Who am I?

Who are you?

Let me help us both.

We are a multiplicity of overlapping, interacting and changing identities.

I think over my own many morphing identities and my points of awareness of them.

Let me tell you my story, the story of my identity formation, and what it might suggest about what God is doing with us

Let’s start with gender. I grew up as a male in a predominately male household. It was rough and tumble, sock and be socked. My sense of being a male increased when I went to school and there were the girls! Those beautiful creatures! I liked the look of them better than I liked the look of my brothers, but they were a bit scary. What could you say other than to blurt out that you loved them and what then! Awkward! I know. I did that!

There were my summer camp friends, Connie and Beth and Cindy. They were like sisters to me. They were good for me, less threatening than the brothers, and I think they were preparing me for a life of working appropriately and respectfully with females.

There is another thing that I ran into regarding gender. Arriving at college I realized males were being criticized for being unemotional, insensitive, domineering and violent. There was something off about being a male, and yet, while acknowledging the abuses of my kind, I found I was still been able to love myself as male and to develop deep and loving relationships with male friends, especially those who weren’t overly competitive.

At home in my early years I identified more with my mother than my father, her love of art, nature and beauty, and her affection, openly expressed. Watching males who ruled, (my father with his armamentarium of discipline) I began to understand the structural and emotional power of patriarchy, the competitiveness and dominance of males, my own tendencies to dominate, and my hatred of that very thing when in our world it has led to oppression and abuse and shame of females. Later in my professional career, I made it my goal to use the power of my gender to advance women in the positions of power and leadership. I felt as if on a mission to do this.

Besides gender, age is a great shaper of identity. I became acutely aware of my age in my twenties, although every age has his poignant moments of awareness — of it’s time stamp, of the power of time to shape our lives. In my middle to late twenties I felt the cultural push, the societal expectation to get married, to develop a career, to find and initiate my own family. To not do would be a social failure — or so it seemed. We are dominated by the traditional identities we are expected to assume. When I was 27 I met a young woman, Linda, who became a friend, over time a trusted confidant, someone I felt extremely comfortable with, someone I could be myself with. Ah, the freedom to explore what’s inside — what a gift Linda gave to me! Together we made a bond, we came of age, we married, we began to help shape each other’s identities. We created a shared identity, we made a family. We had girls. Rosalind and Laurel. Those years seemed as if they would never end. They did. Age is power to be and do certain things. Certain ages contain more power than others. As I age and lose some physical power I see that age identity keeps shifting.

Racial identity hit me between the eyes when I took my first job as a teacher at a school where 70% of the students were black, 20% Hispanic, the rest a mix of other cultures. I was white, I stood out, white faculty, and my understanding of the power dynamics of race greatly increased. A majority of the teachers were white.

I had an epiphany. I needed to find a connection with the backgrounds of my students, dialogue with them on identity, understand them better, help them sort out their identities. So I found and assigned ethnic literature, and we explored the power dynamics of race through writers like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Sandra Cisneros. My eyes were opened to how heavily race shaped power in our culture. I saw so many of my students suffering from poor self-esteem, from fear of success, from the criticism of their own community.

I was able to see up-close the emasculation of the black American male by American history. Slavery was one of the powerful institutions that created white privilege and the effects of that remain with us to today. I came to hate racism, passionately, to hate it in myself, and to do everything possible to rid the world of it.

Eventually I took a job as a pastor. As a Christian, I began to grapple with my religious identity and feelings and thoughts about other religions. I was never comfortable with the stereotype of intolerance and judgmental mismanagement that I knew some would place on me. The divide between those with different Christian doctrines and those with different faiths became something to explore and understand, not to fear. Over time I grew in appreciation for others unique struggles to find God. At one time I saw my Christianity as separating me from others, but I eventually came to see it as linking me to others. So many Christians are against so many other groups. They are stuffed with divisive morals and doctrines. Following Jesus, I have moved in the opposite direction. I am more for people, for understanding, for dialogue, for acceptance, for appreciation of what so many of us have in common — a thirst for God. I don’t diminish the significance of differences, of contradictions, but I find myself drawn much more to the similarities that we have as we struggle to understand and experience life and God.

Now let’s consider social class. I grew up poor because my parents were engaged in Christian social work. My parents were absolutely committed to helping people who struggled, who we might consider stuck in a bottom social class. My dad spent a lifetime working in drug and alcohol rehab programs, helping and mixing lovingly with those struggling with addiction. I grew up making friends with and hanging out with men who were self-described alcoholics. My mom started a halfway house in Los Angeles for women and children living on the street. But I was never very conscious of class as a young person.

When I married, my wife and I both developed professional careers, and as a result we did the things that cemented us into the middle class, bought houses, took vacations in Europe — to Paris, to London, to Rome, to Kona, to San Francisco to Washington D.C. — visited national parks and provided rich experiences for our children. We mixed with other professionals socially who did the same.

But in this upwardly mobile movement I experienced the endemic economic insecurity of the middle-class, the anxiety that there wasn’t enough even when there was more than enough, the compulsion to spoil our children with things. But interestingly in my work as a teacher and as a pastor I again became very connected to people without resources and very passionate about relating to them in fair, honoring and personal ways. I traveled to countries that looked a lot different than our vacations destinations. I went to and worked in places like Nicaragua, Brazil, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Mexico leading crews to embrace, build with and empower the people there.

And in the second church I pastored, we set up programs to feed people, we built a beautiful counseling center, and we made counseling affordable, and invited recovery groups into the church as an integral part of our ministry. And all this I could feel the effect of my parents model in my life.

