Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Counter-practices of the "Othered"

Perhaps no group has been so easy a target for "othering" as the African-American Muslim community, formerly known as the Nation of Islam.

While black female Womanists emphasize the uniqueness of their experience of "tripartite oppression"--race, gender and class, African-American Muslims historically shouldered the burden of their own trifecta of difference: race, religion and radicality.

Today, overt prejudice and festering fear against American Muslims emanates from the horrific reality of violent acts of terrorism perpetrated by a handful of modern fundamentalist Muslim groups, most particularly, the Al Qaeda attack of 9/11. However, Edward Said controversially argued over thirty years ago that westerners have derided Muslim populations as violent and barbaric for centuries, even as they conquered and colonized Muslim territories through military force.

Yet for African-American members of the Nation of Islam in the 20th century, prejudicial fear had more to do with their race and outspoken subversive politics of racial sectarian nationalism. Leader Elijah Muhammad called for poor African-Americans to create an alternative nation within a nation in defiance of the racist ideologies and oppressive power structures of the white mainstream.

When I read the cosmology, or creation story, of the Nation of Islam for an undergraduate religion course several years ago, I was appalled. This fantastic narrative relates how a portion of the "original race" of black people was corrupted into white devils by a sinister genetic engineer thousands of years ago. The story seeks to overcome white racism through an elaborate assertion of "reverse racism" which affirms black superiority, as opposed to the emphasis on human equality of the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, the "othered" subversively "othered" the "otherer."

While the hopes, goals, religious symbolism and rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and the Christian Civil Rights Movement differed drastically, the central strategy was the same. Both groups sought to reveal the awful lie of dehumanizing racism by embodying human dignity.

Recently, Mansoor Sabree, the resident imam at the predominantly African-American Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, provided a model presentation of such dignity to my "Reporting on Religion" class. Despite being "the youngest imam in America," Sabree, 30, carried himself with the stately air of a sage, exuding wisdom. Like his bow-tie clad forbears, Sabree was impeccably dressed. His posture was perfect and his movements were deliberate, yet elegant. His tone melded the soft-spoken confidence of the academic expert, charisma of an emerging leader, and peaceful repose of the enlightened mystic.

After learning our names and majors, Sabree launched into a share a vivid, balanced, detailed, candid account of the often tumultuous history of the Nation of Islam, illustrated by a litany of photos. He straightforwardly portrayed the reverse racism, anti-state rhetoric, rigid hierarchical discipline, and scandalous abuse of power against the successes of empowering the urban underclass toward a functional lifestyle of defiant dignity and self control in the face of an onslaught of racial prejudice.

Sabree candidly explained how the Nation of Islam selectively borrowed the symbols of Islam to sacralize a wholly new religious, political and social movement which advocated a radically distinct theology. He characterized the gradual and controversial realignment of the former Nation of Islam with mainstream Sunni Islam under W.D. Muhammad in the final quarter of the last century as the righting of past wrongs and correction of untruths. African-American Muslims now practice normative Islam and emphasize human equality and welcome all peoples.

Since this transition, many African-American Muslims have traded in their formal uniforms for more traditional forms of modest Muslim dress, particularly women who choose to wear the hajib. Thus, they now identify themselves with the rest of the global Ummah in dress as well as in theology and practice. Through the process, they have come to experience more of the general fear and prejudice suffered by all American Muslims in place of the overt racism and sociopolitical suspicion which confronted the Nation of Islam.

Our friend Stephen Prothero relates the story of a hajib-clad African-American Muslim woman told to "go home" by an angry fellow shopper at the supermarket. The cruel irony is that this woman's ancestors were forcibly brought to this country as slaves hundreds of years ago.

When asked how African-American Muslims have responded to post-9/11 prejudice, Sabree highlights the community's emphasis on "staying local and staying relevant." "It's difficult to be asked to represent 1 billion people around the world" he says. "We try to achieve a just recognition of why this conversation is happening, while challenging the mainstream understanding of what it is to be American."

It seemed clear to me that Sabree's forthcoming acknowledgment of the reality of Islamic terrorism does far more to mitigate the fear of American Muslims than the staunch stance of defensiveness taken by other Muslims.

When this same class visited the beautiful Masjid Al-Farooq in midtown Atlanta, Dr. Saddiq, our middle-aged Pakistani tour guide understandably took such a stance when asked about Islamic terrorism. Rather than pointing out the absurdity of holding one billion people responsible for the actions of mere thousands, or offering a political and economic explanation of the radicalization of Islam, Dr. Saddiq attacked the overrepresentation of Islamic terrorism in the media and exhorted our journalism class to be more fair. He threw out statistics indicating that there is as much or more non-Muslim terrorism, which seemed to have little impact on the audience.

