Posts tagged metaphysical dilemma
Bring Yourself
Photo by Anna J Yoder. Click Image to view her portfolio. 

Photo by Anna J Yoder. Click Image to view her portfolio. 

I am learning to bring all of myself to my work. For a long time I thought I had to chop myself into pieces in order to be understood. I thought separating my womanhood from my blackness was the only way I could operate in the world- perhaps the only way to make sense of the world. By separating myself, I believed I could gain control. If I only brought my womanhood to women's conferences, and ignored my race, I could fill up one bucket while ignoring the other. Similarly, in social justice spaces that are dominated by patriarchy, I thought I could stuff my womanhood down, put it on hold, throw it on the back burner and focus on racial justice for a moment. While these are clear spaces where I am highly aware of the "need" to split myself in half, there is a sense that I am regularly doing this. 

I walk into a room and people aren't sure how to react to the black woman standing before them. Is that because I am black or because I am woman? If I was a black man would they respond the same way?  Or if I was a white woman would I have gotten the same treatment? If I am asked to speak about race, do I only tell stories that I am certain involved race only? If someone agrees with everything I think about racial justice but doesn't have a problem with patriarchy, do I get to address that? Or must I split them in half as well- cheering for the justice side but pretend the patriarchy isn't somehow at play in the moment? 

Splitting myself was both a way of survival and a way of believing in the world. Let me tell you, its so easy to find women who care about womanhood and activists who care about racial justice. Finding folks who are willing to take on multiple forms of oppression are significantly harder to come by. 

But this way of survival leaves much to be desired. I want more. I want more than survival. More than half truths. More than sort of allies. More than halfway on board institutions. I want more than dissection- of myself and of those around me. I want wholeness. 

I want to bring the complicated mess that I am to the table because I didn't create the complications. I didn't erect racial injustice, and I didn't build patriarchy. I didn't inform white supremacy, and I didn't write books on a woman's "rightful place". 

I see the world as a black woman. It is the perspective God gave me. It is the lens through which I see the world. Its how I understand the world- how I talk, how I walk, how I think, how I write, how I move in the world. 

Black and woman. This is a gift. Its so easy to forget what a gift this is because patriarchy and racism would have me believe otherwise, would have me believe that I am less than, that the weight of both is too much to carry all at once, that I must focus on just one if I am to be effective. Lies.

I believe in the legacy of black women who refused to be satisfied with lies. I believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I believe that I am created in the image of the Divine. I believe that I am at my best when I bring my wholeness to the table. I believe that the weight of racism and patriarchy cant drown me. I believe that I am perfectly made for resistance, for freedom, for community. 

If there are others out there, working to dismantle multiple oppressions, navigating multiple identities, I want you to know that I believe in us. I believe in our wholeness. I believe in our legacy and our future. I believe in our work, in our community, in our sense of self. 

Bring yourself. All of you. And I promise to bring myself, too. We'll practice. And we'll get better. We'll do it together. We'll cheer one another on. And in holding hands we'll find that we are stronger together. In holding hands we will find that oppressive systems don't stand a chance. In holding hands we will find ourselves. We will move closer to the whole being God created. We will live. 

Be brave. Being yourself is resistance.

Metaphysical Dilemma (Part II)

This post is a little ramble-y I warn you in advance. I kinda switch themes and points throughout, but rather than trying to fix it, I am going to leave it as is. I hope that it illustrates my point of how it feels to always have one portion of myself emphasized and another shunned. It is nothing nice to feel like a metaphysical dilemma, and turns out it isn't easy to write out either. 

Last week I shared a post with you about my metaphysical dilemma of rarely being what people expect when they meet me. While this has made for many an awkward moment, it is not the only time I feel like a metaphysical dilemma. There have been many posts written about this, but it has been weighing on my heart, so I have decided to add my two cents, even if its only worth exactly that. 

Can I be really honest and tell you that as much as I love conferences, I enter them with a certain level of fear and trepidation? My fear is not that I will experience an overt act of racism. I have no fears that I will be stopped at the door or rejected. I have no fears that someone will say or do anything unkind. My fear is not at all physical. Rather I fear the number of ways I will feel devalued, unimportant, sidelined, monolithic, or invisible. I never fear that I will standout. I fear that I will never be seen at all. 

