08 January 2008

Who Am I?

Here's the second student paper, this one from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. In the course of my career, I've given out fewer than a dozen A+s on student papers. This was one of them. [Update 4/9/08: Apparently other people on my campus think so--a version of this just won a campus-wide writing award!]


Who am I? Who do I want to be? Why am I here? What is my identity? Why are we all different? Though these questions may seem straight out of a cheesy self-help book on “discovering who you are” or “finding yourself” that most people would be embarrassed if caught looking at in a bookstore, they are fundamental questions that most of us don’t spend enough time pursuing. We’re too busy, we say, have too much that needs to get done. Like most people, I often rush around doing things, half the time not thinking about why I am doing them, much less who the “I” is that does them.

Identity is multi-layered, multi-faceted, and nuanced, a mosaic that changes elements as the contexts of our lives change. It affects how we portray ourselves, how we read other’s behavior, and how we categorize ourselves and others into groups. Who am I? It’s a seemingly simple question. I am a student. I am a Sociology and a Women’s Studies major. I am sister, a daughter, a cousin, a friend. I am a member of several organizations. I am a Capricorn. I am a person who likes to travel. I am a middle child. I am a former mental patient. I am both a cat and a dog person. I am an American. I am white. I am a woman. The list could go on and on. We do not normally think about these things unless some crisis prompts a screeching “Who Am I?” to circle around our heads, and even then, it is more commonly a “What am I going to do?” especially during life transitions.

When asked, most of us respond to the question of identity with something related to what we do, or our relation to someone important in our lives; we respond with the more contextual/changeable aspects of our lives rather than the more obvious fundamental qualities that become taken for granted and as such, there is no need to ponder them. Or is there? And are these qualities really fundamental? Do some of the problems with conflicts among people with differing identities stem from our lack of taking the time to explore these issues? For example, I am female and identify as a woman. For some people, gender identifications are not constants and/or they are grounds for much consideration. For me, though I think about sex/gender in a theoretical way through classes, and though I do not see myself as a typically feminine woman, I identify as a woman nonetheless and it does not rouse much thought on a day-to-day basis. It is plainly there. It is what I am. But were it not for my explorations of being a woman through some of the experiences I have had and for theoretical explorations as a student, I would probably seldom/never really have thought about what it means to be a woman in our society, or how being a woman in a society in which women continue to be oppressed has shaped my life. Nor would I probably have begun to actively participate in organizations working for change.

That being said, my gender is much more salient to me than some other characteristics for the most part, due solely to the fact that being a woman in a society in which women continue to be oppressed has negative personal consequences. How many of you or your female friends been felt up in a public place? How many are survivors of sexual or domestic violence? are afraid to walk home at night? spend hours on making themselves look “pretty”? have eating disorders? are torn between being a prude or a whore? dumb themselves down in middle/high school because smart girls aren’t liked? get paid less than their male colleagues? The list could go on infinitely. I could answer “yes” to all of these at varying points in my life, a fact that both enrages me and makes me sad. And I know I am not the only one.

Race and Ethnicity have had comparatively little impact on most of my life, because I am white in a society in which white is privileged. I don’t have to worry that anything I say will be taken as representative of all “white” people. In stores, I never have to worry about being followed by managers due to an expectation that I am shoplifting. When I speak, people will listen and not pass off what I say solely on the basis of who I am. Of course, with the intersection of white female, at times what I say may be passed off as feminist rants; even then, being shut out would not be on the basis of my race. People don’t reach out to touch my hair without permission. If I turn on the television, open a magazine, or read a book, I will see people who look like me. In school, I will learn about the great things people like me--white people--did. The list could continue ad infinitum. Being white where white is privileged and is considered normative leads to much less obvious social effects than being non-white, in which otherness becomes a part of one’s daily experience.

Unlike many people, I have had the opportunities to live overseas, which has led to a comparatively early recognition of race/ethnicity as a “thing” to be explored. Being overseas was what sparked by interest in learning about the social world, and perhaps even set me on the course towards pursuing sociology academically. Race and ethnicity became a more conscious aspect of my identity during the time I have spent overseas. In sixth grade, my family lived in India for a year, and then in eleventh grade I was an exchange student in Japan. In addition, I have also traveled to Germany, Austria, Nepal and Poland.

In the European countries I visited, my race/ethnicity did not become much of an issue, as I am of European descent. However, my real “race awakening,” so to speak, occurred when I was ten and living in India. For the first time in my life, I stuck out like a sore thumb solely because of the way I looked, and it was obvious that I was an outsider. I was conspicuously “different” and at times looked on with suspicion as a foreigner. This was especially true because the area in which we were living, foreigners were seldom found. It was not an area anyone would ever visit to sight-see. To get to the university housing where we were living, we had to pass through the Navy Nagar. Getting through and into our building required identification cards, all thoroughly inspected, especially before the guards came to know us. Being so obviously different was rather unsettling, as was having people stare often and take every little thing I did as representative of the way Americans do things. It made me much more observant of how I presented myself, even at that young age.