Dr. Saddiq no doubt has a point. The knee-jerk, incorrect assumption of news reporters that the Oklahoma city bombing was committed by "Islamic terrorists" demonstrates that such prejudicial media portrayal was prevalent prior to 9/11. But by taking an aggressive defensive stance and denying the elephant in the room, Saddiq only gave skeptics an excuse to dismiss his perspective entirely.

Our stereotypes are broad lies we apply indiscriminately to large numbers of people through the embellishment and universal application of narrow and limited half-truths.

The Nation of Islam acknowledged the excess of violence, drugs and prostitution in the black urban ghettos of the early 20th century and sought to demonstrate that such deprivation resulted from social injustices rather than inherent racial inferiority through the transformation of the urban underclass into a productive new nation. Similarly, American Muslims throughout the country are proving that Islam is not inherently violent or antagonistic to American values and culture by contributing to our society through charity, peace, and proactive political participation.

These proactive practices challenge the "otherer" to examine their prejudices. Just as we all "other" people, all of us are "othered" in various ways. Who might be "othering" you because of your class, clothes, age, religious affiliation, etc. How might you seek to peacefully disprove their oversimplified stereotypes and help them arrive a broader and more inclusive view?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Practice of "Othering"

Over the past several decades, discussing "the other" and "othering" has emerged as the dominant practice in the broad academic field known as the humanities. Given the dominance of the Western powers over the past half millennium, this discourse tends to focus on "white Protestant patriarchal imperialism." In other words, us white boys are taken to task for centuries of oppression of "others."

WASPs of my generation have various reactions to the preoccupation with deconstruction of "white male hegemony" in today's humanities classrooms. Many become defensive, others get angry or simply dismiss such critiques. Some submit shamefully and silently, while others embrace these critiques as "allies" of "others."

Our brains are design to stereotype and generalize. Such simplifications are necessary to navigate a complex world. Psychological research employing the controversial Implicit Association Test has suggested that we instinctively react to people who look differently from us (often with mistrust or fear), no matter how egalitarian or "colorblind" we consider ourselves to be.

Throughout history, people all over the world have compounded this effect by inventing all sorts of myths that frame these perceived differences as signs of fundamental inferiority. In our Western context, this has typically meant that "others" are compared to the white male "norm."

From a biological point of view, racial and ethnic differences are elusive. Geneticists agree that there is no concrete biological basis for race; no "black genes" or "white genes" to be identified. So if race isn't real, why do humanities scholars seem to be focusing on it more than ever?

One answer is that they spend a lot more time than the rest of us thinking critically about our cultural heritage. "Real" or not, the concept of race has been made determinative throughout much of human history and remains powerful today. Historical and cultural differences continue to be exaggerated as fundamental as we "other" one another.

The arbitrary power of this "othering" process is demonstrated in Paul Cowan's book An Orphan in History.

Cowan (1940-88), a journalist, was born into a radically assimilated Jewish family. His father Lou rose to prominence as the president of CBS-TV just as the medium was taking off. Lou Cowan, the grandson of an orthodox Lithuanian rabbi, decided he didn't want to be "the other." So he changed his name from "Cohen" to "Cowan" and fashioned a WASPy culture for his family, one that included Christmas and pork chops while excluding all distinctly Jewish practices.

As a result, Paul Cowan (a blonde) didn't look or feel all that different from the WASP elite surrounding him. That is, until he arrived at the famous Episcopal boarding school Choate in the mid 1950s, where he was thoroughly "othered."

Cowan painfully relates how classmates would berate him with Jewish stereotypes, slurs and mock Yiddish accents. His lack of understanding of his heritage made him particularly defenseless, but Cowan speculates that his Jewish peers felt similarly helpless in the face of such prejudice. "Since none of us had the courage to exchange stories of the anti-Semitism we had experienced, each of us felt we were being tormented because we were personally deficient."

Cowan's story illustrates that "othering" has historically been much more than the rationalization and extension of an innate fear of difference. His tormentors propped up a false and fragile sense of superiority by reinforcing social boundaries which kept them in and Paul out...His lack of physical distinctiveness and his father's strenuous efforts to sacrifice his religious and cultural heritage for the sake of inclusion notwithstanding.

Thankfully, such blatant bigotry is generally no longer socially acceptable, particularly in our self-consciously egalitarian educational institutions. But in-group power continues to be wielded in ways subtle and unintentional as well as forceful and blatant. And while we have come a long way since Cowan's school days, white Christian men like myself still hold disproportionate power and stand to benefit from the universal practice of "othering."

