04 May 2006

A Plea for Ambiguity

I’ve always had a hard time directly targeting my identity as an American, as my perceptions of it constantly change. Since I perceive my identity as an American to be somewhat convoluted, I tend to shy away from analyzing it too heavily because I feel like I wouldn’t know where to begin. In this day and age there are so many parameters with which to define yourself as an American whether it’s your race or ethnicity, your sexual orientation, whether or not you immigrated to the country and the list goes on. I’ve taken all those different parameters into consideration but the main one I keep coming back to is the concept of race or ethnicity and how it can define and influence your perception of yourself. this may or may not be the biggest factor in determining your identity as an American if you’re white, but as a minority and also as a bi-racial or multi-racial person, by default you’re aware of racial issues and how they tie into your identity as a person in this country. Although I’ve grown pretty comfortable with an ambiguous status when it comes to my background, I still feel pressure from others to identify with just one aspect of my heritage. Also, distilling who I am as an American into a singular term or phrase can be a daunting challenge to take on for anyone.

The reason for my hesitation to categorize myself in any one way probably comes from my having such a diverse ethnic and social background. My mother’s side of the family emigrated from Puerto Rico two generations back and my father’s ethnic make-up contains African-American, Italian and Korean identities. I feel like the more ethnically diverse someone is, the more difficult it makes it for them to identify with just one of those backgrounds because they usually can’t determine which one, or which combination, of those identities is more dominant. It was something I never paid much of any mind to when I was a child, but the older I grew the more pressured I felt from peers, relatives and the media to identify with one or a couple of those identities. I think things might’ve been different had I grown up and interacted with more people from those different racial backgrounds, but from age 2 until about 18 I only encountered white, middle-class Americans for the most part. It wasn’t completely exclusive contact with whites, but it was pretty close. I spent time with relatives and a few friends of the same or partially the same ethnic backgrounds occasionally, but the people that lived in my neighborhood, the people that I went to school, work and church with were mostly white. I still have trouble determining if this impacted my perception of my identity positively or negatively, but I know it made somewhat of a difference. I fully identified myself as an American for sure but beyond that basic label was where things got cloudy. Since a specific identity was something I felt like I could never obtain, I never really worried about it too much. It’s not like I haven’t made any progress at all on it though. Instead of defining my identity in terms of what I was and where I saw myself fitting in, I began to define it in terms of what concluded I wasn’t. I still can’t locate the exact passage, but in Deloria’s Playing Indian, there’s a part where he talks about how some whites in Britain constructed their identity based on what they weren’t instead of what the were specifically. It’s only a short paragraph but he explains how they identified blacks as the “other”, that they felt as if they needed something else to point to and say “Ok, this is what we’re not so it helps us define who were are better.” I just thought it was interesting to read because that’s mainly how I began to describe my identity as an American, through what I knew I wasn’t and where I knew I didn’t fit in. That sort of method helped me to build a general concept of who I am, but I don’t think it could ever be distilled down to one single word or concept that encompasses my identity as an American.

There have been a number of occurrences that have caused me to alter my perceptions of my racial identity. Alter might be too strong of a word though because those experiences didn’t so much change my perceptions of myself as it sparked an awareness of nuances in my identity I wasn’t previously aware of. In addition to those nuances, those experiences also made aware of all the different roles I that were available for me to potentially fill as a member of a certain ethnic group. The main way that I was made aware of these attributes and roles was by observing other people’s perceptions of me within a certain population. For example, when I lived in the small upstate New York town where I grew up, the population was predominantly white and I was perceived by them as “just black” or on some occasions “probably black mixed with white.” Since there wasn’t a great amount of diversity in that area, anyone with brown skin automatically got grouped in the “black” category because the subtleties of their ethnic make-up weren’t as apparent as the contrast between whites and everyone else. Thinking about this reminded me of Whiteness of a Different Color when Jacobson explains how the racial divisions between the Irish, Swedish, Italians, English and other white ethnic groups blurred and came to be seen as “white” when compared with other non-white races. My experience was the same except that it was a reversal of the two categories.

When I moved to Manhattan more recently I noticed that the population had a much different perception of me. Because that city contains a varied mix of pretty much every ethnicity in the world, the subtleties that were previously blurred became more pronounced and I was viewed as “Hispanic” and on occasion “maybe Hispanic and something else.” Since the racial spectrum was so broad within that group of people it was easily recognizable that I was too light to be black and too dark to be white and therefore had to be something else.

