So what does Janet Helms have to do with Narrative? Or: Now I’m really going to start wokring on comps.

[This is the blog post I started last night and thought I had lost, but now it’s found… Pardon some of the repeats from an earlier post I re-wrote this morning].

So my second question on my fourth exam (which has to do with my dissertation, so no pressure!), is connecting the work of racial identity development theorist Janet Helms and narrative theory. The question will run something like this: describe the role of narration in racial identity awareness, and place that view of narrative in conversation with at least one major narrative theorist.

The first trip-up I come to with this question is the connection between narration and racial identity awareness. Who’s doing the narration? The individual? Culture at large? Others from one’s own “racial” grouping? Because “race” itself is a narrative–there is no biological basis for the idea of genetically distinct races. So the fact that I call myself white as opposed to black, or European American as opposed to Asian American or African American, is based in the narrative of race as a whole, a narrative that persons created to try and make sense of why people from different parts of the world looked differently from themselves.  It was also used to justify slavery and colonization. If my conscious has trouble accepting the fact that I just took another human being out of his homeland and transported him to mine so he could work my land for no compensation, then I create a story about how he is not really human, but more like the animals that work around the farm. Trying to support this deeply immoral arrangement of enslaving another member of my own species, I tell myself a story that separates him from my understanding of who is “my kind.”

Willie James Jennings in his work The Christian Imagination: Theology and Origins of Race traces the creation of this narrative and how it connected with Christian understandings of creation and bodies. Persons identities formerly connected themselves to the land, but as explorers “discovered” new lands and slaves were brought in to cultivate these “new” areas, the colonizers and those brought in by slavery were now away from the land that gave them their identities. Instead, identity had now to be marked on one’s own body. Race began as a way to mark the identities of persons who had come from distant lands to a new land, demarcating the bodies of the dominating and the dominated.

But what of more current historical narratives? How do people in the twenty-first century understand racial identity? One of the narratives told about race today is that we are living in a colorblind society, or a post-racial America, and many whites point to the fact that we have elected a black President of the United States as proof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva chronicles this narrative in his books White Supremacy in the Post-Civil Rights Era.
How then do we begin to change these narratives? How do we learn new narratives, or what happens when these narratives are challenged?

Janet Helms and other scholars of racial identity development help identify various stages or statuses along a journey towards a more positive and non-oppressive racial identity. This process is helpful both for persons of color and for whites, in that all people need a positive view of themselves in order to live healthy and productive lives. But maintaining some of the current narratives in circulation (colorblind society, etc) are not helpful in leading us towards this positive identity. Rather, they leave us at an earlier stage that prevents us from engaging with persons who are different from ourselves. While learning the stages of racial identity development does not assure that one will process through the stages, learning such stages becomes a sort of narrative in itself, helping one to see that the negative feelings of guilt and shame surrounding white identity, for instance, are not the end of the story. The end of the narrative is something much more positive and hopeful, and story that ends with the idea that we are all still works-in-progress working towards being better human beings and more respectful neighbors to one another as we live in an increasingly diverse world community.

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