While I was at Candler School of Theology working on my Master of Divinity degree, I gained a reputation. I was outspoken. I was argumentative. I often thought out loud. I challenged my teachers. I was not shy. If I had an opinion, I stated it. Loudly. And sometimes, I was quite wrong. But mostly, I was different in my thinking and my experiences. Not good. Not bad. Just different. My experiences were not similar to my classmates.
My saving grace was that I was a kind and loving person. I smiled at, and hugged, everyone, professors included. I felt great compassion for others and I was brutally honest without being judgmental. I would help anyone who asked, and you could count on me for truth-telling.
One of my classmates, a twentysomething year old white male from a rural part of Georgia became pretty close to me. I call him a friend. Let’s call him “Ned.” That was not his name but for the sake of privacy, the name works.
He was a gorgeous, highly intelligent, open-hearted soul. He loved kids and had that one rare gift of being able to look at another person and hold a gaze to the person with his beautiful eyes. I never felt invisible around this handsome young man who was old enough to be my son. He loved God and loved academia. As smart as he was, people came before his studies and he always had time for a conversation. Over the three years that I knew him, I was impressed by the fact that he went out of his way to take classes with women professors. I noticed that he shied away from political discussions and I concluded he was probably a Republican in this flaming liberal environment. Yet, we had a wonderful friendship.
One day, he said to me, “Ms. Iyabo, I have a question. I am dealing with something and I have no one else that I feel I can trust with this information.” He then tumbled out a bunch of words and basically told me that he grew up in the rural south as a white male and his seminary experience was introducing him to his privilege. He talked about racism in his social location and how normative it was. He wondered how he would be able to integrate back into his community after seminary as he felt he would not be able to assimilate back into that culture.
Basically, my understanding was that his people use the “n” word regularly. His folks did not go around shooting at black people but they kept their distance and thought of themselves as superior. Back then, #45 in the White House whose name shall not be mentioned on my blog, was not yet in office, but I imagine at that Thanksgiving dinner in 2016, at his home, in rural Georgia, his people were happy. Knowing Ned, he was probably silent at that holiday dinner. He is not a feisty, in your face kinda guy. He is more of a pastoral, kind and loving pastor type.
What I admire about Ned is that he did not enjoy, what Toni Morrison in The Origin of Others refers to as “a seamless commitment to the status quo.” As I reflect on my friendship with him, I think of the fact that it was part his personality and natural curiosity, plus a sense of fairness, and his intellect on the one hand that caused him to seek to expand and resonate to this true nature, and on the other hand, it was exposure to an environment not similar to the one in which he was raised.
I had a simple assignment for Ned when he presented me with his conundrum. I asked him to take a week to look at the bevy of beautiful ladies that adorned the seats in his classroom and graced the halls of the building and come back to me with the name, or names, and description of the most beautiful black woman he could find. I told him to play with his thoughts and push his concepts of sexy and beautiful.
Literally, Ned spluttered.
Yup. He did. My wonderful Ned spluttered.
“But, but, but…..”
Yup – spluttering.
He ran his hand through his hair and the first thing he told me was pure crap. He said he did not want to date anyone while in seminary because he had to focus on his studies. After I called him out on his crap, he said he would try but eventually, he confessed and told me that he did not find black women attractive and he had a particular look he liked (blond, blue-eyed) and he did not see what that had to do with race.
I told him that what we consider beautiful is what we hold dear. I told him that even sexual attraction to another is something we are often trained in and we do not realize it. We had a wonderful conversation that we revisited over the years of our friendship.
Periodically, he would bring it up and say, “Ms. Iyabo, I am working on it. I am looking at everyone!”
He ended up falling in love with a wonderful woman who is beautiful and is perfect for him. I like her a lot and I think she is probably one of the best things that will ever happen to him. She is a beautiful white, blondish, blueish eyed amazing woman.
He did not need to go and partner with a black woman that he felt was beautiful to fully wrestle with his privilege, but the lesson was important. What you consider beautiful is actually a reflection of yourself. What made me love my friend Ned even more, is that he actually entertained this, thought about this, held up a mirror to himself and wrestled with his concept of beauty, privilege, and whiteness.