Even more recently, during my spring break this semester I spent 12 consecutive days in Florida partying, drinking, clubbing and doing everything else you do on spring break. When I wasn’t engaging in the previously mentioned activities, I spent countless hours in the sun on the beach. Because of my multi-ethnic background I possess subtle traits of all those different groups, so that makes my hair fit in the “kind of wavy but curly but not too coarse but not straight” category and makes my skin fade to a yellowish tone in the winter but with the proper exposure to the sun, tans to a deep brown. I’ve never really thought about the advantages, disadvantages and implications to having those attributes until recently. Like I mentioned previously I spent a lot of time out in the sun so I got really dark really fast. The general population that can be found in South Beach is of course much more diverse than the town I grew up in, not to the extent that Manhattan is, but it’s close. So among this new population, with my new tan I discovered I was perceived as “maybe from India or some weird island somewhere” and occasionally “maybe just black.” On one occasion during the spring break trip my friends and I were outside a nightclub in the line waiting to get in. The woman at the door proceeded to check everyone’s ID and wave them in, but when she got to mine she paused and gave it a scrutinizing glare for a few moments. The photo on my driver’s license was taken in mid-January when my complexion was its palest and was also little overexposed which made me appear a little bit lighter, but I didn’t think looked completely different from how I looked that night. The woman checking the ID thought otherwise and concluded that the image wasn’t of me and that the individual that appeared in the photo “looked like a white person.” At first I was humored by this remark when I considered the absurdity of someone ever mistaking me for a white person. No one had ever perceived me in that way before no matter what population I found myself in at the time. The more I considered the context of this exception though, the more it became plausible. I managed to convince the woman that it was really my photo in the license by presenting her with every other form of ID I had and she eventually let me inside the club. The instances I mentioned earlier provided me with an interesting perspective on how people can attempt to determine one’s race by comparison. This last incident was even more insightful because the conclusion the woman at the club reached was through comparing two images of myself rather than attributes of two races.

I found these experiences insightful because it caused me to think about my identity in a different light and become conscious of the fact that I could go to three different locations in America and be a number of different races in each. Until more recently I always thought of the way which you appeared, spoke, behaved and dressed were the main determining factors if someone was trying to determine what race you were. Now I realize a lot of those perceptions have to do more with context than anything else and that the kinds of people you’re around and how you compare to them are more of a determining factor. I’m willing to admit that this isn’t true all the time, but it definitely caused me to view things from a different perspective.

I think that it’s crucial to develop a sense of yourself especially in America today because identity is somewhat institutionalized and regulated by the government and the media. The government strives to be politically correct when it comes to labeling people that fall into certain categories. For example American Indians went from “Savages and Injuns” to “Native Americans” or “indigenous Americans”. The media has been known to distort or glamorize the truth. Trends and fads are made known to us immediately after they’re started and we start to pick up on certain undertones like how being “exotic” or “not white” is really cool, sexy, etc. Then it’s interesting to see how many whites suddenly find themselves with Cherokee princesses or half-Hawaiians in their lineage.

The concept of American identities have been defined and redefined in so many ways and I think it’s human nature to divide ourselves intro different groups. This is especially true in this country because America tends to fuel a type of competitive thinking. It’s not so much that whatever groups we identify with oppose another group, we as Americans just want to have pride in our background, we want to have a stance or a point of reference. Going back to what I said earlier about defining yourself through defining what you’re not, it also comes from wanting to know where exactly someone stands so we can say whether we’re similar or dissimilar to them, helping us further develop a concept of our identities. I think treating our identities as Americans as a somewhat ambiguous, ever-changing entity is a good way to approach things. I think we should be ok with the fact that we may or may not be able to define ourselves with a single word or concise definition or that we may go our whole lives without ever pinpointing who exactly we are.

I feel that I’ve benefited a lot from this project because as I mentioned before I’ve never really analyzed who I am as an individual and an American in a formal way and I think I’ve started to construct a general framework of who I am, and as to whether that concept will be fully fleshed out, I guess only time will tell. As a whole I fell American identity is an idea, a formless thought whose boundaries and volumes change constantly, but yet is still there and still tangible. To me it’s not so much of something you draw conclusion on, but rather just a starting point whose destination, if any, is ever reached is up to you.

No comments: