Thursday, June 18, 2015


So there's been a lot of talk about identity lately - between Caitlyn Jenner and the booming transgender conversation and now this insane saga with the NAACP in Spokane - it's like we're just not sure how to define anything or how to classify people. Do individuals get to decide which box to check or is there some objective standard to be applied?

I wonder if the real problem is our need to classify people in the first place? I heard a lot of conservative people decrying how terrible it is that Bruce Jenner had so many problems he couldn't see any other option but to become a woman. Those hypotheticals that rang out all over the internet became comically un-hypothetical when Rachel Dolezal said those immortal words, "I identify as black." What do we get to choose? It's more difficult to say, "but she's not black," if you're also on Team Caitlyn, isn't it?

I think we all know a Rachel Dolezal - maybe not someone who might potentially, allegedly, lied about her race to enhance her social position (and quite possibly the first American to ever "pass" the other direction... on purpose). But we know that white kid who grew up in a largely black neighborhood and identifies (perhaps subconsciously because I didn't think anyone would have the stupidity guts to say it out loud) as black.

They do that, though, not necessarily because of a race thing - it's cultural. When we have a society so thoroughly segregated - like we do in the US - it's almost inevitable that these cultural identities get associated with race. It's "black culture" not because there's anything specifically African-American about it, but simply because it's a culture with which a lot of African-American identify. From there, though, things get all jumbled up as we choose to identify race and culture together.

(Now, just to be clear, I am not condemning or condoning what Dolezal did - I simply haven't followed the story much because it seems like a really totally crazy waste of time - I had to even look her name up to use it here. I just think it's an interesting interjection in the larger conversation of identity we're having in this cultural moment.)

I've always been a fan of removing labels, getting rid of boxes - in fact I think I wrote about this very thing a couple months back, and to some extent in the Jenner piece a couple weeks ago. Maybe my perspective has shifted just a little bit with more time to think, but it seems like the issue with identity is not how we see ourselves, but how we're taught to see ourselves through the lens of culture.

We define man a certain way - and it really has very little to do with genitalia. Even when you hear personal accounts from transgender people, you don't hear, "I felt like I shouldn't have a penis," you hear, "I felt like I was in the wrong body." That can be a subtle difference, but the difference is real. They feel like they're in the wrong body because culture has told them they should feel a certain way based on the body they have. It's not that they objectively look at themselves as "wrong," but that seeing themselves through the lens of the larger society, things don't match up.

Now I certainly believe identity can get irreversibly intertwined with body over time. I can see where someone like Caitlyn Jenner could not feel like her true self if she's still a man - but so many transgender people can't afford the kind of surgery that might make that true - even so, it's still playing the box game. I'm not box A, like you think, I'm box B. Eventually, though, Box B will come to be defined in such a way that some people feel incapable of living there and we'll need box B1 and box B2 and we'll fight over those definitions as well.

Why can't we just let people be people?

Maybe that's a ridiculous pipe dream. I certainly don't see how its really possible in any society at all. Very few people are overtly creating boxes for others (although we do do it subconsciously) - but there are just averages. Stereotypes are what they are because they adequately describe some measure of the population. There are like two or three white guys out there who can dance... sort of. A cultural definition becomes what it becomes because it's largely true.

For most of human history you could say, "Most women have children," and be completely correct. Actually, you can still say it today and be correct, but the latest numbers have it at about 53-47 percent, so it may not always be true. There was a time, though, when a childless woman struggled with whether she could be called a woman at all. It was hard to feel secure in that box without having kids.

What it means to be a man or a woman largely changes from one culture to the next and across generations. Yes, there is still the biological element of things, which works at a very high success rate, but why do we make that the end all and be all of definitions? The sad truth is because we like boxes. Our minds are wired to categorize. We feel comfortable when we can define others. It also allows us to compare (I might not be very manly, but I'm macho star athlete, Bruce Jenner compared to that guy).

Perhaps this is why (in the Bible) Paul talks about Christians being neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female? To be a Christian is to forget identity altogether. No comparison. No competition. Now, the Church has historically been about as bad at this as you could possibly be, but that doesn't change reality. For Christians, we're supposed to see Sam as Sam, not as man or woman or white or black. It may be difficult for us to step outside our cultural definitions and categorizations, but it is what we're called to do.

To me, one of the best explanations of this whole idea is a story I heard or read sometime in the last few weeks. I have no idea where I saw (or heard) this and i'll be largely paraphrasing. I couldn't nail it down well enough to even find it on google - and I'm pretty good when it comes to internet searching.

It was a story about a mom scolding a child in a department store (or some such place), the child may have been wearing clothes of the opposite gender or just doing something odd that caused embarrassment for the mom. She said to her kid, "why can't you just be normal?" A bystander happened to overhear and addressed the mom saying, "You're not describing normal, you're describing average, and I'd think most moms want their kids to be something other than average."

On pure numbers, it's likely true. The average man might be a sports nut who likes cars and tells the occasional dirty joke, but that doesn't make this definition normal. It's just average.

Yes, I think it's silly for a woman to say, "I identify as black," when she's not really black (although our means of determining such are pretty culturally conditioned as well - that Skip Gates TV show taught me pretty much everybody in the US is a little bit black: for example, does me calling him "skip" slide me a little farther along on the "black" scale?). I have a little harder time making judgement on identifying as a man or a women against mostly because it seems like there's a lot of biology and psychology there that experts don't know much about, let alone me.

I'd prefer we really just allow people to be themselves. If we were better at this, perhaps these news stories of the last month wouldn't be stories at all - they'd just be people trying to figure out exactly who they are and express themselves more fully and honestly - and, in the end, isn't that all any of us wants to do anyway?

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