I am proud to continue to call him friend.
Beloveds, I often say, “I do not trust white people who do not wrestle with their privilege.” What I really should say is, “I do not trust people who do not wrestle with their humanity.”
- Wrestling with humanity means that you are aware that you, your beliefs, your norms and your values are not the center of the entire Universe.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you are able to appreciate difference and not be threatened by it.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you graciously accept that it is impossible for you to be right 100% of the time.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you are a learner and you are on a constant quest to grow and be the very best that you can be.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you embrace humility and recognize that your capacity as a human is gloriously limited.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you recognize you are not the sole solution to the problems others face.
- Wrestling with your humanity means that you create room for others to enter in and help you be even more awesome than you already are.
- Wrestling with your humanity is quintessentially human and humane.
Beloved, the sweetness of wrestling with your humanity is that you end up welcoming the stranger: not the stranger outside of yourself, but the stranger within.
Toni Morrison says, “We are vulnerable to “distancing ourselves and forcing our own images onto strangers, as well as becoming the stranger we may abhor” [Pg 31].
How do we wrestle with our humanity? We ask questions. We engage with difference. We lay down privilege. We lay down misogyny. We lay down racism. We lay down superiority. We lay down that surge of pride in our chests that says we have “arrived” and beautifully so. Instead, we begin to recognize that we are these mysterious, complex, messy beings that have hidden layers of depths and shadow sides and until we love and embrace all of it, we remain powerless, no matter how powerful we feel.
Why do we wrestle with our humanity? To reconcile all the disparate, hidden, confusing parts of ourselves that only get exposed when we enter into the arena of the conflict, the contrast, the discomfort, the difference.
David Brooks, in his New York Times Op-Ed piece, The Quiet Death of Racial Progress, argues that this country has lost all enthusiasm for racial integration. His description of the two political positions was quite fascinating to me and gave me some language that helps me describe some of the ideas I have around “cultural norms.”
Whose norms? When we demonize people because of their difference from us, because they do not fit into our nice little “bourgeois norms,” we stop wrestling with our own humanity. We thereby announce ourselves the official winner of the match and dare anyone to contradict our winning results.
Brooks says that, by not talking to each other, most people live only in one of two polar opposite realities. One reality is “left on structural racism” and the other is “right on cultural accountability.” He goes on to say, “the left-wingers have it correct when they point to the systems of oppression that pervade society: the legacy of residential segregation; the racist attitudes in the workplace that demonstrably make it much harder for African-American men to get jobs; the prejudices — in the schools, in the streets, and in the judicial system — that make it much more likely that African-American males will be punished, incarcerated and marginalized.”
He then points out the other side and says, “conservatives are right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms.”
He concludes with, “We’ve fallen into a bogus logjam in which progressives emphasize systems of oppression and conservatives emphasize cultural norms. Both critiques are correct. If we’re going to do something about this appalling retrogression on race, we probably need to be radical on both ends.”
What I admire about David Brooks is that he is a conservative Republican who is publicly wrestling with his position and doing some good, hard and necessary work. I do not agree with him that it is right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms as often those norms are exclusionary in their accountability and actually promote the systems of oppressions that pervade our society and promote all the dreadful isms. But I appreciate that he wrestles with both perspectives. I respect the wrestling.
I wonder, without getting political, where do you fall: Are there normative cultural values that you uphold beyond anything else, or are you more offended by the systems of oppression that are in place?
I want to close with lovely language from Toni Morrison as I slowly chew on her delicious words in “The Origin of Others.” After describing how disappointed she felt after an encounter she had with a stranger, a fisherwoman who disappeared and never returned, she says,
“It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known—although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes – especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves” [pg. 38-39].
My prayer for you this week, Beloveds, is that you wrestle, wrestle well, wrestle radically, and grant yourself, as well as others, the specific individuality that the honor of personhood brings as you lay down alarm and false reverence.
As always, I am eager to hear how it goes.
Peace, hugs and joy in your pilgrimage.