It is really hard to walk into women conferences when I know there will be few (if any) women of color on stage. There are many things women experience in similar fashion. I truly enjoy talking about relationships and body image and calling and marriage and even kids (thought I don't have any). I enjoy the sense of camaraderie, the sense of knowing that can transpire within a room full of strangers. It is a profound experience, but it is also one that is too often limited. There are so many cultural nuances, even within these topics that never get spoken because there isn't anyone present to say, "the way you describe this experience is based on a cultural norm not experienced by everyone". While I realize it is impossible to cover every culture in existence, it would be so nice to see a diverse group of women represented from various socioeconomic backgrounds valued as speakers, contributors, experts whose stories and wisdom are valuable for everyone in the room. Conference planners clearly expect women of color will have something to gain from white women (and its true), but why is it not assumed women of color can also contribute greatly to the lives of white women? 

Not only this, but I believe I have much to learn from other women of color. I love seeing black women represented on stage, but I have so much to learn from my Asian sisters, my Latino sisters, my First Nations sisters and so many others. I have much to learn from their history, their theology, their success and failures. I have much to learn from their languages and customs and celebrations. I have much to learn about things we absolutely have in common and things that will blow my mind. I want to hear from all woman. I don't want women of color to be a checkmark on a list. I want women of color to be pursued, chased, overtaken because we all must sit at their feet and learn. I want us to believe God can and will speak to our hearts through them. 

While I appreciate the small steps women conferences are taking to make sure that the line-up isn't all white, it is not uncommon to feel like I need to leave my blackness in the hotel room. It is indeed a metaphysical dilemma. I am both black and woman- both- all the time. Hard as I try, I cannot separate the two. I am sure I will not be able to adequately explain this, but if I cannot be fully black in white spaces, somehow my womanhood is also not fully represented in that same space.  

It is not just women conferences where I feel like a metaphysical dilemma. I often feel it at justice themed conferences, too. You may not have noticed, but these conferences have a tendency to be dominated by men. I have found that it is not at all uncommon to find justice conferences perfectly willing to proclaim the equality of potential, value, and role of every human soul before God when talking about color but use an asterisk as a provision to exempt women from that statement. 

Justice conferences seem enamored with people of color, but sometimes only as products to be saved rather then experts to employ. The rhetoric of these conference has gotten so good at proclaiming the innate value of the marginalized, and yet seem to stumble through finding speakers from multiple walks of life.

Let me tell you, its also really demoralizing to see more faces that look like mine on posters of sponsored children than in the speaker line-up. I am grateful for the desire to see women and girls around the world receive a great education. I am grateful for the energy being given to end the trafficking of women and girls. I am grateful for all the efforts worldwide to make sure that women and girls reach their full potential. it would also be nice to be considered an invaluable and necessary resource, a leader, a must have expert, a needed voice on the stage. I realize that conferences only make their money by employing famous names, famous authors, and famous pastors. Really I do, but this reality of wealth does nothing to ease my dilemma of not being fully represented. 

Its all very confusing folks. In one arena my womanhood is proof that I cam called by God to be a leader, but my color is not considered an important part of that calling. On the other, God wouldn't hesitate to use my color and culture to proclaim his Kingdom but my vagina is a definitive boundary of my leadership potential. Feeling like a metaphysical dilemma is wearying.

I want to give space to say that there are conferences at varying levels of getting this right, and believe me, the ones I trust, I attend faithfully. Yet these feel more like exceptions than the rule.  

If it is at all inspiring to planners, please let me say that I want to be a full member of your conference. I want give my money to register. I want to meet lots of new people. I want to make purchases at your resource tables. I want to travel and experience the locations you choose. But I also want to bring my full self. The last place I should feel like a metaphysical dilemma is surround by my brothers and sisters in Christ in a space where we all are supposed to leave with notebooks full of revelations. Too often I find myself seeking friends and mentors who will offset the discomfort of not being fully known, fully valued as women of color. Too often we huddled in corners and hotel rooms and lunch counters dissecting, retranslating and making applications that will fit our full selves. How wonderful would it be to gain all this during the conference, rather than need therapy after?!

Metaphysical Dilemma

I don't know if you've noticed, but it is actually pretty strange for the name Austin to belong to a black girl. Growing up in the mid-eighties I could usually find my name engraved on little keychains and cups, but they were always in the "boy" section, never the one designated for girls. The teachers doing roll call on the first day of class always expected me to be sitting among the group of boys. I usually had to do jumping jacks to get teachers to see me waving on the other side of the room. When giving the librarian my card, I always got the second degree as if stealing someone's library card was my highest aim at 11 years old. If ever I was out and ran into another person named Austin… always a boy (except one time in junior high, in the Appalachian mountains at a corner store- the cashier was female; we celebrated!) But in my day-to-day life, always a boy. 