In addition to obviously being an outsider and all of the ramifications that brings, there were times in India during which our obvious whiteness provided a possible threat. Within the first few weeks of our arrival, my mother had an interview for a teaching position at the American International School of Bombay (where we kids ended up going to school). She brought me along with her to the interview. On our taxi ride there, we suddenly found ourselves stuck in traffic that had been stopped by protestors filling the streets shouting angrily. My mother and I were alone. Not knowing the language, we could not understand what the crowd was shouting and had no way of knowing whether or not it was an anti-American demonstration. With the exponentially globalizing world of the early to mid 1990s, and India’s historic relationship with the west as a colonized country, tensions constantly simmered beneath the surface. Lingering in our memories were stories of the previous years’ infamous bloody “Bombay Riots.” While not against foreigners, these riots were recent enough to remain in collective consciousness. Our school even had “riot days” on which they closed for the anniversaries of particularly violent incidents. The protesters began walking, weaving between the stopped cars, and mom tried hurriedly to at least roll up the windows of the taxi, but they were broken. My mother yelled at me to crouch down on the floor of the taxi; she covered my blonde hair, thinking that at least with her dark hair she was less visible. The crowd eventually let us through as traffic began to flow again. We later found out it had been a demonstration against foreign, especially American, involvement in India’s university system. I think that is the only time I have actually felt that I would possibly be targeted solely for a simple fact about myself that I have no control over.

In India, though different, we were also part of a higher socioeconomic class than we were accustomed to in the United States, due to the strength of the dollar against the rupee. And although there was potential for being targeted as foreigners, the British had exported western hierarchies of race into India during its time as a colony. While different, we were not suddenly part of an oppressed group in the way that Africans who are among the elite in their home countries become when they immigrate to the United States due to the importance race plays. In other words, what I am trying to say is not that I have had experience with oppression due to my race, because that is not the case, but that living overseas did bring race awareness and the experience of being “different” than the norm with respect to race.

However, despite being fortunate enough to spend time overseas when relatively young, I think my race awareness only came early in comparison to other white people. I think of my cousin who is the product of a biracial marriage; my aunt is white and my uncle is black. As the flower girl for a wedding on her mother’s side of the family when she was about five years old, she had worn a hairpiece with fake flowers and ribbons, which were woven into a circle pinned in her hair. At the back, the multicolored ribbons came together and flowed down from the crown. For several weeks after the wedding, she wore the hairpiece, refusing to take it off even when going to bed, telling everyone it was her “hair.” She told her mother that she wanted long pretty hair like her cousins. Even at about five years old, though she did not have any theoretical understanding of race relations, nor did she know the history of her father’s family from Jamaica, she did have concrete knowledge of what was beautiful in American society, and she knew her dark, short, curly hair was not. She did eventually stop wearing the hairpiece, and I hope that as she grows up, she develops a positive self-image, but regardless, it illustrates the kinds of “race awakenings” that non-white people have from early childhood. They may not know history or theory as children, but societal messages that “white” is better than “non-white” become ingrained very early on. Not having to ever have to think about my “racial” features is part of my white privilege; white is not racialized, but rather only usually seen as the absence of non-white.

Regardless of the very real effects race/ethnicity has on people’s lives, I do not think that it is actually “real” in a biological sense. Genetic testing may be able to give us an idea of the historic migrations among people and tell us when certain groups broke off from others, forming their own sub-group that developed its own distinctive physical and cultural features throughout centuries. However, it does not tell us anything about race itself. It only tells us about the genetic variation among humans, and how that variation developed due to when certain ancestors went in certain directions or formed their own groups. It does not tell us what groups should be considered races, or provide genetic evidence supporting the ideas of race, as it is often used by those who believe race is real. They conveniently forget that it is people who decide which groups are considered “races”; these groups do not coincide well with the scientific data. For example, the most variation as far as genetics is concerned is among Africans; however, despite being the most genetically dissimilar, they are considered part of the same “race.” Just as people used science in previous generations to pick out physical features to categorize races, people today pick and choose which branches of the human family tree to use; the branches they pick just happen (by some mysterious coincidence) to fit exactly with historic notions of race that have been constructed by racist societies. Some people admit that humans decide which branches to use, but say that it does not matte--genetics still proves that race is biologically real--and it just proves that we were wrong about exactly which groups were “races.” But who decides? Where do we draw the line? Do we end up with 1,000 races? Would that be enough? NO. Because it does not matter what we know about the genetic heritage of groups of people. It is the social constructions of race that are driving its continued use and its continued effects, not the biological variation. A decision made by academics or politicians to suddenly create several racial definitions for Africans will not suddenly change the way society constructs black-ness or effects that being black has on people. It is already true that there are some Africans who are not physically black, but they are still regarded as belonging to the “Black” race, even if they can “pass” as being white. And regardless, the genetic testing from which people can find out their ancestral origin does not test their whole ancestry. It can only test one (for females) or two (for males) genetic lines--either the direct maternal or the direct paternal--ignoring all the other individuals over thousands of centuries that contributed to their genetic makeup. For example, if someone’s direct paternal line is European, but the whole rest of their ancestors are Asian, when tested through their y-chromosome, they would show up only as European.