Still, there are certainly excesses in the practice of critiquing white patriarchy. Sometimes it seems that there is so much deconstruction going on in the humanities that there is little time left for the construction of new collective orientations. Great emphasis is placed on difference rather than focusing on common features of the human experience. And our universities are increasingly fragmented with the proliferation of "_________ Studies" departments.

Personally, I often wonder if such developments only divide us more. But when I read the stories of people like Paul Cowan and the black women represented by the Womanist scholars I am currently studying, I grasp an inkling of the pain of exclusion and witness the healing power of such assertions and celebrations of difference.

An Orphan in History traces Cowan's efforts to recover and affirm the Jewish heritage tossed aside in the face of exclusion. He commits himself to learning and fulfilling the orthodox practices of his people with the support of his WASP wife Rachel (who eventually converted to Judaism). The shame of his youth is replaced with an immense pride in the spiritual, cultural and communal richness of his heritage. The tension and anxiety surrounding his identity is resolved. Cowan emerges as a whole Jew, a whole American, a whole man.

Whether explicitly and implicitly, we perceive some as "like us" and others as "different." It is a fact of life. It doesn't make much sense to waste energy feeling guilty about it. After all, there are instincts and inherited categories of difference which influence these perceptions.

But all of us are faced with an ethical choice of exaggerating such differences or attempting to transcend them through an emphasis on the reality of our common humanity. Such inclusiveness does not require us to sacrifice our subcultural identities and attachments. Rather we must recognize and celebrate difference in order to more fully appreciate the richness of our common humanity.

We can imagine our identity as a series of expanding concentric circles. We are all members of families, organizations, communities, traditions, cultures, nations, humanity, planet Earth...

How do you resist "othering"? How can we identify strongly with some without distancing others in hurtful ways? How can we best move forward with greater unity and equality of opportunity? How do you see our educational institutions as helping or hindering in this process?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reestablishing a Deeper Rhythm

We all reenter "real life" after a break in different ways. Some of us hit the ground running, reinvigorated by the reprieve. Many slowly overcome inertia to gradually get back up to speed. Still others are brought low by reality, thrown back into life's mundane rhythms kicking and screaming.

Regardless of your style, real life reentry offers an opportunity to adjust the rhythmic pattern to create a healthier pace. It may mean taking on a new healthy practice or making a tough choice to eliminate one-thing-too-many from the weekly schedule.

In "The Gospel of Relaxation," psychologist and philosopher William James writes, "Neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns...Their cause lies rather in the absurd feelings of having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease..."

Surely we can identify with the sensation of stress James describes. But what does he mean by "absurd"? We don't have enough time to do all the things we hope to accomplish.

The absurdity lies in the reality that stress over not having enough time actually reduces the amount we have. Not only does stress interfere with our brain's ability to function effectively, it literally kills us, shortening our lives. Maybe we don't need to adjust our schedule so much as our attitude and outlook.

For James, the quintessential pragmatist, this reorientation of outlook is the most obvious value of religious faith and practice. "The sovereign cure for worry is religious faith...The turbulent billows of the fretful surface leave the deep parts of the ocean undisturbed, and to him who has a hold on vaster and more permanent realities the hourly vicissitudes of his personal destiny seem relatively insignificant things."

As I reviewed my journal's catalog of confessions in celebration of Ash Wednesday, a clear pattern emerged. I consistently neglect the more distant "vaster and more permanent realities" for the immediate and urgent realities which will ultimately vanish away. I become too absorbed with the details of my little life and don't take the miracle of life itself seriously enough. I become so preoccupied with my "to do list" that I fail to fully appreciate the people in my life and the preciousness of our time spent together.

In this light, I see the foolishness of foregoing my daily practices because there is just too much to do. The question is not whether I can afford to fit a "quiet time" into my busy schedule. The question is what must I do to maintain peaceful perspective on what's ultimately important when I inevitably fail to accomplish all that I set out to do.

What are the rhythmic practices which bring you life and reduce death-dealing stress? How do you appreciate the time you have instead of stressing over the time you lack? What practices might help you infuse the daily rhythms of your life with the big picture priorities you hope to live by?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Ash Wednesday?

Mardi Gras has become a national holiday over the years, stretching far beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. It brings a raucous, colorful, carnival atmosphere to break the grim drear of the winter months and foreshadow spring. You may have celebrated last night with a Hurricane at your local bar or even made it down to the epicenter New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Ash Wednesday has quietly fallen out of public consciousness. Historically, Fat Tuesday is fat because Ash Wednesday is lean. Louisiana's French Catholics indulged in excessive debauchery that they might have plenty to tell the priest about on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and confession which kicks off the pre-Easter season of Lent.

