I am, in the words of Michael Walzer, a divided self. I am bi-racial (my mother is a Korean immigrant, my father a white man from middle Tennessee). I come from a blue-collar background (father a soldier, mother a janitor/waitress) and live in a white-collar world (Ph.D. student). I am a member and have been a minister in a “Bible-believing,” what most folks would call a “fundamentalist,” Christian tradition (the churches of Christ, the conservative wing of the American Restoration/Stone-Campbell movement) who is immersed in the world of contemporary American liberal theology. I am a doctoral student but neither my parents nor their parents have college degrees. I live in a constant liminal – or hybrid, borderlands, in-between, gray, etc. (choose your adjective) – space. Living in this space is wonderful as it is a space of diversity, mutuality, and continuous learning. However, living in this space is difficult, confusing, and potentially self-destructive.
We humans long for stability and sameness. We enjoy comfort even if it often leads to stagnation. We dislike discomfort even if it often leads to growth and maturity. And life as a divided self is an intrinsically uncomfortable life. It provides many benefits that I would not give up or trade in, but this requires a constant negotiation of my own self-identity and the multiple identities various people ascribe to me. I have no choice but to be more than one person in a world that is more comfortable with black-white dichotomies than with gray (or brown or yellow) realities. I have no choice but to be a divided self in a world that divides me into pieces and refuses to interact with me except on the terms of those divisions.
Roughly a century ago America’s greatest sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois, described such an existence as “double-consciousness.” Writing as a black man in early twentieth-century America, he found this double-consciousness so unbearable he eventually became a citizen of Ghana. Du Bois described double-consciousness in this way:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. – The Souls of Black Folk, Ch. 1
Now, I am by no means equating my status as a graduate student from a working-class background with the state of being black in America in 1900 (or 2012). As a bi-racial 1.5/second generation Asian-American, I’ve experienced my share of racial prejudice and seeing myself through “the revelation of the other world,” even if that world has no place for people like me in its dichotomies. And life as an “outsider” in the academy is not the same as life as a non-white person in America. However, the world of the academy does require folks like me (working-class, first generation college, conservative Christian heritage, etc.) to always be “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
Adam Kotsko has done a wonderful job explaining some of the angst felt by those making the shift from wearing blue-collars to white ones. A former teacher of mine (Laurie Patton) described this experience as committing “cultural suicide.” At one of the several sessions on “professionalization” I’ve attended at Emory, she described a phenomenon she’d seen numerous times over her years of training graduate students. Those students who were first-generation college graduates or come from overwhelmingly working-class family backgrounds, she said, often feel that they have to abandon, reject, or even come to overtly “hate” said background to be fully accepted and integrated into their new social class and milieu. Or else they must be ready for a life of continual discomfort and feeling like an impostor.
This, it seems to me, is the easy way out. It accepts those black-white dichotomies that the embodied experiences of working-class graduate students (let alone multiracial people!) prove is blatantly false. In fact, even those who would like to make this move often find their “embarrassing” backgrounds creeping up to haunt them at the worst possible times. It is futile to try and be something you weren’t raised to be; you will always be, to a lesser or greater extent, your parents’ child and a product of your neighborhood.
However, living in double-consciousness as a divided-self is not easy to do. It is a lot of exhausting work. It hurts. It seems unfair. But it is. And that is okay. Most folks, in my experience, don’t actually want to give up their background to make a move up social classes and enter the academy and the privileged life of the mind. No one likes to feel like a sell-out. No one wants to lose relationships with people who have nurtured them and helped to make them who they are. Look, I’m a product of a conservative Christian home, the dreams of an immigrant mother, the work ethic of a father from rural Tennessee, and a neighborhood with a high school that hovered around a 50% graduation rate last year. In other words, I was raised by good, hard-working people with limited opportunities. In the past I have hurt some of these people with my dismissal and biting critiques of their theology, politics, or personal habits. And I’ve done it by drawing on the education that is reserved to certain classes. And I hate myself every time I do it. (But, like a good conservative Christian should, I know that the truth can hurt, and that such pain is better than living in falsehood. And so I try and balance truth-telling with sensitivity and often fail miserably.)
A simple, and humorous, example of this division in my life occurred when Kentucky Fried Chicken released its double-down sandwich. The level of commentary on my facebook timeline was a visual representation of the class divisions warring within my own soul. Friends I grew up with lined up to try it on the first day of its release, commented on its visual beauty, and preached its deliciousness with evangelical zeal. Friends from my current social circle decried KFC’s contribution to our growing obesity problem, lambasted them for their inhumane treatment of chickens, and gasped in disbelief that they could ever sell one of those disgusting balls of fat, with an even greater amount of zeal. (I assume they ate kale, quinoa, and organic sushi for dinner.) The thing was: I fully agreed with both groups of friends.
The longer I am in the academy, and live in university neighborhoods, the more comfortable I grow in being physically present in such circles. The feeling of being out of place is gradually drifting away, but it still shows up quite forcefully from time to time. I’ve decided that I am not going to commit cultural suicide, even if it is tempting at times. I still attend a church in my ecclesial tradition, and I try, as much as I am able, to stay “connected to my (immigrant, working-class, urban) roots.” I’ve chosen a life in a profession and vocation traditionally reserved for a social class “higher” than that of my parents, grandparents, and the majority of the peers of my youth. However, I strive to use the gifts, opportunities, and skills I’ve gained from being in such a place in service of those very people who nurtured me when the majority of those in my current class ignored the virtue, and even the existence, of said nurturers. And I try never to forget the lessons I learned from those people even as I learn the lessons of “great minds and important thinkers.”