That being said, while I definitely see race as socially constructed in nature, I sometimes am wary of simply saying that everything is socially constructed and leaving it at that, as there is a fine line between saying that something is socially constructed and invalidating the experiences of those who live with the palpable effects of such constructions in their everyday lives. It is true that something has real consequences regardless of whether or not it is real, so long as it is believed to be real. It is still a fundamental way in which we organize ourselves, and as such, it is important to not only look at the theoretical implications of race, but also at the practical implications these conceptions bring.

I tend to be someone who, despite knowing that the idea of ethnicity has a variety of problems, many of them similar to those of the conception of race, would like to hold onto it much more than I tend to feel the draw to hold onto race. I think it is perhaps that the distinction made between ethnicity and race is that of culture versus biology, respectively. The biological basis of race has been challenged, but ethnicity still seems to be cultural, whether or not the distinct and mutually exclusive categories set up under the current system of ethnicity hold up. I am not suggesting that ethnicity is actually cultural fact, but only that I find it harder to let go of notions of concrete ethnicity than those of race. Further, I am not suggesting that we simply need more categories, because that would not do much to fix anything. People, myself included, need to get away from the “add more categories and let people choose more than one category so everyone fits” fix to the problems of classifying people by race/ethnicity. And thus far, I have only figured out what I would not do about race and/or ethnicity, rather than anything about what I would do, and what they are not more so than what they actually are.

I also question how much what people view as their “ethnic” heritage is really “ethnic” and how much has more do to with specific family traditions. One could say perhaps, that ethnic traditions are those shared among groups of families who either live in or share ancestors from particular locations. But I think that sometimes ignores all the heterogeneity within groups. While in Japan, I remember taking many things my first host family did as the “Japanese” way of doing things. As I lived with subsequent host families (4 in total), I learned very quickly that many of the things I had thought were Japanese—a reflection of cultural differences--were actually specific to that particular family. This was probably especially true, as my first host father was a Shinto priest, so much of their day-today life revolved around the large shrine adjacent to their house.

However, even in my own life, I have come to learn that many of the things I have grown up with, things I believed to be part of our ethnic traditions, were actually much more recently begun, and specific to particular families. I already have a mélange of European “ethnicities” from which to take traditions--German, Polish, Alsatian, Czech, English, Irish--but many things are more closely tied to family than ethnicity. For example, the anise cookie recipe we use comes from my great-grandmother. In addition, through family members having explored genealogy, we have come to learn that in several cases, what we thought we knew about our ethnic heritage was simply wrong. On more than one occasion, someone hid what their “true” background was, probably for better marriage and job prospects. My great-grandfather hid the fact that his mother was a Jew from Buffalo, NY. My great-great grandfather on another side converted in secret from being Lutheran to Catholic on the night before his wedding, though the way my grandparents talk, one would think their family was Catholic since the dawn of time. My great-grandmother on another side told everyone that her family was French Canadian, and wove tales such as her father being the middle-heavyweight boxing champion of Quebec, when in reality her grandparents had emigrated from the Palatinate. The Jewish and French-Canadian examples probably have a lot to do with the social and political climate of the time, as my great-grandfather who hid his being Jewish, probably did so because he wanted good prospects for his daughter. I have heard that he had is heart set on her being a debutante as well, which she would not have been able to do if it was known that she had any Jewish blood. The great-grandmother who hid the German connection probably did so because she was coming of age, and looking for both a job and a husband during World War I.

How much of what anyone knows about their “ethnicity” is true? How do we measure the “truth” of ethnicity? Especially in a world that is become more and more globalized, in which identity seems to be a thing we pick and choose from among many possible elements found worldwide--something we consume, rather than something we are--how do we define our ethnic background? How much relevance does it have to our lives? I don’t necessarily have answers to any of the questions I keep asking, but it is important for all of us to start asking these questions and to continue to ask them. There will probably never be a neat synthesis, a one-size-fits-all solution, but I don’t think that is necessary, nor something we really should be seeking. Nothing in the social world is static, so any nice solution we come up with would be obsolete very quickly. Granted, on a practical level, we need to come up with something we can generally agree upon, because without that, we would never get anything done, and bureaucratic institutions need to have an agreed-upon way to categorize people. On a more personal and interpersonal level however, I think we need to cultivate the idea of identity almost as a dialectic relationship with ourselves, the elements of who we are and who we want to be constantly shifting. We need to simply learn to be okay with multiplicity and tension and messiness, and get away from thinking about identity as fitting in a particular category, or choosing from several distinct categories. We need to learn to embrace the variety and amorphous elements and get away from dualistic thinking and rigidly-bounded categories.

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