This summer I traveled to Indonesia to participate in a two-week immersive program through CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion). The aim of the summer school is to bring together local and international fellows for holistic learning relating to the history of colonialism and religious diversity. This is the first of a series of reflections based on my experiences abroad and the deeply felt theory that is emerging as I unpack from my trip.
What is essential about me? Who am I in different contexts? How do my particular and contextual identity markers play out in new spaces? These were some of the questions I was asking myself on the 36-hour series of flights and layovers from Boston to Indonesia this past August. Throughout my two weeks in Indonesia I had the opportunity to explore these questions in the company of professors, religious leaders, journalists, and fellow graduate students from across the world. The CEDAR school experience is both rigorous and exhausting by design. One quickly realizes that there is nowhere to hide, and no energy to be inauthentic. What results is a crash course in drawing and redrawing one’s identity and boundaries. It provides for quite a messy experience, all in the context of a constructed community of people who are experiencing similar exhaustion and negotiation. The questions I raised above were illuminated through a handful of transformative experiences, including the following adventure.
After a few days of lectures and site visits in Kupang, we headed out toward the remote village of Kauniki, a trip which was no doubt the bumpiest and longest drive of my life! All I knew was that we would stay in host homes that were “primitive,” and that we would be there for three days. As we drove further away from town, the road gave way to rocky paths that were either signs of unfulfilled promises by the government, or, as one elder told us, made intentionally difficult to navigate to deter strangers.
Once our buses made it close to the heart of the village, we were instructed to get off the bus to witness a series of rituals performed by the Kauniki people. Our leader then informed us that the Kauniki people had not been visited by Westerners since the Dutch colonialists came in the 19th century. Because of the bad history with the Dutch, the Kauniki performed a cooling ritual, in which they take the heat off of existing tensions. I soon realized that I and the other two white participants were the Dutch in this case. Despite not actually being Dutch, my whiteness was the most important identity marker to my hosts in that moment. To the Kauniki people, my presence required a cooling ritual that had the elders garbed in their traditional war attire. The “Dutch” among our group were immediately asked to come forward within a few feet of the king of the village. We were then led to a small stream where they began a call and response chant and proceeded to slaughter a small pig in the river.
As our group waited for the water flow of the river to wash away the blood, I felt the loss of control over my identity. For me, this challenged the way I thought about how identity functions. I had always thought of it as something that one owns, as something universal that translates across contexts almost automatically. In Kauniki this was clearly not the case. While their labeling of me as Dutch did not render non-existent the elements of my identity that I had chosen, their label was the only one that mattered in that moment. My identity was thus contextual and co-created, rather than fixed and universal. We are, as I learned, inherently beings in context.
What I want to highlight from this experience is the privileged way in which my identity usually plays out in my daily life. There is a reason why I had to travel to the other side of the world to experience the coopting of my identity. As a white cis gendered American male, I am considered “normal” in most contexts. While others may have questions about certain aspects of my identity, I rarely feel a loss of control. My identity feels more automatic, more universal. This, of course, relates to the issue of power. Often, the privilege to name or label belongs to the powerful. As a person whose identity conforms with the dominant culture in this country I enjoy a great deal of privilege and power. Not only is my identity less likely to be deemed unusual, undesirable, or dangerous, but my interpretation of other people’s identities carries disproportionate weight.
In thinking about how this learning relates to interfaith spaces, I think it is crucial to carry this same sensitivity about the nature of identity as one engages with difference. For me, especially, it is crucial to be aware of the privileged way my identity operates in different contexts. I want to be aware of my privilege I have and give others the space and power to name themselves and to share their depth.
One final observation: there are times when allowing for the misinterpretation of one’s correct or full identity makes sense. In Kauniki, it would have been inappropriate for me to protest the people’s designation of me as Dutch. For them, there was great meaning in my being there. Their interpretation of my identity helped them address past trauma and move past it. Identity works in strange ways. Sometimes this requires a corrective protest, while at other times it means watching a remote village of people perform a sacrifice because you are there. I cannot always control my identity, but I can control the way I respond to its dynamic unfolding.