Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Of Whiteness and Integrated Identity

I've never really thought of myself as white.

Not that my culture doesn't consider me white, with all of the rights and privileges thereunto. 

But as a category of self-understanding, white never served any integrative purpose.  Meaning, to unpack that rather awkward psychobabbly way of putting it, I've never seen it as a defining part of my identity.  There are other aspects of my identity that are defining.

I am male, and good with that.  I am straight, and comfortable with what that entails. 

I have a mongrel heritage, drawn from a diverse array of related but distinct cultures.

I am American, and personally vested in the well being of my constitutional republic.  I vote.  I stay informed.  I keep alert for threats to freedom, both to myself and to others.

I am a husband, and a father, and a son, and see in each of these certain defining purposes for my life.

Overarching all of these, I am a Christian.  In the teachings of Jesus and the witness of millennia of the Beloved Community, I find the ethos that gives cohesion to my identity. 

These ways of organizing and prioritizing my responses to life are both my foundation and my purpose.  In so far as I act to honor their best intent, my actions reflect a particular chosen identity. 

I cannot, with any honesty, say that whiteness does the same.  Again, I was taught to understand my heritage as complex and multifaceted, drawing from multiple regions, cultures and ethnic lineages.  That understanding shaped my liberality towards other cultures, peoples, and forms of human self expression.  If I was made up of various different things, then encountering difference was no threat.

Whiteness wasn't ever part of that.  In fact, whiteness, as a way of understanding oneself, seems to stand in distinct tension with my more complex ground of self.   This awareness has nothing to do with our current spasm of race-anxiety.  I have always chafed at whiteness.  Back in high school when I was filling out the obligatory forms, marking myself as "white" felt like an imposition.  An erasure of reality.  

What I struggle with mightily in this moment of racial anxiety is this:  I'm not sure whiteness can constructively shape identity.  I hear earnest folks addressing "white people" as a unit, or saying "as a white person I..." or suggesting that "white people" need to do this or that.  I don't think "white" can deal constructively with racism, because "white" was at the heart of the problem of modern era racism. 

I just can't see any way that claiming white identity gets us beyond our mess.

I look to the idea of being white, and I do see how it influences culture and how it shapes self understanding.  I see in it nothing that I want to orient myself towards.  It feels unhealthy, destructive, and inherently false.

As a *resisted* identity, sure.  That I get.  Writers like Ibram X. Kendi have suggested being "white" may inhabit the same sort of identity category as saying you're an alcoholic or an addict.  Meaning, yeah, it does form identity, but only in negative ways.  That, in fact, there may be something inherently blighted about it.

If that's the case, it's not a constructive identity, either to self or to community.  It is, instead, a disintegrative form of self understanding, one that drives us further away from both societal justice and spiritual grace.