I’m White, but I Don’t Feel Like It

screenshot-dna-ancestry-com-2016-09-06-14-21-35So for Father’s Day, I got an Ancestry.com DNA test kit. I spit into a little tube, mailed it off and awaited an emailed result. And the results are as intriguing as advertised.

Prior to getting the results, I had my surname analyzed and found that “Raines” traces back to a village in Essex, UK called Rayne. Or it could come from Rennes in Brittany, northern France. There may also be Yiddish origins.

When I went to England in 2000, I internally treated it like a kind of homecoming. Then again, I felt like a welcomed outsider that whole year, rather than a beloved insider. But that’s much better than a despised outsider. Later as I approached Paris enroute to Taize, “Rennes” popped up on the flight tracker. It felt like Tom Bodette had moved to France and left the light on for me. I, in my ignorance, felt like that was where I was from.

On top of all of that, I am from West Virginia, in the middle of Appalachia. And that has long felt to me like its own ethnicity, complete with cuisine, history, folklore, and music, not to mention its strong tribalism.

Getting Into My Whiteness

Then I recall also back in 1998 meeting this guy who to this day is the epitome of white guilt. He and an African-American lady presented on racism for my training as a US-2. This fellow was extraordinarily anxious, contrasted all the worse to the lady who was the epitome of cool, wise authority. They both made similar arguments about systemic racism and white supremacy. And the information in whole was quite compelling. But his anxiety made his presentation hard to access. The most repellent statement was the fact that he called himself European-American and he thought all white people ought to call themselves European-American. I had never taken any offense, as some are wont, to people describing themselves as African-American, Hispanic-American, etc. At that point, I did have more than an inkling to non-whites’ status as oppressed people. I had read Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and I knew a little of Native American history. At the same time, Europe felt foreign to me. My people left Europe willingly to start something new. And I thought as an Appalachian, I had plenty of culture.

That particular presentation was largely material from The People’s Institute. I was privileged to come across that material again on two more occasions. Their “Undoing Racism” workshops are tense but very effective. It certainly took me three workshops to wrap my head around the concepts. And I still shake my head at a few of them.

One of my gripes (and this is my gripe, not a criticism, let’s be clear), is that they often present white and black as opposing ‘races’ but then define them differently. They will talk about whiteness in terms of institutional power whereas to be black is to have a common cultural identity. (I’m now realizing how long ago these workshops were and that I need to revisit.) White is kind of an anti-group. It’s maddening because I clearly recall arguing definitions with them and saying how they were trying to compare two things that they knew weren’t the same. In any case, they do a great job spelling out racism and white privilege and I am better for their work.

Who am I?

I say all of that to say that my Ancestry DNA has helped me see myself in a different light. I had always thought of myself as Anglo. But I’m not Anglo. I’m 61% Western European, which is certainly dominant. That’s the France, Belgium, Holland, German sector. I’m 24% Irish which should come as no surprise as an Appalachian descended from a big clan of Baileys. Yet, I’ve never thought of myself as Irish given I thought of myself as Anglo. But in Appalachia, the Irish were suppressed by the Anglos, and I never felt suppressed. I’m also 8% Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal), which was eye-opening to me. I know nothing of this region other than how lovely I found the Canary Islanders I met at Taize. The remaining 7% was scattered among other European regions with a trace (<1%) of my DNA coming from “Asia South”. So I might have a Sri Lankan cousin out there somewhere.

Most of my people came from a territory where conquering others was as much a pastime as baseball is to modern-day Bostonians. And yet, that fresh layer of Appalachian coupled with a theologian’s self-awareness, gives me a heavy dose of compassion for underdogs. I have meekly watched my brothers and sisters in the Dakotas as they’re sacred places have been bulldozed to make way for more oil (as the earth knowingly melts). It has taken me a long time to feel their anguish. And that’s my sin to bear. I’ll have to add that to related sins regarding Syrian refugees, kidnapped Nigerian school girls turned sex-slaves, and impoverished and broken families in North Korea. At the same time, my people’s sacred sites have been bulldozed and dynamited for coal. My people’s children have not washed up on the beaches of Greece, but we have lost plenty to doped-up moms and dads.

Part of my need for identity is the loss I have felt by being summarily disinvited from West Virginia. I had always felt free to leave. And I did leave freely to see the world. And I felt a true homecoming when I returned after seminary. But despite its motto (Montani Semper Liberi: “Mountaineers are Always Free”) West Virginians don’t like West Virginians who leave. You can easily find people lamenting having to leave West Virginia. Almost all of those cite economic reasons why they had to leave. Almost none of them cite how the culture chewed them up and spit them out. At the same time, the other unofficial motto–‘You can take the boy out of the hills, but you can’t take the hills out of the boy’–I can attest is mostly true. So I feel a swirling mixture of feelings about my homeland: anger, disappointment, pride, defensiveness, sorrow, respect and…yes, love.

Who am I to you?

ALL of this: the DNA test, the People’s Institute training, the Appalachian pinball machine, the theological enlightenment and the search for identity is leading me to conclude that all human divisions are bullshit. Not that I have learned to live into that conclusion, yet. But the truth is what is happening to you is happening to me. They bulldozing your heritage? They’re bulldozing my heritage…not because I’m Sioux, but because I’m people. Black Lives Matter to me not because I’m black, but because human divisions are bullshit and if you’re black you do matter to me. McDowell Matters to me, not because I’m from there, or used to be from near there, but because I care about you as a matter of principle and spiritual virtue. Lord Jesus help me.

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