At the Church of Our Savior in Virginia-Highlands (a Catholic-style Episcopal Church) last Sunday, Father John Bolton explained how this rhythm is reflected in the liturgy of the Sunday service. "The Bishop told us to make sure we say and sing all the 'Alleluias' we can this Sunday, as we won't say any more until Easter."

Thus, the slow monotony of the winter weeks is broken by a joyful celebration, followed by the solemn ascetic march through the stations of the cross, culminating in the triumph of the Resurrection at Easter.

Everyone loves a good party like Mardi Gras. And regardless of religious background, all can enjoy Easter's bright colors, spring weather, soaring music, and egg hunts. On the other hand, most would prefer to avoid the fasting, confessing, and sooty foreheads that Ash Wednesday offers.

But Mardi Gras and Easter are robbed of their true potential without the counterpoint of Lent. Mardi Gras may yield some juicy confessions, but without repentence, or turning, it only leads to destructive debauchery. And the Lenten reflection on the darkness of the world and our personal moral failings sets the stage for the triumph of life over death through gratuitous pardon and boundless mercy at Easter.

Our individual lives follow similar rhythms of highs and lows. And though we sensibly wish to avoid hardship and suffering, we all know deep down that these trials make life meaningful and its pleasures all the more pleasant.

When I look back over the rhythms of my own life, I can barely remember the easy and indulgent times that seem regrettably devoid of value. In contrast, the tough times are generally purged of their pain and appreciated as necessary catalysts for change.

So as I reflect on my moral failings this morning and feel the weakness of my needy body, I sense an uplift of opportunity in my incompleteness. My laundry list of shortcomings reminds me of the many ideals worth striving for and my hunger reminds me of how faithfully God has provided for my needs and then some.

So happy Ash Wednesday everybody. Here's to the imperfection of our lives and the solemnity and celebration which enrich them.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Breaking the Rhythm

Lord knows we could all use a break.

God takes the 7th day off in the Creation story of Genesis. "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done."

The revolutionary sabbath of the Israelites is built right into the cosmology. It is there from day 1...or day 7 anyway. It carries not only an acknowledgment that we all need rest, but that we need rhythm.

Today, we take the seven-day week which shapes and orders our lives for granted. Its rhythms are played out in all kinds of ways which shape our daily decisions: from attempting to skirt week-day "rush hour" traffic to the expectancy of Saturday night to the simple pleasures of the secular Sabbath, "lazy Sunday."

These weekly rhythms define life even for the increasing number of us whose schedules don't fit the pattern. A waiter may gripe over having to work Saturday night even though abundant tips might afford two work-less weekdays. Students like myself celebrate the coming of the weekend even though weekend leisure is just as pricey production-wise as weekday relaxation. And closing on weekends is seen as suicidal in the world of retail these days, which depend upon the lift they get from weekend shoppers.

Regardless of our religious commitments (or lack thereof) we all struggle to maintain the discipline of rest in our lives. Yet the rhythm sustains. We power through Thursday on the anticipation of the weekend, even though we may know deep down that the work will continue through the weekend.

Coming out of college, I worked the traditional 9-5 schedule and enjoy the clean compartmentalization of this tried and true pattern. Work was work, and I generally left it in the office when I went home. Now that I am student once again, every hour feels stolen from ever-impending coursework. Still, the rhythms of the week keep me focused on the task at hand and provide handy justifications for leisure in turn: "It's Monday morning, I better get out of bed and get to work...It's Saturday night, why can't I got out and enjoy a few drinks with friends?"

Of course, the academic calendar has its own unique rhythms of seasonal blessings and curses. Today's spring break sun throws the looming shadow of finals into relief. I have happily retreated to the the hopes that the peace and quiet will yield productive preparation for the gauntlet ahead.

Yet I am tremendously grateful for the reprieve. It may not bring the exhilarating escape of an adventurous vacation, but it brings the same blessed break in rhythm. For though rhythms help sustain us, they can also lull us into stupor which prevents us from appreciating the glorious opportunity of every it Monday or Sunday. Hopefully, we've all known that pleasure of waking up on vacation and realizing that you don't know what day it is...and celebrating the fact that you don't care.

What are the rhythms that help sustain you? Which tend to wear you down? How might you reinvigorate your day with a break in the rhythms which frame it?

Writing this blog has been a wonderful new weekend rhythm of my life. But it can only maintain its wonder if that rhythm is occasionally broken. This week, I will celebrate the rhythmic reprieve of spring break with three short blog posts (as opposed to one lengthy Saturday effort). On (Ash) Wednesday, I will reflect upon the rhythmic role of this odd and oft-forgotten holiday. Friday, we'll look at reestablishing and refreshing the rhythm.