in my young adulthood I began to wake up to the horrific realities that America was built upon–the theft of the land and destruction of Indigenous people, the slavery and destruction of Black people. The first window into those realities came through my own awakening to the violence that was perpetrated on female bodies. That violence was hidden under the mantle of (white) safety. I did not actually experience sexual violence in my own body, only the constant threat and fear of it. Don’t go out at night, don’t talk to strangers, don’t dress to draw attention to your body, and so on. But here was the irony–a woman could “feel” safe if she stayed “asleep.” It was only upon waking that the fear undergirding my life became visible.

Once I woke up to that illusion, other illusions began to break through as well, and racism became visible and anti-racism became important to me. But so much remained hidden. Layer upon layer, I kept being surprised again and again at the horror of it, the extent of it, the insidious forms it takes, the interlocking systems that perpetuate it. I got it that we are all implicated, that no one can escape the systems in which whiteness benefits those who are understood to be white, and devastates those understood to be not white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates broke open for me a new and deeper layer of the reality of racism–his words, along with the revelations of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which have kept before the public eye the many recent killings of black people by police. Last week, I watched videos of the police officer’s traffic stop of Sandra Bland. Pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, three days later, she was dead in her jail cell. Something about her story–her innocent journey to start a new job, her bright spirit–brought it all home. No black person is safe anywhere.

This week, as I passed the flashing lights of a police vehicle behind a pulled-over car, I felt an unfamiliar shudder in my gut. A tiny glimpse into the terror. When I read Coates describing the terror he felt when he was stopped in his car by police, these images and videos came to mind, and I understood his fear for his life, his shaky relief when he was let go. A few months later, his friend was killed by the same police force.

The thing is, Coates continues to live with this original and constant fear in his body, just as my body still holds that original feeling of safety, even though I realize its illusory nature. I have to choose to stay awake, to remember. I can take a break, not think about it for a while.

It is not easy to stay awake. Mab Segrest talks of choosing white anti-racism as becoming a “Race Traitor.” There is a loneliness in it, a separation from the mainstream American dream, a separation from family and friends. Most often, I feel more resonance with my friends who are people of color, but I will never really belong to that world either. So staying awake is often lonely and sad. I usually don’t have a clue how to create change, or make things any better. But I believe that if we stay asleep we will never find transformation. We have to wake up to reality, bear its pain, before any change can happen. So thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for being willing to be so open about the reality in which you live, in which we all live.

The Ancients

Knowth spiral MD DSC09032

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Thursday, Margy and I went to the ancient sites of Knowth and Newgrange.  Built by neolithic stone age peoples about 5200 years ago, they were burial mounds and ritual centers, aligned with the sun at certain points of the year.  We had heard about Newgrange, where the light from the sun at dawn enters the burial chamber on the Winter Solstice.  But we were even more impressed by Knowth, where tourists are not able to go into the burial chambers–too dangerous–but can walk up to the top of the mound.  There are huge boulders that surround and support the mound, called curb stones, and most of them are covered in geometric images–spirals, triangles, undulating serpent like forms.  We could photograph and touch this art created before the pyramids were built in Egypt.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site because of this high concentration of neolithic art. What an astonishing feeling to trace a spiral that was carved so many generations ago by the ancients!  Our guide said that similar stone carved art with the same kinds of geometric patterns can be found all around the world–America and Australia, for example.  Until fifty years ago or so, all these stones at Knowth were buried under soil–the mounds looked like an extension of the hills.  Then, archaeologists began to excavate and discovered the careful construction and design of the burial passages and chambers, were able to carbon date the remains, and restored the mounds to their neolithic era appearance.  All of the stones are original, and the guides reminded us of the sacred and beloved nature of the site. After this visit I got to thinking about ancient mounds in the United States.  I barely knew anything about them, except that they were built by early indigenous peoples of this land, and that many have been destroyed or are even now being threatened with destruction.  Most recently, I heard about a new football stadium being planned in St. Louis that would destroy the remains, now underground, of a burial site and city.  Since no federal money is involved, there are no laws demanding that they even do archeological investigation. I wonder why our country doesn’t take care of these precious artifacts from the ancients on this land?  In a time when there is international outcry over destruction of ancient sites in Syria, where is the outcry over destruction of ancient sites in America?  I suppose it is directly related to our society’s general insistence on forgetting that these lands once belonged to another people.  As to the mounds that do still exist, I have read that there was much early resistance to thinking that Native peoples would have the expertise to build such structures.  Racism then, must surely underly this disregard, and perhaps the overarching allegiance to the gods of money and profit.  And the brokenness of our times, the forgetting that the land is full of sacredness in her essence and in her history.