Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In the Race Till the End

(Note: This column won a first-place in the Virginia Press Association awards for the year 2000.)

I've been white all my life.

Unlike my friend Sarah, who, when we sang Beatles' songs together on the school bus in third grade, was "colored." Those who knew better called her Negro. In high school, she was Afro- American.

By the time Sarah reached her mid-20s, she was black, then in her late 30s, African American. In some circles, she is a "woman of color."

Being white is so generic.

Look at the form for Census 2000, item 9. Look at the choices of race:

White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; other Pacific Islander.

Question 8 asks if the person is SpanishHispanicor Latino. If so, the choices are: Mexican, Mexican American, or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or other.

Everyone has specific choices -- some, not only of "race," but vocabulary preference -- except whites.

It doesn't seem fair -- everyone else is referred to by their people group, their ancestral lineage, their culture of origin, but me? I'm tagged by my skin color. Lumped with all the other white-skinned people on the planet.

Actually, the census question has nothing to do with race. If it was, the choices would be Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, according to the definition in Webster's New World Dictionary.

Race is inappropriate when applied to cultural, religious or national groups, says the Columbia Concise Encyclopedia. The only reference to race on the census form is Negro.

Though the first option -- white -- should set the precedent for skin color, it does not. If it did, the other choices would be black, yellow, red . . . brown? The only group identified strictly by skin color is white.

Unlike whites, black-skinned people have the option of identifying with their ancestors' cultural group (African) as well as their current national group (American), or with their race (Negro).

The remaining choices are national and cultural groups. At first I thought the census was trying to get a handle on where immigrant groups have settled. If that's the case, don't the white immigrants matter? What about all the Eastern Europeans that have settled in the U.S. in the past 10 years? What about those from the Middle East?

Perhaps I am showing my ignorance. Obviously, dividing white-skinned people into sub-groups serves no purpose.

I sometimes wonder how identifying myself more specifically would change my concept of myself and my relationship with other whites.

My multiple-great grandfather, Paul Sandstrom, worked his way from Sweden to New York City on a merchant ship in the early 1800s. Thus I could identify myself as a Nordic American.

But I wonder: Would I feel a kinship with other Nordic Americans? Less connection with white-skinned people of differing origins? Should I learn more about the culture and customs of the Nordic people in order to attain a stronger sense of heritage and identity?

It's been so many generations since my grandfather migrated here. The only reminder I have of my Swedish heritage is my big rectangular head.

I'll be walking through a fine department store when I notice a rack of gorgeous women's hats. I always fall in love with one. But when I try it on, it perches atop my head rather than sliding down to where it belongs.

"Oh man, I wish my head wasn't so big," I sigh, wishing I inherited my skull genes from my mother.

Mom's side of the family tree would be even more difficult to identify with. The Thompsons immigrated to the New World from England in the 1600s.

According to my old Encyclopedia International, the ethnic group originating in the British Isles is properly known as Atlanto-Mediterranean. Hmmm.

To be fair to both parental lineages, I should be inclusive.

If my answer to question 9 on Census 2000 was consistent with the other choices of "race," I'd check the box that says "Some other race." And write in the blank: Nordic Atlanto-Mediterranean American.

Who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a white girl.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Does the Music Do To You?

This is what this music has done.

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the Bourne films: “The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Over and over as I work. And as I hear the music, I become aware of longing.

Jason Bourne, in all three films, is moved by a longing to find out who he is. In the first film, we see him floating in the sea, rescued by fishermen. When he awakens, he does not know who he is. He spends three movies searching for his true identity.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves,” writes Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

As I listen, this question comes up from the deep: Who were you before people began censoring you?

Scenes come to mind. A little girl who loved to dance and sing. A bold girl who organized the neighborhood kids to stage theater productions and talent shows. An adventurous girl who took off on her bicycle alone to explore the parts of town and other towns where nobody ever took her. An exuberant girl who loved sitting in the bow of the boat where the wind and waves splashed her face and tangled her hair. A girl who climbed trees, wrote songs, loved books.

And a scene. There she is, in the empty lot of a run-down housing development. Singing a made-up song, singing with all her heart, dancing furiously, dancing with her shadow. Then another shadow enters, with sneering laughter.

Then the voices. “Shut-up, Luanne, you can’t sing!” “Where were you? You were gone too long on your bicycle.” “Look at her, she thinks she’s so smart.” “Nice girls don’t sit like that.”

“Dancing was barely tolerated, if at all, so they danced in the forest where no one could see them, or in the basement, or on the way out to empty the trash” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “Women Who Run with the Wolves”).

When did the self-consciousness set in? The shame (there’s that subject again) of the genuine self? And, most important of all, where did that girl go? How do I find her?

Jason Bourne had been trained and conditioned to become an identity that was totally antithetical to his true self. When he tried to find his true self, people felt so threatened that they tried, over and over again, to kill him.

How about you? How about you?

“I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus says in John 10:10. A woman came into the dinner party where he was the guest of honor. The story is in Luke 7. She was not invited. The important men whispered behind their hands as she made her way toward Jesus. She was a “bad” woman.