Completely fed up with the frustration of constantly being assumed to be a boy, I asked my parents why they gave me the name Austin. My mother's reply, "Your father and I had a terrible time trying to find a girl's name we both liked. Had you been a boy, you would have been a junior. Easy. But we didn't know what to name a girl. So I suggested my grandfather's last name, Austin. No boys have been born to carry on the name into your generation, so I thought you could be the "last" Austin. We both loved it."

"But why?" I insisted. "Why did you love it?" 

Then came the answer that changed everything. "We knew that if you ever applied for a job, wrote a resume, filled out an application for school, people would look at your name and assume you are a white man. We knew you'd be smart and charming enough to make it through anyone's interview. But we had to get you to the interview." 

And something clicked. It was true. The people named Austin weren't just boys… they were all white boys. (Even as I grew up and met a couple more female Austins… still white.) Let me tell you, that far from giving me a complex, it all suddenly made sense. People were curious about me, sometimes suspicious of me. People didn't just ask me once if I was "sure" about my name. (what does that even mean?!) People asked me twice or even three times. The surprise on people's faces lasted far longer than other girls with traditional boy names. I finally understood why. When people read my name, they had no expectation of a black girl waving back. 

Carrying around a white mans name has created some interesting (and awkward) moments. Most are minor- people who have written emails giving me the title "Mr." feel the need to apologize when they meet me in person. Or on the telephone I typically have to say my name a couple times before the caller realizes they do have the right number. Occasionally, though, its a really jolting experience. 

I've applied for a job. I got the interview. Its a group interview. I sit outside the conference room waiting for someone to bring me inside. A person carrying a clipboard emerges. They look at my resume in their hands. They look around the room. They look at the resume in their hands. They look around the room. Tentatively, they ask, "Are you Austin?" I smile and nod, pretending not to notice their confusion. I walk into the conference room. Everyone glances at each other. They look back down at my resume, too. They look at me. I am asked again, "You're Austin?" I keep smiling and nodding. I know what's coming next. "That is such a ______ name." The adjectives vary, but this is always the transition. People need to comment on it to move passed it. Finally the interview begins. 

Now this may not sound like a very traumatic experience. It only lasts a couple minutes. To be honest, the hard part only lasts a few seconds. But its excruciating. It happens somewhere between me stepping into the room and the glances at one another and/or my resume. There is a moment, when all of their expectation are undone. A moment when they must decide if it matters that I am not a white male. A moment when they must determine if their expectations will now be different. A moment when they must glance down at my resume once more to see if my accomplishments now mean something different. A moment when they must confirm with one another in silence by admitting, this is not who I expected. That is the trauma. 

In my body, I know that we have work to do because a moment of adjustment is needed. A moment to gather oneself. A moment to make sense of everything. Usually the moment passes without incident. Usually my parents are correct, and my charisma dismisses any awkwardness from the room. But not always. 

Occasionally there is a presence who simply cannot reconcile that I am not the white male authority that was expected. Occasionally, I find myself responding to questions like, "So who is really in charge here?" Occasionally, it becomes inconceivable that the lesson I taught is as good, as thorough, as meaningful as it would have been if only my name matched the expectations of my body. Occasionally, people aren't entirely sure what to do with me- so they leave the room, or hang up the phone, or ask me for an explanation. How? Why? I think some people genuinely feel deceived.

When I first learned to write my name, I had no idea it would be so subversive. I had no idea it carried meaning, expectations. I had no idea it was tied to race or gender- how others would perceive me. I had no idea. But I experience the "surprise and wonder" pretty regularly. 

Though most of this post has focused singularly on me, my point is actually for all women of color. My experience of being sized up next to my white counterparts, is obvious and sometimes over the top, but in a more subtle way, I think many women of color who spend the bulk of their time navigating white evangelical culture experience this.

Glances back and forth between white colleagues after voicing an opinion. Or worse, being "translated" after speaking our piece.  

Checking and double checking our professional history, "Did you really…?"

Demanding to know how we got here, wherever here is.

The awkward apologies when incorrect assumptions have been made about our lives.

Always wondering if we are being sized up based solely on our contributions or only in relationship to our white counterparts. 

Desperately trying to figure out what people expect when we show up. 

My name is Austin, so I notice the shifting in the seats, the long pauses,  the looks of curiosity. But this is not my story alone. It is one grain of sand in the experience of being a "colored girl" and Ms. Ntozanke Shange's words still ring with truth in my soul, "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma / i have not conquered yet"