Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Death stalks me like a secret lover

Death stalks me like a secret lover

whom I cannot reveal

to anyone

I dread his intrusion into my thoughts

Yet seek him out compulsively

to know where he is at all times

to assure myself he is not here

not now

not yet

My counselor tells me

Never say never

Never say always

Never deal in absolutes

Never can know at all times

Yet Death will resolutely be absolute

when he comes into our pleasant country

and my beloved leaves for longer than a season

I will wonder

Where shall I live now

How will I know what year it is

When will sleep gather me into its arms

How will I be Me anymore

I’m told

Time is the true physician

It heals everything

I used to know that truism

until it stopped being true

when Death came into your country.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Counting and Colorblindness

People of Color often engage in an activity known as "Counting." When we are in large groups of people, whether it's attending a Broadway play at the civic auditorium or as I found myself this past weekend, in a group of over 400 church people listening to author Richard Rohr, we "count" the number of obviously non-White faces in the crowd. For the record, I did not see another obviously non-White person at Rohr's presentation.

One’s identity is acquired and continues to be experienced, reinterpreted and lived out within a context – the context of our early childhoods and family lives where we learn who “our people” are, the context of our education and larger society in which we meet the world around us, and the context of the places where we live, work, shop, play and worship where we experience how the world views and treats us. Part of my identity within The Episcopal Church is being one of a very few non-White and even fewer Asian faces here in Colorado. I don’t attribute any judgment or value to this phenomenon; it is simply fact.

The fact of being one of a few or the only of your kind in a group can be received and experienced very differently from person to person. The treatment of the few or the only by the larger group of people who consider themselves to be “the same” in ways such as skin color, ethnicity or cultural heritage ranges from indifference to kindness to discrimination to scapegoating. How one of the few or the only reacts to her or his treatment also varies, depending on personal character, ego strength, love of family, community support, mental and physical health, and faith in God. Different people respond differently in what appear to be similar situations. Sometimes it’s as simple a variant as what day it is. People of Color are individuals and not monolithic within their cultural groups. I can no more speak for all Asian people than a White person can speak for all White people.

A fellow parishioner who also attended the conference this weekend told me on Sunday that she didn’t see colors, that she saw and treated everyone “the same.” This is known as being colorblind, which at first might seem to reflect a benign attitude, but is actually a denial of the gift of our differences that make us individuals, each created in God’s image. God is so immense and beyond our comprehension that only small measures of who God is can be contained in any single human being. If we do not see and acknowledge the differences, the individual characteristics of God manifested in each person, then we have failed to see and appreciate the person as he or she is.

Only part of my identity is being a Person of Color. There are many other parts of who I am that also define me, such as mother, wife, daughter, sister, writer, teacher, trainer, volunteer, friend, colleague, neighbor, poet, administrator, banker, marketer. Actually, I think of myself in terms of mother, wife, writer, teacher, much more often than in terms of “Person of Color.” Why, then, you ask, do I and other People of Color engage in “Counting”? “Counting” is a form of seeking the face of God that is your own face in the faces of others. When we deconstruct the attendance demographics of something like this weekend’s Richard Rohr conference, we note that registration and attendance were by self-selection, since the conference was fairly widely advertised. Yet, in many cases, people attended because they were invited by a friend from church, and the vast majority of our churches are mostly White in membership. “Counting” is about acknowledging the reality in which we live that marginalizes People of Color and being intentional in how we live into our Christian commitment to “Love our neighbor as ourself” – to be inclusive in actuality as well as in principle.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What's in a name?

I posted a comment to a list on which I participate, and another poster kindly responded in a complimentary way. The problem was that he called me “Linda.” Another poster noticed that my name was butchered, which is not an unusual event. It happens even to my face by people I have been relating to for years (yes, that's right, YEARS).

I honestly don't have a clue what that's about. Is it just the case that some people really are bad at names? Okay, I can see where that might be the case. Or is it that any name that is not within the range of "normal" or typical names gets butchered? Could it be that there is some underlying snarkiness where folks who really want to send you a dig, but are too polite to actually do it, somehow inadvertently butcher your name? I do suspect some xenophobia involved when names of people who are somehow foreign or "other" get butchered, but could that just be me being overly sensitive as a Person of Color, a minority, and that I should just learn to "get over it"?

I do understand the casual nature of online communication that fosters a rapidity of skimming what one reads and responding off the cuff, which might contribute to getting names wrong. I get that.

I especially wonder when name butchering happens in the context of the church, where we are purportedly about valuing the dignity of every human being. A bishop lectured me once on the importance of an individual's name (and birthday), because we are unique, each a precious and unique Child of God, and should be celebrated as such. Yet, I can't tell you how many times people with whom I interact in church leadership are relieved when I – out of habit, out of exasperation, out of generosity? – give them permission to call me "Lee" instead of "Lelanda."

I do know that it was disrespectful to me and my heritage when my 7th grade social studies teacher announced that he would call me "Lee," because three syllables are too many. But what can a middle school student do in the face of a teacher's authority? That was institutionalized racism at work in the public school system. Obviously, I’ve been dealing with the name issue for a long, long time. (And for the record, I do answer to "Lee," and like its directness, a short, one-syllable call-out.)

Actually, to circle the subject for a moment . . . My name itself is an issue that I've been dealing with since birth. As a first born Asian child, I was supposed to be a boy, and the plan was to name me for my paternal grandfather, whose Chinese name was Lee Lund. His transliterated name became "Leland," and when my father welcomed a girl instead of a boy, he cleverly added an "a" to "Leland," and I became "Lelanda." So, issues around my name and who I was expected to be have been notable my whole life. I've been exercised about the "who I was expected to be" part a whole lot more than about the name part.

I wonder sometimes why I don't get more offended when my name gets butchered, especially in a meeting context where I am present, and why I don't make a more consistent effort to correct the offender. I don't think it's because I'm particularly kind or concerned for the other person's feelings, because I've been known to be a stickler for correcting errors of fact and understanding in a meeting context, even when it's an unpopular thing to do.

I reflect on the indigenous peoples who hold a name as sacred and often have public and hidden names or are given spirit names only after they achieve a level of personhood where they have finally lived into who they are created to be. My Chinese name, when broken down into its component characters, contains the pictographs for woman, mouth and moon, which I rather like and think describe me pretty well -- a feminist who wields words in the light of the moon.

I used to think that maybe I had just grown weary as a Person of Color with an unusual name and was letting folk slide when they misspoke my name, sort of an attitude of "What else is new? I'm used to it."

The answer actually lies in the fact that I know that my name, while important and full of meaning and value, is not ME. The misspeaking of my name is not about me. It's about the person who does the misspeaking. And thus, it's not my business or my place to deal with their problem of misspeaking. I also don't think that correcting the misspeaking of my name does anything to correct their perceptions should they be misperceptions or to correct their bad manners. That's the pragmatist in me.