23 January 2008

I Am American?

Here's the next-to-last of the student papers from last semester!


What is my ethnicity? Instinctively, I would answer that as confidently as I would answer to “what is your name?” That answer being, “I am American.” I was born in America, I am an American citizen and by all common stereotypes I am the typical American girl. However, upon further reflection I have found myself at a crossroads. I am stuck in a place that is confusing and yet, incredibly intriguing.

Over the last few weeks we have been discussing our own identities and how we claim ourselves and our ethnicities. This has always been a very simple topic of conversation for me. Well, the simplicity of this conversation came to an abrupt halt during our last class.

During our in-class writing I confidently explained that my ethnicity is indeed American and I further went on to explain why, most of those reasons being stated above. A few minutes later I found myself sitting in my seat completely stunned and quite honestly, disgusted and disappointed in myself. This was the first moment in my life where I realized that I don’t know who I am. I no longer know how to identify myself.

Professor, you stood up in front of the class and explained how some people might consider you Jewish because of your family history. That story is exactly where my confidence in my ethnicity ended, not to at all imply that is a bad thing. I am very happy to be confronted with my mistake, if you will, and I am excited to now delve into my history and find my true identity.

I can no longer say “I am American” with such confidence. My mother was born in Canada and spent a lot of her upbringing there. My father was born in Rochester, New York but he grew up Jewish.

This is where my confusion begins. My father was Jewish all of his childhood. His parents and siblings were very much into their faith. At some point down the road my father stopped being Jewish, if you believe that is something you can stop being. He doesn’t talk about his upbringing at all with me, or my siblings, so that is really all I know about it. His father died right before I was born and his mother, “Bubbi” was alive until I was in middle school and passed away in a home, so I didn’t know her that well.

His parents lived and died Jewish, and his brother and sister stayed with their religion. I remember back in high school when I had a debate with a group of my peers over whether or not I was Jewish. I believe we came to the conclusion that I was not. Was it in my father’s blood? Of course, it is his history, but does that mean it has to be mine? I would not at all be ashamed to be Jewish, however, I almost feel as though I am an imposter. I have no right to claim myself as Jewish. I eat anything I want, I don’t separate certain silverware from other silverware because you use that fork for one particular thing. I don’t celebrate Hanukkah or any other Jewish holiday, I celebrate Christmas. By every definition, I am certainly not Jewish. I feel wrong claiming myself as Jewish and I feel like if I don’t acknowledge that part of me that I am turning my back to it. I have thought about this and then thought about it some more, I cannot come up with an answer. When it comes down to it I guess I still just see myself as American, hopefully throughout this semester I can gain a better grip on my understanding of myself and my history.

I think a lot of the reason why I feel bad claiming myself as Jewish is because of my history with it. I have been to one Jewish wedding, my Aunts, last year. It was interesting and surprisingly not as different as I thought it would be. The only thing that stuck out to me as incredibly different was that the man and the woman stand on opposite sides at a Jewish wedding.

Mostly, I feel a lot of guilt because of the one Jewish funeral I attended. It was the funeral of my father’s mom, Bubbi. I think I was maybe twelve when she died. I have four sisters: one is five years younger than me, one is less than a year older and the other two, at that time, were approximately seventeen and twenty-two.

We walked into the funeral home and had no idea what to expect. No, rather, we walked into a funeral home and expected a funeral. My sisters and I were all sitting together, behind our parents, when the Rabbi walked up front and suddenly started singing in Hebrew. My sisters and I were in shock. No one forewarned us about any of this. Our immediate reaction was to laugh. We had never heard Hebrew before, especially someone singing it. We were young and ignorant and naïve.

I laughed for a short time until I heard people in the back crying. I think that is when I came back to reality and remembered where I was, and for what reason. I have never forgiven myself for that brief moment of incredible ignorance and just a horrible flaw in my character.

As much as I still think about that and feel guilty I attribute that experience to helping me become the person I am today. I believe myself to be an extremely open person. Just last night someone said to me, “Why do you always try to like everyone? Sometimes someone is just not a good person.” That’s just who I am now. Nothing bothers me more than pure ignorance. That experience made me realize, at a very young age, that everyone is different and just because someone is different than you doesn’t mean they are a bad person. I can look at most any person and any experience and try to find the good in them. As much guilt as I have always carried around for that experience I am grateful that it happened.

