Seeing without categorizing
How do you see me?
An intimate portrayal of race, identity, and invisibility in the church and the United States
by Anita Coleman
I am invisible. . . . It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. —Ralph Ellison
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” —Jesus Christ
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. —Apostle Paul
“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” he said. “Guess what?” I asked, puzzled by this stranger’s remarks. I was at the gym, and my smile to him had been perfunctory. He was standing in front of the battle ropes with which I usually warmed up. “I’m learning how to recognize people’s geographical origins,” he answered. “And you are very unusual looking. But I bet I know where you’re from.”
“Go for it,” I said, unrolling the ropes. “You’re from Eritrea or Ethiopia,” he responded. “We’re all from Africa, aren’t we?” I quipped, smiling. “I’m not far from there at all.”
His face began to burn red. He blustered out an apology. Now, I felt sorry for him. Perhaps he was training to be an immigration officer and needed to be able to identify people’s origins. After all, this was a question I’ve been asked all my life. Even when I was growing up in India, people would ask, “Where are you from?”
Given to dreaming, I would give a different answer every time: Sri Lanka, Madagascar, New Zealand. As I grew older, the diplomatic answer and what I hoped would invoke laughter became “Space cadet. Planet Earth.” Few understood. Differentiation, I learned, was the crux of identity and group formation. Learning to see differences was the norm. Categorization was fundamental; without it, I was invisible. People required my geographic, social, economic, political, national, sexual, and religious labels in order to “see” me, in order for me to “compute.”
America, the great melting pot, I thought, would be different. Coming to the United States, I wore a small gold cross on a chain around my neck proudly. The cross symbolized my identity in Christ, passionate devotion to God, and determination to live life the Jesus way. It had been possible in India, despite the fact that Christians were a minority. Might America be different? I still could recall my Dad saying, “At least you’re going to a Christian country.”
The concept of “an identity in Christ,” however, proved to be almost unheard of in the Midwestern churches I frequented. The process of my racialization began. My markers included dusky skin, a “British” accent, graduate student status, and the diamonds in my ears. All these were commented upon quite candidly, but it was my adventurous confidence that puzzled the church people. They did not know what to do with me. Slowly church and faith became irrelevant to my immigrant life. I left the church. The Spirit never departed from me, though, for I learned to embrace with bold joy any hyphenated American identity that onlookers saw fit to bestow on me: African, bi-racial, Islander, whatever! I was, after all, imago Dei.
‘Today, I oscillate between visibility and invisibility, between American and foreign cultures—often refusing positions of leadership, performing the submission a non-white woman ought to have (and it is a performance), always working hard, and rarely being listened to, heard, or invited into social life with born Americans.’
I did well in school and work, with everybody praising my “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) work ethic. I got jobs where I became living proof of the good things resulting from British colonialism and American immigration policy. In group photographs, my chocolate-brown color contrasted vividly with the pale white skin that surrounded me, a wonderful testament to American diversity. My “upper class” accent, petite figure, and “well-informed” intelligence—I had a Ph.D.—drew admiring remarks. Life in the ivory tower protected and indeed gave me many privileges. There I might have remained except life throws everybody curveballs. One day I caught mine, quit the academic life, and came back to the church, my core identity in Christ reinstated.
On the surface, in my new church, the old categories that made me a foreigner, a heathen, were gone. I taught women’s Bible studies, was ordained a deacon, joined the missions committee, and served as coordinator for women’s retreats. The trouble started when I began to exercise wider leadership. The church people were much more interested in celebrating my “different” heritage than in considering me one of their own. Since I’d grown up in a Christian home and had now spent more years in the United States than in India, this was not easy to do! I didn’t speak an Indian language fluently, had worn Indian clothing only occasionally even while growing up in India, didn’t know much about Hinduism, and there was no “back home.” America was home. Still, I was obedient and since I loved to dress up, I learned to enjoy wearing Indian costumes, the fancier the better! I reconnected with friends in India, and tried to speak up for the silenced.
Today, I oscillate between visibility and invisibility, between American and foreign cultures—often refusing positions of leadership, performing the submission a non-white woman ought to have (and it is a performance), always working hard, and being rarely listened to, heard, or invited into social life with born Americans.
My story tells us nothing new. Scholarly research and the media are filled with discussions and news about immigrants who are racialized and marginalized even though most of us know that race is a social construct. I love Jesus and his church. My own professional expertise is in the interdisciplinary area of information systems and knowledge structures. So it is from these vantage points that I offer the following to my family in Christ. Many of us long for diversity in the body of Christ, but when we get it, we don’t always know what to do with it.
Assumptions, taught to us by our families, media, and schools, are some of the reasons we unwittingly hold onto racial, sexual, and other categories. A desire to hold onto power, comfort with the status quo, fear of the unknown, a privileging of our own preferences and expressions, a craving for stability and the familiar, and plain old ignorance are some of the other reasons.
The Christian story of God’s love for us, however, offers an alternative, hopeful narrative. Humankind was created in the image of the Triune God, and we are called to love that image in each other as well as its source. To love someone is to see them, I mean really see them, not an idea you’ve constructed in your head, not a category defined by some aspect of their identity or physical appearance. It is the ability to see the imago Dei in the individual, an image that contains multitudes, each unique and yet inseparable. The unique gifts of individuals, different from us, point us to God. We stop labeling, stereotyping, boundary marking. We see without categorizing, comfortable with undefined ambiguity.
“A Mote in Minerva’s Eye: Seeing without categorizing” is the title of my column. Minerva, you will recall, was the Roman goddess, like the Greek goddess Athena, of wisdom (poetry, music, crafts) and war. Minerva’s wisdom separates Romans from non-Romans and declares war on the other. Minerva is alive and well today, enshrined in our infatuation with differentiation and silent participation in categorization processes that perpetuate privilege.
1. Can an immigrant be “illegal” in the eyes of God?
2. Do you or your church have a theology of hospitality? What are the main points of practice and belief in your theology of hospitality?
3. How can we avoid obvious traps such as color-blindness and viewing immigrants as “perpetual foreigners”?
4. In Invisible Man, Ellison writes “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” When do you fail to see others?
Use Brandon Heath’s song “Give me your eyes” as your prayer.
Anita Coleman is a wife, mother, and writer who enjoys electronics, gardens, and books.