Monday, February 5, 2007

Thinking Myself "Other"

I’ve been reflecting recently about race, identity, and power, prompted in part by an incident that reminded me just how much I take white privilege for granted.

While on vacation from my normal round of pastoral responsibilities, I attended the monthly family program at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County. It was a beautiful day, a thoughtful dharma talk, and a great opportunity for our eight-year old son to play in the great outdoors with friends. On this particular day, those friends included mixed race Caucasian/Latino, Caucasian, and African-American kids, some of whose parents are straight and some of whom are gay or lesbian.

As a mixed race family (my husband and I are white, our son is African-American), we try to be intentional about participating in communities that reflect the diversity of our family. We want our son to experience the dignity and worth of other people of color in the social networks of which we are a part. This has guided our choice of the neighborhood in which we live, schools, the friendships we cultivate, and the churches we attend (unfortunately, probably the least diverse community in terms of race).

So, I was somewhat taken aback when, after our visit to Green Gulch, we stopped at a fast food restaurant for lunch on the way home. It was surprisingly busy for Super Bowl Sunday, and I was glad to find a table while the rest of my family waited for our order. When they brought the food over, I overheard my husband and son talking about eating in the car or outside on the sidewalk instead. I was a little put out by the idea, and asked why. My husband said, “I’ll explain later.”

While eating our lunch outside on the sidewalk, he explained that our son was uncomfortable being the only “brown skinned” person in the restaurant. I hadn’t even noticed. My son remarked that it was embarrassing to him. My immediate response was, “But you are beautiful!” Clearly, though, the issue wasn’t that he felt ashamed of how he looked, but rather self-conscious about his being “other.” We praised him for sharing his feelings with us, assured him of his value, and promised that we would be careful about keeping our family safe.

In retrospect, I thought about situations where I was the only (out) gay person in a social setting, and how uncomfortable that could be. Being different from others necessarily places one in a position of vulnerability. We can not control how others respond to our difference, and we know that the responses are all too often negative.

And yet, our situations are by no means completely analogous. I was a young adult before I came out and began to deal directly with heterosexism, while my son, unable to “pass,” has had to deal with racism his whole life. My position as a mature white male professional gives me enormous social power that serves to mitigate the heterosexism I experience. The personal and social resources at my disposal are far greater than those of my son as a black male child. He depends mightily upon the protection of his parents, as do all children, but especially in light of the stigma associated with race and sexual orientation in our culture.

I’m conscious, too, that our son benefits to some extent from the halo of white, male, and class privilege that surrounds his dads. We are able to afford him opportunities in life that he might well have missed had we not adopted him. And yet I’m also very aware of our limitations when it comes to helping our son with one of the central challenges he will face in life: growing up black in a racist society. It reminds me of the very real limitations of my own parents as I struggled to grow up into a mature gay male identity.

I’m quite certain that if I were black, I would have noticed the absence of other black people in the restaurant. While it might not have stopped me from eating there, it would have sensitized me to the possibility that my son might be uncomfortable, and made me alert to check-in with him; and, of course, he would not have been alone in his racial “otherness.” Part of the challenge of parenting for me is to empathically think myself “black” in situations where I take white privilege for granted.

(If I had a daughter, would I not need to learn to empathically think myself “female?” As a Christian, do I not need to empathically think myself “other” if I am to be compassionate as God is compassionate?)

I’m proud of my son for being able to articulate his feelings and ask for help. I’m humbled by his maturity, considering how confused I can be about my feelings and how reticent I am to ask for help at times. I’m reassured that he is secure enough in our love, and God’s love for him, that he can speak up for himself and trust that we will support him.

My hope for my son, and for all children, is that they grow up feeling confident of their dignity and worth as children of God, comfortable with the diverse humanity created in the image of God, and committed to the creation of a world that reflects the justice and mercy of God. In this, my light is Jesus, who became “other” for our sake, revealing the insanity and cruelty of our divisions and teaching us that “otherness” is a gift to be received rather than something to be feared.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My first reaction is to say how fortunate is your son to have two such loving, caring parents.

My second was to remember, quite clearly and painfully, that when our kids were your son's age, the issue was how "embarrassing" they felt when they were the only kids without mixed gender parents.

That was in the late 70's and early 80's but their discomfort over gender and sexuality "otherness" was just as acute as your son's over race.

That's not to say that one has a priority over the other. By no means! There is no hierarchy of evil in terms of the devestating effects of prejudice.

It is just to say that I empathize. I can also say, from experience, that the love your son feels from you will, eventually, win the day.

Keep doing what you are doing - trying your best to keep your son safe and be more sensitive to the environment for his psychic health.

Most of all, keep on loving.

I am grateful for your witness and your courage.

Tha family which God has called together, let no person or prejudice tear asunder.

R said...


What a beautiful post! You articulate so well many of the feelings my family has had to deal with, being a "mixed" racial (and multi-cultural) household.

Our situation is similar, but, of course, also different. My wife is visibly "Asian," being from Japan. Our son could "pass" for European American. We struggle for different reasons with the "model minority" lead weight that the dominant culture often puts on Asians and Asian-Americans. And, occasionally, we've had to deal with ugliness for being different. It took me a few years to recognize that my white privilege took a hit when we were married. But that is not only humbling, but also freeing in many ways for this white, straight guy.

It strikes me that we are all "other" in different contexts. Would that we could recognize that in each other, and, as you say, see Christ's unity with us and in us in that identity.

Your son is blessed to have such sensitive parents as he becomes conscious of his own identity. I can only imagine your experience and integrity will help him, in years to come, to find the deep treasures of his own God-given dignity, and turn to them when they are needed.

Love to you and your family, and God's peace.