When this class first began I had no idea what the difference was between race and ethnicity. I don’t think I have a confident answer down yet but I have made progress and I plan to have it down perfectly by the end of the semester.

My understanding of race is that it is something which is socially constructed. I think of race as either you are white, black, hispanic, etc. As much as people say race shouldn’t be about physical characteristics I have to disagree. I don’t understand how you can determine race without attributing characteristics or skin color to it.

Ethnicity to me is how you would describe yourself, e.g., American or Canadian, etc. Also, some would argue that being Jewish is your religion. I disagree. While I do understand that it is a religion I think it is much more than that. With that said, I think you could use any religion in that category. For example, someone could describe themselves as American and Christian. I don’t think there should be too many boundaries when describing your own identity, and that is precisely what I think ethnicity is. Your ethnicity is your identity. No one should be able to tell you the correct way to describe yourself.

Part II

When I originally wrote this paper a few months ago I thought I had a pretty good handle on it. However, no matter how well you think you have your mind wrapped around something there is always something else you can learn.

I have learned a lot in this class throughout this semester. I have learned that I can consider myself both American and Jewish and I can do so without holding back because of any guilt over picking one or the other. I have also learned, mostly through reading The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, that people of every race and ethnicity struggle with their identity. Originally, I thought this struggle was a sign of immaturity and a need to venture out into the world and find themselves at a young age.

Quite honestly I feel as though I learned the most and grew the most from my experiences in this class just recently over the last week or two. It was one article in particular that opened my mind. This article was titled, “Apologizing for being a black male” which is in The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States.

This article describes the experience a black man goes through before coming to the realization that he no longer wants to apologize for being black. Before this realization this man would constantly attempt to change his persona while around others whom he believed could be intimidated and/or feel threatened by him, purely because he was a black man. “At times I’ve actually gone so far as to adopt what I consider a less threatening posture whenever I encounter a white woman, especially an older one, in places where we are alone together” (Dawkins 68.) This man was consistently worrying about how others felt and concentrated only on making them comfortable. He completely abandoned his identity to feel more socially accepted.

When I first read this article I was floored. I didn’t know what to think. At first I was angry because I feel as though his example of finding women uncomfortable in his presence while alone in a parking lot was a stretch. Do I think a lot of people, men and women both, could be more intimidated by a black man than a white man? Probably, yes. However, I think this man jumps to blaming this uncomfortable behavior on him being black before considering the alternatives. It is very believable to think any woman would feel uncomfortable with a man approaching a neighboring pay phone to hers while alone in a parking lot at night. That is how we are brought up, to constantly be aware of our surroundings and the potential dangers lurking, especially in parking lots and parking ramps.

With further thought however, this article is what essentially helped me to realize that you cannot feel guilty about who you are. Whether we’re talking about your race, ethnicity, your career or whatever. You are who you are and people should embrace their own identity.

I decided that from that point on I would not edit my actions. I forgot about my neighbor and completed my call in the same way I would have if a white male, black female, or Hispanic male had been using a nearby phone. I determined that life was too short and that my self-respect was too valuable. (Dawkins 69)

Whether or not I agree with this man blaming this experience on the fact that he was a black male, over the fact that he was simply a man, this paragraph hit me stronger than anything I have read in any of my classes: respect who you are and be proud of it.

In the beginning of this semester my goal was to find answers to the above questions. Throughout this paper I have realized that I have not reached my goals. Through that realization has come hope. Ultimately, I have learned a greater lesson, one that outweighs my goals. If I have learned anything this semester it is to not hide who I am or who I want to be. I don’t have all the answers. I am still not sure if I should or want to consider myself Jewish and I don’t know if that is something I will ever have an answer to. My future path and experiences I am sure will help me to determine more answers, and I look forward to them.

Work Cited

Dawkins, Paul Andrew. “Apologizing for Being a Black Male.” The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States. Second Edition. Eds. Joan Ferrante and Prince Brown, Jr. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.

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