Wanjiku, a first name in Kenya, means “Daughter of the Kikuyu.” The Kikuyu are a large indigenous people of Kenya. In the Kikuyu creation story, the first parents had ten daughters and ten sons. Wanjiku was the first daughter.
I was given the name Wanjiku on a bus in Kenya because I was riding along standing body to body like everyone else. I did not act privileged, like many white people, who would expect to have a seat. The people around me said, “She should be called Wanjiku because she is like us.” When my host heard people calling me Wanjiku, he told me the story and started to introduce me as Karen ‘Wanjiku’ Wilson.
For about five years after my visit to Kenya, Wanjiku became my nick name. During that time, I went to Seminary, planning to become an ordained minister.
Seminary was not a fun place for me. It was very challenging because I came out of the closet my first day there. The seminary was generally not safe emotionally for LGBT people. (I did meet several allies who remain my friends to this day.) But in general, LGBT people were viewed as an anathema.
For three years, I studied very hard and deconstructed and partially reconstructed my faith. About five weeks before graduation, my denomination told me that I could not be ordained unless I lied about myself and/or agreed to remain celibate. It was clear they did not want me. This was not my first time of being excluded in the name of religion.
One of my last assignments was to create a liturgy for a life celebration. It could be a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, etc. I chose to write a liturgy for a name change. My liturgy was very personal. It was to be a celebration of me, all of me, and not just the parts some people thought were okay. The liturgy was to start at the back of church, with a reminder that all are welcome, that no one belongs at the back, and then move to the front, to the altar where my friends would lay hands on me and affirm my place in God’s family. At that point, they would celebrate me as Wanjiku, one chosen for inclusion. Just I was chosen on that bus, I would be chosen as a valuable part of the church.
Only it never happened. I wrote the liturgy, but never did it. I left seminary brokenhearted. I did not attend my graduation ceremony. I did not seek ordination.
A few months after graduation, I changed my name to Wanjico, to represent my hope that healing would come, and that there would always be people who would choose to include me. I changed the spelling so my peers in the U.S. would be able to pronounce it correctly.
Through the years, I have told very few people that to me, Wanjico means “chosen for inclusion”.
After graduation, I made it my career to include others. I spent the first 4 years following graduation teaching children cultural respect. I created a respect curriculum and taught an afterschool program. I taught thousands of children during that time.
I became keenly interested in race and preventing discrimination, and checking my privilege. I was even trained to teach behavior health providers about culture and the effects of racism so they could help clients in a nonbiased, respectful way. No matter how much I learned, there was always more to learn. I felt I always had work to do as an ally, to improve my own world view and to help eliminate racism and to work to give more power to people who had less privilege. I used my voice and education to speak up for and to confront blatant racism and oppression. I spoke up for the sake of people of color and the LGBTQI community (even wishing that the letters were TILBGQ or a similar configuration that would put the most oppressed or least visible community first).
Being aware, however, does not mean I could not have blind spots or make errors. I was completely unaware of the extent of racism until Susan’s son came home and said, “I am sick of being followed in the grocery store.” I asked what he meant, “Why would people follow you?” His reply shook me to the core, “Because I am Hispanic they think I steal so the follow me, and they do not follow Chris or Brad.” He mentioned his two best friends, who were white.
I was ignorant, and this was an ah ha moment. It opened my eyes.
Working at Eastern Washington University, I learned more. I obtained a new vocabulary and terms like “Micro aggressions” the daily intolerances and acts of hatred and privilege, people of color experience daily- things like being followed, or tenured professors being treated like students because of stereotypes, or being called derogatory names, etc. I also made mistakes and went around campus apologizing, and was graciously schooled and forgiven, still having passion, but still learning. I listened and learned a lot about privilege and race at EWU, through classes and friendships.
I say this, not to excuse myself, but to explain why I am changing my name, because no matter how much I think I have obtained in knowledge about being an ally, there is more to learn.
My newest awakening is about cultural appropriation and it is tied to EWU, and a woman named Rachael Dolezal, who also worked at EWU at the same time I did. Dolezal presented as black, but was born white. When this was exposed, it was hurtful to the African American community. Many spoke up and wrote about her abuse of white privilege and of her actions as a betrayal. After her exposure, Rachel Dolezal legally changed her name to an African name. Many in the black community were justifiably outraged by this act, identifying it as an appropriation and act of white privilege.
As I read these articles, I awoke to how my name change could have hurt people I care very much about, and I decided to change my name back to Wilson, my birth name. I cannot change what I did, I can only respond in a way as to reduce any pain I may have caused.
As I process my acts of cultural appropriation, I am now thinking about things like my tattoos; A Chinese symbol, 9 languages that translate the word "respect." I think about Buddha statues, Dream Catchers, Cinco De Mayo, and I realize I have more to learn. I need to learn where appreciation ends and appropriation begins. No matter my gains, there is more to learn and I remain open to it.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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