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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Dreaded Identity: Reconciling with our Past

I was born in a commune. Between the ages of 18 and 22 I lived part of a summer in a Volkswagen bus and another summer in a school bus. With my dog, of course. I went to 7 Grateful Dead shows and you can even see a clip of me at Jerry Garcia’s memorial from the documentary The End of the Road: Summer Tour ’95. I believe they chose to include the shot of me blowing bubbles because I personified the quintessential hippie.

Gradually, over the next several years, my focus started to shift to racial justice. I began learning about white privilege and how people and systems enact oppression.

At first it was all about other people. I loudly criticized colleagues and presenters at conferences for their lack of racial cognizance. I dubbed myself an ally and worked with people of color on Western Washington University’s campus to highlight and address injustice. We showed the movie The Color of Fear in dorms and facilitated conversations about white privilege.

And slowly during this time, I began to examine my own role in perpetuating injustice. I made the personal and political decision to shave my dreads and start wearing deodorant. Teaching for social justice became my full-time occupation, as I tried to navigate and promote change in Seattle’s public school system.

As my identity changed, something else happened. I began to vilify my old self. I never mentioned rainbow gatherings to my coworkers in the Equity and Race Department of Seattle Public Schools. I was scared others would see me as a fraud, and scared I might actually be one. I felt ashamed of my lack of awareness of white privilege and the ways I had unknowingly participated in racism in my life. Even as I write this publicly, a deep part of me worries you will use my missteps to dismiss my commitment to justice. Despite knowing better, I still tend toward ranking people, including myself, as either good or bad.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon among other white social justice activists. Many of us distance ourselves from one another in an attempt to prove ourselves allies to people of color. The people I push away most are those who remind me of an earlier Ilsa. It is what my colleague Yarrow referred to as the Dreaded Identity (pun coincidental).

I probably would have shrugged this off and decided it was something I had moved beyond, until a recent incident caused me to reexamine my Dreaded Identity. My business partner, Dr. Caprice Hollins, had been listening to the audio book Speaking Peace by Marshall Rosenberg and was inspired by his work. She began incorporating his ideas into workshops and our everyday conversations. Given that Dr. Hollins is a solid advocate for racial justice and has recommended a number of other books I found inspiring and useful in our work, I thought I’d better check out this Rosenberg guy.

I had a vague recollection of hearing about his work on nonviolent communication. When I looked him up on-line, I remembered seeing videos of interviews with him in the past. I also remembered dismissing them as interesting, but a little too airy-fairy-hippie-dippy for my tastes. Dr. Rosenberg talks about spiritual connections, plays guitar, and speaks in a soft voice I find mildly annoying. Put all of those pieces together, and he fits my Dreaded Identity.

Despite my past misgivings, I downloaded and listened to his audio book in two days, then proceeded to recommend it to friends. When I told my partner Paul about it, I was afraid he would totally dismiss Rosenberg’s ideas. Instead, he got upset and told me, “I bought you his Nonviolent Communication book three years ago! You never read it, did you?”

“No,” I admitted, then found the book on our shelf. I looked at the cover which features a bright yellow flower and cursive writing. “I remember I tried to read it, but I couldn’t get past the font,” I told Paul.

Because I was pushing back so hard against my Dreaded Identity, I wasn’t allowing myself to learn from anyone I associated with this identity. I had categorized everything that reminded me of hippie or “crystal-thumping” (as my sister calls it) as BAD, developing a stereotype strongly reinforced by how I want to be seen by others.

As I listened to Rosenberg, I didn’t agree or find useful everything he said. But some, in fact most, of his work inspired me to think in new ways about my relationships, social justice activism, and facilitation. Had I been completely ruled by my Dreaded Identity, I would have missed this opportunity.

So, what does this mean for social justice work? When we stereotype people as those we want the least to do with, not only do we miss the opportunity to learn from them, we also create new enemies. When I put down hippies, it makes me feel superior, but in no way moves us closer to social justice. I’m exploring how to best reach out to people who remind me of my old self and to embrace the fact that that self is still, and always will be, a part of who I am. What would it look like for us to work together for equity? If that person doesn’t understand white privilege, in the way I didn’t understand, how can I engage her in conversation? In collective action? I know the first step is to see her as a potential ally, someone with flaws and strengths, just like me.

Finding the language to name and examine my own Dreaded Identity has made me more aware of this tendency in other people as well. For a Christian I met, it is right wing Evangelicals. For a mother who took two years off to raise her children, it is soccer moms.

I’d love to hear from you: What is your Dreaded Identity? What would you need to do to work for justice with someone who reminded you of this identity.

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