Let Our Hearts Soften Until They Break — Blinders Off.
Too many names of those lost. Too many cities losing generations. Too many cases where the blinders are kept on.
In fundraising, the impacts on one person are more compelling than of groups. That the face of a single child is more provocative than a countless number, zoomed to where the faces can’t be seen.
Ferguson. Baltimore. New York. Charleston.
Spokane, where Rachel Dolezal was President of the local NAACP chapter. That is where the story was at the beginning of the week. It’s compelling. The single story, of a single woman, whose lies and decisions have caused harm. The single story, of a single woman, seemingly touching the nerve of trans identity — that one could be trans anything.
And while there’s a strand of that which is meaningful, the context is within the white heteronormative framework that questions and challenges the acceptability of Caitlyn Jenner, rather than celebrating it.
“Oh, you call Caitlyn Jenner a hero, but Rachel Dolezal a charlatan? What’s the difference?”
The question itself indicates that fundamentally Caitlyn is not a hero, and her portrayal as such is wrong. It’s asserting hypocrisy in liberal media. And it comes from a place of privilege.
As someone who has never comfortably, conveniently, fit into a neat box of identity, I appreciate the intention of raising the question. I appreciate that to some degree, that Caitlyn is being seen as a hero. I appreciate challenging the idea that race is narrowly defined.
From the perspective of universal truth, gender and race are irrelevant — they are constructs and concepts based on impermanent phenomena.
However, the universal truth does not negate the relative truth, where those constructs have profound power in our society. The construction of racial identities was wrought to separate. In America, definition of whiteness as a blood quantum was reified to denigrate and forcefully oppress.
I don’t want to get into too sweepingly broad of brush strokes, but the linkage of gender identity and biological expression is also a concept, based less in human experience/heart/mind, than in institutional practices and norms.
I don’t personally know Rachel, and with the flurry of media attention, her mental health has come into question, the dysfunction of her family has been raised… and I can’t know the depth of those challenges. I don’t condescend to define how others express and feel in their skin.
But. Her choices come from ignorance and privilege. There’s no awareness or apology for the ways that wielding that power and assuming that identity is offensive.
So then, if we indulge the stories (which again, I can’t presume to know or fully understand), and assume that there is an element of mental illness, then she’s just another white person who hasn’t caused harm, she’s not a perpetrator — she’s a victim, she has a condition, is thereby excused, and after the spotlight fades on her we can all go back to scrutinizing those who don’t fit the quantum.
Like James Eagen Holmes. Or Adam Lanza. Or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Or, doubtless, as we’ll soon hear about Dylann Roof.
One of the problems here is that the news was swarming us with images of her face, her hair, her clothes — side-by-side comparisons of her with fair skin and blonde hair, memes drawing humor from the absurdity. Her face, over and over. She’s both perpetrator and victim, easy fodder for our projections and personal leanings.
We can laugh it off, insert our soundbite, and be done with it.
She didn’t kill anyone. But she also hasn’t had the experience of being generationally, systemically, and systematically oppressed. So much so, in fact, that when she felt she was being wronged by Howard University based on racial pretense, she felt empowered to sue…
The Garner family felt they were wronged when a police officer used an illegal chokehold to kill Eric Garner nearly a year ago. Video footage showed irrefutably that the illegal chokehold was used, that a man was killed while begging for help, for selling cigarettes.
Despite all of that, cultural concepts of race, perceived criminal activity, and the belief that police officers are only motivated by moral oaths to serve and protect, meant that the Garner family did not receive justice.
Countless other cases, and countless more faces, extinguished by the powerful construction of race in this country.
At least nine more were killed this week. Nine, not selling cigarettes, not wielding toy guns, not running away from a police officer. Nine gathered in prayer and study. Nine gathered peacefully, as members of a community. Nine who didn’t have the privilege of unkinking their curls, choosing which box to check, or washing the bronzer off their faces.
Nine gathered in a place of worship. Nine gathered in a historic space of identity, spirituality, community, and freedom.
A community in Charleston, in South Carolina, in America, that continues to bear the weight of the race construction.
It’s a beautiful aspiration to imagine the world in the light of that universal truth — that we are all the same, because we are after all. We are all inextricably bound to one another, and our happiness, our safety, our health, our liberation, is absolutely in relation to all other living beings on the planet.
But we cannot simply fast forward by the relative truth that racism, privilege, oppression, and inequality inform all aspects of our lives.
I won’t now launch into The answer, since I don’t have it. As a start, I think becoming aware of our consumption of news media can be helpful. How much do we watch/listen/read? What is the tone of what we’re taking in? How do we feel after taking it in? Maybe we can also touch in with the scripts of those outlets. Are excuses given?
Are declension narratives told? Are easy answers and assumptions given? Are people yelling over each other? Are the messages unfiltered, or do they come with an analysis?
If those are well-trodden paths, then maybe to become aware of your feelings about race. Maybe just asking yourself without judgment, do I hold assumptions about others based on their race? Do I hold assumptions about others based on their appearance? How do I relate to the storylines about race?
And maybe from the question of trans identity, we can contemplate the places where we don’t singularly inhabit one label. Maybe we don’t personally fit all the qualifiers and social norms of being this or that. Which maybe means we can consider that others don’t either…
Or maybe for now, just sit in the sorrow and the discomfort that none of those nine were doing something we could justify as wrong. That their only crime was inhabiting their skin. Let’s not so quickly jump into the full psychological profile of Roof, let’s not fast forward by faceless victims.
The Reverend Clementa Pinckney was a pastor and State Senator. Tywanza Sanders was a college graduate with a degree in Business Administration. Cynthia Hurd worked as the manager at a regional library. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was a speech therapist.
The Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor was a church singer, and active member in the community. Susie Jackson was nearly 90. Ethel Lance was a sexton at the church. The Reverend Daniel Simmons was a member of the church’s ministerial staff. And Myra Thompson was the wife of the vicar at another local church.
Buddhist teachings tell me not to cling to hope or expectation. I try not to, and I try not to cling to hopelessness either, to insulate myself from the pain of it all. In seeking the middle path, the aim is to work with my own ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
My prayer is that we each are able to find moments of wakefulness where we don’t perpetuate those poisons, those assumptions, and their manifestations in society.
My prayer is that by contemplating the privilege of putting on blackface that we can flip the lens, and be humbled by the experience of those who can’t take it off.
May our hearts be softened until they break, may our words be keen until they illuminate, and may our minds provide discernment until they disentangle our constructs.
Jacqueline Lieske has been writing poetry and prose since age 9. After meeting and receiving encouragement from Lawrence Ferlinghetti at age 11, she coined ‘coolical’, and believed this to be the pinnacle of poetic license. Raised in a hippie town, her rebellious phase entailed stifling her voice and individuality. After finding dharma, and working for several spiritual non-profits, her passion for expression was reawakened. Just JQ is the alias for her personal blog where readers across the globe share in her journey, process, and grounded spirituality. Jacqueline writes and resides in the beautiful Hudson Valley.