My life has given me an education in class differences and it has increased my appreciation for people independent of the dividing walls of class

Disability, the identity of disability also defines me. One of our daughters. Rosalind, was born with brain damage. She developed epilepsy. She went to school in special-education classes. Through her I became acutely aware of what it means to be disabled, to have that identity as a family. I morphed. At one point I was an intellectual snob, preferring, I thought, the smart, the intelligentsia, the great writers, the intellectual elite, but living with my daughter, living through the pain, the loss, working through a disabled identity with her, loving her equally to my “smart” family members, I put my snobbish intellectualism aside, used my intelligence to try to understand others, worked not to let education or intelligence come between me and anyone. Intelligence does not equal worth; being equals worth. This is a lesson I hold in my heart.

Gender, age, race, religion, class, disability and more — all make up my complex identity because identity is the interaction of multiple factors and to grow in understanding ourselves and others we must refuse to be simplistic and naïve about who we are sociologically and systemically. We all have multiple identities have the capability of shifting toward the positive.

Especially for we Christians, trying to follow God, we can be sure that God is in the mix. God is the divine sociologist, the great anthropologist, the shaper and maker of the components of identity.

The famous dictum, know thyself should be expressed as know thy multiple selves. I do not have a multiple personality disorder, (although you couldn’t get all who know me to assent to that) but I do have a multiple identity disorder. The disorder is I don’t always know who I am. The disorder is that I haven’t honestly faced my role, my privilege, my dysfunction within the culture that I exist within. At times I have resisted my identity and my daughter’s identity as disabled. At times I have completely embrace this. When one night Rosalind cried that she couldn’t read and said, I hate myself!” I cried with her and she looked up and asked, “Daddy are you crying for me?” And I was and we bonded deeply in that eye-streaming moment.

Let’s be very honest here. Gender, age, race, religion, class, patriarchy, and disability have always been grounds for the determination of value, and they have also been the brutal playing field upon which horrible, harming attitudes, policies and discriminations have taken place. In my own life I can see how I could take identity in one of two directions: to bring harm; to bring help.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and other modern scholars have developed a concept that can help us very much in understanding identity. The concept is now widely known and discussed as intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Intersectionality is now widely understood to illustrate the interplay between any kinds of discrimination, whether it’s based on gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, or ethnicity. The multitude of modern research done on the intersection of race and gender has mainstreamed the concept of intersectionality. For example, to be black and female can result in a double whammy of discrimination. If you want proof go explore how the courts frame and interpret the stories of black women plaintiffs.

Only gradually, overtime, have I come to realize where I stand on the Axes of Identity Privilege. I have been given an advantaged, privileged identity that many others have not. Being a white, educated, middle-class male with intellectual acuity, being tall, attractive enough, able bodied and capable of reproduction has given me great advantages.

I applied for jobs and got them easily. I aspire to supervisory and leadership and executive roles within the organizations I worked for and I was given them. I was supplied ample remuneration for my work, I applied for loans and got them, I invested with professional guidance in the stock market and in housing and accumulated wealth. I was and am a part of a system that has rewarded my kind.

“Come on,” you might say, “You earned what you got, you worked hard, you make good choices.”

The truth is that many people work hard, many people much poorer than I am work harder than I have and many people without the privilege that I have experienced have made good choices. And yet our culture has marginalize them, limited them, not rewarded them with leadership roles, not loaned to them, held them back, seen them as lesser. And being in multiple minority groups involves an intersectionality that leads to even less opportunity.

Some will argue back that no matter the odds against any of us we are still responsible for our choices. A victim’s mentality will get you know where. Make your own opportunity. Push through the barriers. I agree. Yes, fight for your identity. If no one helps you help yourself. But systemic discrimination makes it very hard to win, to get a piece of the pie. When the majority create a wall around opportunity that can be a high barrier to try to scale. Is there systemic discrimination in the United States? There is.

There are many startling examples in our country.

In 2016 major league baseball had only one Latino and no black managers. As we turn the calendar to 2020, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers remains as the only black manager among the league’s 30 franchises. The examples of this kind of thing are endless.

Women hold 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles.

Black homeownership rate (32.7 percent) has fallen drastically since 2000 and is now just over half the rate for whites. Independent reviews confirmed by The Associated Press showed black mortgage applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine.

People of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.

I know this kind of thing first hand in my own profession. It is extremely difficult for a young, female pastor with children to land a role as a lead pastor in a church.

So what to do?

One, understand this problem of bias in America, of intersectionality. Don’t deny it. Don’t falsely claimed that we are not a part of it. Grapple with it. We all own the race issue. We all own the gender issue. We all own the class issue.

Secondly, review your own history as I have mine. I have told you my story, how life has shaped me and changed me. I believe that God is in the story. I believe that God had been working —as you can see in my narrative — to disabuse me of my discriminatory tendencies, to help me understand intersectionality.

Tell yourself your own story. Do you realize where you have been advantaged or disadvantage? Can you see God helping you to work against discriminatory attitudes and behaviors. Have you changed to be a more accepting, empowering and loving person?

Thirdly, seek out experiences with people different than yourself and grow in an understanding of intersectionality.

Lastly, bring fairness, justice, empowerment to people of all kinds in the places you work, school, worship, play, live and do business.

Who are you?

Who do you want to be?

Who is God shaping you to be?

Let justice roll down like waters,and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:24

  1. Beth Eldridge says:

    Again, an inspirational read. Thank you! Beth Eldridge

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