Thursday, April 10, 2014

What are you listening for and have you heard, the call to respect contextualities and their language

Language has the greatest potential to make us aware of context.  As one speaks, their context becomes clear and heaven help the poor soul that misses the God within the sacred witness.

Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock
I struggle, daily, to communicate a language of inclusivity, one not grounded in a plantation culture.  Within this challenging , albeit difficult context, I, like many others,  long to make my points clear, to communicate who I am in a world of people and communities that experience life differently, who experience me through a lens constructed by and for the oppressor.  It is a language of the binary, i.e. female or male, a language of economy promulgated in support of a normative culture, regardless of how they themselves identify.  Particularly as a tall, black transgender woman socialized as male I find language, at times, challenging as those around me refer to me, even by mistake as he, him, etc., and this regardless of my presentation.  Seemingly, the only language known is the language of the plantation owner, a representation of white supremacy.  That said, I find that language, and I include listening in my engagement of language can be, if critically engaged,  a window into the joy, sorrow, pain, anger and grief experienced by the person who longs to be heard.  It is a window into their soul.  Communication must be taken as a fine art. 

Hearing various speakers on the radio, television and at public gatherings I listen intently with an ear, hopefully reformed, and attuned to a postcolonial perspective.  Listening from a postcolonial perspective is about hearing differently than taught at the feet of my sixth grade teacher and a curriculum which taught me what to hear and not to hear, words and phrases approved and not approved, a curriculum which supported the visions of white America.  It is about listening intimately to the context of the speaker as well as the speaker themselves.  It is taking each word, phrase, symbol and their color and hue as they come without preconceived notions or judgment.  The goal is to hear, to listen to the speaker and possibly experience transformation.   Hearing and listening from a postcolonial perspective as it pertains to hearing and listening then is a process of decolonization.

Decolonizing hearing and therefore listening is crucial to a project that seeks to be a ground of a different legitimacy.  Reflecting further on this topic, those of us who embrace a postcolonial perspective of hearing and listening are called to listen for the soul and the heart of the person, to become intimate with the speaker.   This is necessarily opposed to hearing and listening as a structural event where the speaker may be detached as a content of authority from the audience.  I suggest that detachment occurs because hearing and listening, within the normative culture, engages the speaker and the listener through an identity complex which negates the humanity of the person speaking or listening.  What I mean is that when we use constructs of identity as a means to speak, hear and listen we deny the authentic voice seeking to be heard.  This was particularly evident as I listened to an historic black transgender activist tell her story using her own words to describe her experiences of living as a black transgender women engaging a culture of rejection.

Her words, for some, were colorful and enlightening.  For others, her words were inflammatory, derogatory and unsettling.  Through her words she revealed years of engaging a culture of rejection.  A culture of rejection is one that systemically maintains laws, regulations and codes as sacred by elements of Church and society that reject the humanity of the person who doesn't mirror the normative image codified by political, economic, social and religious regimes.  These rules then undergird a particular mindset present within certain communities which then exhibit a narrative of a modern day watch dog of the plantation class.   Particularly as a black transgender woman I have experienced this reality as certain black people I encounter become, at times, the main purveyors of the very rules that have historically dehumanized black people for over 300 years.

This dehumanization, while present in the black community, goes far beyond one race or class or culture.  It goes to the very core of the American citizen.  Regardless of how a person identifies, whether a transgender male or female, race or ethnicity, lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, wherever you are on the spectrum of human identity, it is there, always lurking in the shadows ready to leap and pounce on the unsuspecting.   This was the case as one person got up and proceeded to criticize her for speaking her truth in her words.  In fact there were a few comments about her language.  As I listened to these comments I heard normative ideas of decency and etiquette, which, for me, became realities of a white subculture. From my perspective then the comments were grounded in a longing for domestication as produced by and for white supremacy reminiscent of a reading of Anne McClintock’s book, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest.[1]    I was somewhat surprised, disappointed and as I look back upon the affair somewhat embarrassed at this occurrence because most or all of us were students, faculty or alumni of the institution.  How, at a supposed progressive seminary, where issues of context and identity are so central to religious leadership, did this occur?  Much more work needs to be done!!!

As a way to remedy this unfortunate affair I suggest that a postcolonial perspective be more embraced by the seminary community, students and faculty.  I suggest here that four important questions are significant in this endeavor, (1) who is speaking? (2) what is being said? (3) what am I hearing? and (4) what am I hearing with?  These questions seek to break open a postcolonial reality of hearing and listening.  When deployed the community and the institution will be functioning from a positive project where all people and their narratives are lifted up.  Of course there are many answers to questions of hearing and listening this is just one such possibility.

[1] Anne McClintock.  Imperial Leather:  Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, NY:  Routledge Publishing, 1995)