Too often we take our cues from the people around us. “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people,” Arthur Schopenhauer writes.

This woman would have none of it. She kept right on to Jesus. Jesus reprimanded the crowd. “Do you see this woman?” he asked. Jesus alone saw her true identity. He alone knew her. Because of this, she wept, wiping his feet with her tears.

This is what Jesus is like. Don’t confuse Jesus with the religion of Christianity. Religion restricts, binds, puts its demands on us, makes rules.

And priests in black gowns were making their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
(from “The Garden of Love” by William Blake)

Jesus came to set us free. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said in John 8:32.

Look at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, two women who really don’t give a flip what you think of them. They are who they are. I say “Yay!” for both of them. There’s Hillary this week, smiling and waving in Moscow. There’s Sarah this week, heading to Michigan to speak at a prosperity summit.

In the films, there is Jason Bourne, running down back alleys, across rooftops, through crowded train stations, fighting off attackers, doing whatever he has to do to stay alive, to find someone who knows him, the One who can tell him who he really is.

The Bourne music, right now, knows where I am and what I need. “The eternal echoing of music reclaims us for awhile for our true longing,” writes John O’Donohue.

What music does this in you?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Shame Damages the Human Soul: Be Free Of It

Once upon a time there was a little girl who stole some candy from the grocery store. When she got out to the car, her mother noticed the candy bulging in the girl’s pants pocket. The mother insisted that the girl return to the store, give back the candy and apologize to the manager.

Upon their return home, the mother told the girl’s father what their daughter had done. Both the parents told the girl: You are a bad girl. You are sinful. We cannot touch you. Get away from us. You have shamed us. They repeated these words all through the evening and the next day and the day after.

This was the parents typical way of dealing with their daughter’s childhood mishaps and mistakes. There was no resolution, no absolution, no forgiveness. Just a total rejection of her person. Shame.

During Lent, I have been thinking about the role of guilt and shame in my life. What good does guilt do? What good does shame do?

Though we often use the words guilt and shame together, they are quite different. Guilt happens when your conscience is bothered by something you’ve done. We feel guilty when we are responsible for doing something we regret.

Shame, on the other hand, is when are disappointed by something inside us. The two have been contrasted this way: We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.

Guilt is constructive. It can lead to a healthy sorrow and change. Shame is damaging. It becomes our core identity and makes us feel like failures. It reminds us over and over again of our mistakes and transgressions.

In the Psalms, David often prayed, "Let me not be put to shame." "Shame on you" is a curse. The girl in the opening story has still not escaped it.

Shame may also be directed outward. To avoid the painful feelings of shame, it focuses on the mistakes and transgressions of others. It is always finding fault, always casting blame. It is a cover-up.

A shame-based personality leads to many harmful attitudes and behaviors, according to Patricia Hulsey, author of “Shattering the Shackles of Shame.” To name a few:

Self-punishment. This is one I am intimately familiar with. Throughout my life, I’ve engaged in behaviors that hurt me, such as smoking cigarettes, being disorganized and leaving projects unfinished. This is mild compared to the self-mutilation that some people engage in.

Defensiveness. Defensive people are extremely sensitive to criticism or the suggestion of personal blame. They are argumentative and always must be right. Shame-based people interpret criticism of what they do into a judgment of who they are.

Scapegoating. This is when all the blame is projected on someone else. It is a cover-up for shame by passing the blame onto others.

Perfectionism. Shame portrays a person as inferior, so perfectionism is a constant attempt to prove their worth. It is a driving, controlling force that sets impossible standards. The constant sense of failure leads to more shame, as well as judging, moralizing, and criticizing others who fall short of their arbitrary standards.

Control. A shame-based person attempts to control other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to insure that no one can ever shame him again.

Addictions. Psychologist John Bradshaw views shame as the core and fuel for all addictive behavior. He comments: "The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying, or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship...Each addictive acting out creates life-damaging consequences which create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction."

Arrogant self-righteousness. Enough said.

“Our shame defenses keep us from showing ourselves to anyone else,” writes psychologist John Bradshaw. “More tragically, these defenses keep us from looking at ourselves.”

So, if your conscience is tinged or saturated with shame, is there any way to get rid of it? Well, yes. But it’s not instant.

For me, it is an ongoing process. The process began when I realized that God loves me with an unfailing love. No matter what I do. No matter what mistakes I make. No matter how misunderstood or overlooked I am by others. But this does not let me off the hook.

Jesus willingly took our sins and failures with him to the cross. They died there with him. They no longer belong to us. That is not denial. Denial does not even recognize that we have failed or sinned. It minimizes our shortcomings.

But when we acknowledge that yes, I too have the same problems and failures as everyone else, then we can hold it all up to God.

Brennan Manning, an author and speaker, says that in all his years of praying, Bible reading, meditation and ministry, he’s convinced that, on Judgement Day, Jesus will ask us only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you?”

The most destructive aspect of shame is that it blocks us from God’s love for us. We can only be free of shame as we shape our lives in response to God’s love. One day at a time.