Saturday, September 19, 2015

Learning a New Vocabulary

Audre Lorde, a black feminist lesbian civil rights activist, wrote the following words in her essay, Scratching the Surface, "If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others-for their use and to our detriment."  She wrote these words in response to critics on all sides who would not value one or more parts of her identity--white feminists who ignored her experience as an African American, black activists who criticized her sexual orientation and so many more who might have found common cause with part of her identity but not all of it.  She claimed the right to define herself rather than allowing others to fit her into a category which neglected a vital part of who she was.  She understood the power of self-definition.

There is a power in naming someone or something.  A name involves definition and the one who decides on the definition holds the power.  Anyone who reads the Bible should not be surprised at this idea.  When God re-names Jacob and calls him Israel or Jesus renames Simon by calling him Peter, a person's identity is changed.  Yet, as we humans often do, when we name others we take the place of God and our naming is an attempt to exercise power over them--power that only God can claim.  Our names for others end up contradicting the names God has already given them.  God has already called them "beloved," meaning a being worthy of love from the Creator of the universe.  We name others to diminish their divine worth.

There is a reason Native Americans abhor the Washington Redskins name.  Redskin was a term of derision and subjugation by whites used to justify genocide.  As one Native American speaker at our denomination's national meeting this year said, "I am not a mascot.  I am a person!"  In other words, Native Americans wish to claim their identity as people of worth and beloved of God.

There is a reason why African Americans have chosen the term "African American" or "black" to describe themselves.  They wanted to take power away from those who had oppressed them.  Rather than being called "negro," "colored" or worse.  African Americans chose their own name.  They wished to re-claim their identity for themselves as people beloved of God.

This same motive is the reason that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people added each their own names to the acronym LGBT.  In the same way, more people who were never allowed to name themselves have expanded that acronym to include the letters Q, I and A.  Q stands for Queer people who do not fit into one of the previous four letters.  I stands for intersex people who have genitalia of both male and female. A stands for asexual people who have no sexual attraction to others.  That acronym keeps growing, and it can feel like a mouthful at times, but each letter is not merely a letter but a group of people who have claimed their own power and chosen to name themselves.  Each group is claiming its own worth and dignity as beloved of God.

The criticism of so-called "politically correct" language boils down to people who had power to name others losing that ability.  As the hierarchy of power in our culture that places white straight males at the top continues to crumble, so also does the majority's power to name those in the minority.  Loss of power is threatening.

If the Christian message means anything, however, it points us to the truth that giving up our power over others is what it means to follow Jesus.  Paul wrote in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

"Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings."

If we wish to follow Jesus, those of us at the top of our society's hierarchy for so long should take it as a blessing rather than a threat that we get to step down from lording over others.  When we set aside our self-proclaimed right to define who others are and are not, we become more like who God made us to be and less like a distorted version of our true selves.  We stop trying to play God.

When I hear Donald Trump's declaration that he will "Make America Great Again," I hear the cries of people who are losing the power to name, categorize and control others.  They are angry about no longer having the power they once took for granted.  I hear in the denigration of "illegal immigrants" and "poor people" and the "losers" of society the sinful declarations of people who want to be back in the place of God.  They want the power to name others and to define them as someone other than God's beloved.

It's not easy keeping up with new names and terms.  It amounts to learning a new vocabulary.  Recently in my own journey, I've been learning the meanings of new words like "cisgender" and "intersectionality" and "whiteness."  If they're new to you, here are some quick definitions thanks to Google:

cisgender--the opposite of transgender, a person whose physical gender characteristics match the gender they identify with.  The prefix "cis-" means "this side of" while the prefix "trans-" means "the other side of;" so you are either "this side of" gender or "the other side of" gender.

intersectionality--the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. For example the writer and activist Audre Lorde whom I quoted above, existed at the intersection of oppression based on sexism, racism and homophobia.  She refused to confront one form of oppression to the neglect of another form of oppression but instead resisted all of them.

whiteness--the social construction of whiteness as tied to social status.  In other words, the idea of people being either "white" or "black" despite the fact that their skin is usually pink, tan, brown, beige or some other color, is a made up idea.  As James Baldwin wrote in "On Being 'White'. . . and Other Lies", "No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country."  People now called "white" were once Irish, English, Italian, German, etc., but eventually in America they became "white" as opposed to "black."  "Whiteness" necessarily involves controlling and oppressing people who are "black."

These new words for me are opening up my mind and confronting me with the ways I have stolen the right of others to name themselves.  I was born into a system of names and words that I did not create, but I benefited from them just as others were diminished by them.  If I wish to give back to God--what is God's right after all--the role of naming and defining others as "beloved," I must acknowledge the God-given right of others to define themselves and to name themselves.  I must give up power and I must stop playing God.

Rather than feeling threatened, I feel relieved.  Playing God is hard work.  It's so much easier just to listen to others and ask them how they wish to be named and defined rather than trying to be the arbiter of language and the dictator over others identities.  

Let's journey together and learn a new vocabulary.

Grace and Peace
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