19 December 2011

American Diversity

American Diversity

PART ONE:  A Reflection on Self-Identification

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” 
~George Moore

I’ve never considered myself a family-oriented person. In fact, my immediate family barely communicates simply due to lack of common interest. We all live separately at this point, talk on the phone occasionally, and indulge on holidays. Even as a child I was very introverted and preferred solitude. When reflecting upon how I’ve come to be the person I am, I was surprised to notice the amount of influence my family, and especially my Mother, had on me. My story perfectly exemplifies the significant impact that a positive family and home environment can have on a person, even if some factors in the situation were less than perfect.

I always thought I was growing up and being raised in an average American family; even despite seeing nuclear families grace my television, I never considered my circumstances abnormal. Oblivious to social norms, I’d bet most American children don’t understand what the “typical American family” is supposed to be like if they didn’t grow up in the suburbs with a Mother and a Father, a sibling and a dog. In my case, Grandma woke me up because Mom was busy at work and Dad was somewhere else, magically appearing in the driveway on weekends, half-heartedly taking me to some museum or buying me a new doll.

 While growing up my friends used to say that it “must be really hard” to live with divorced parents, but I hadn’t ever considered my position to be difficult; it was my life and I didn’t know how I was “supposed” to feel. Hearing these comments at a young age made me really think about how I was supposed to feel and who I was supposed to be, but by age ten I decided that it probably wasn’t worth making myself upset over.  As I was growing older, I realized that most of my friends’ parents were getting divorced as well, and that this stereotypical family dynamic was simply a fallacy.

Scientists can debate arguments about nature versus nurture until the apocalypse comes, but I am absolutely certain the experiences in my life have no doubt had an impact on my personality. I am collectively, and not exclusively, introverted, ambitious, honest, and loyal. I am a feminist, a connoisseur of all things rock-and-roll, an atheist, and a person who wants to do good things for the sake of being good. I am an extremely hardworking-individual that, if not completely self-driven, seeks motivation from strong female figures that I look up to.

I never had an extremely close relationship with my Mother, and that’s something I’m currently still struggling with, yet she has had the most significant impact on me out of anyone in my family or friend groups. Throughout my life I have watched my Mother struggle through many difficulties, often facing them alone, and never faltering. We do not always get along; in fact, most times we don’t even talk, but I never fail to let her know how admirable she is, and how much courage she has. She is strong, rebellious, self-reliant and kind-hearted; she has demonstrated to me the kind of woman that girls need to aspire to be, not the women who are broadcast on television.

            I believe that in America, everyone is given a chance to succeed. Some people may have more opportunity than others, but I believe that the chances of success are largely determined by a person’s ambition and their drive to succeed. My work ethic and ambitious attitude are something that I’ve become very proud of, and are a defining part of who I am. From the time I was little, I always admired my mother, who was working diligently and, without ever saying it, showing me what a woman could be and do despite what I saw on television. I learned that ambition is the trait that differentiates great from mediocre, intelligent from dull, professional from domestic: not man from woman. My drive to succeed, to meet my ambitious goals, has gotten me through the hardest moments in my life and helped me improve myself immensely.

            My whole life I have struggled with depression and anxiety. Looking up to my mother and other women has helped me grow, and helped me realize there is no challenge too difficult to overcome. These experiences have largely contributed to the development of my convictions and my general approach to life, truly shaping who I am. I believe that each person has something in their life that gives them inspiration and strength, and communicating with other people who have overcome difficulties in the face of sexism, abuse, or misfortune gives me faith in humanity and the motivation to succeed. Identifying with these ideals has given me strength as a person and given me the support I have needed to grow into the person I’ve become.

PART TWO: Diversity Among Youth

I think what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American. And I think that principle will win out.”
~Barack Obama

For the first eighteen years of my life I resided in a suburban town right outside of Buffalo, New York, which was inhabited by nuclear families who worked unfulfilling nine-to-five jobs. Most of the kids my age were struggling with average issues and experiencing the expected angst and melodrama of any high school.  Everything was relatively average. Just like an American TV drama, some minor mishaps would occur but over the course of a few days everything would go back to normal.

Everything changed when I met Chad. I was in the tenth grade, he was a freshman, and my friend Vicky was our mutual friend. One morning as we were walking to our first classes, she invited Chad to walk with us. We made casual small talk and discussed our plans for the day. I was under the impression that everything was normal, Chad seemed like a nice guy and that if he was Vicky’s friend then he must be a decent person. When I got to class a couple people approached me, asking if I knew Chad. I didn’t understand at the moment why everyone was making such a big deal out of such an ordinary person. By looking at Chad there was nothing remarkable about him; he looked like an average high school freshman, squirrelly and awkward. After some investigation I discovered that the general confusion was that nobody could decipher if Chad was a boy or a girl; he seemed in-between, ambiguous, and in the year book he was listed as “Kristy.”

            My initial reaction was to be shocked and confused as well; I was angry at myself for reacting in such a way, but I had never seen anything like this happen in my hometown before. When I talked to Chad I was unsure of what to say: should I ask him about it? How should I address him? I was scared and uncomfortable.  Not being the most popular student in the school myself, I realized it would be hypocritical to outcast Chad, and I was trying to always be open-minded. After giving the matter much thought, I convinced myself that it would be idiotic not to accept Chad as he was. He was just a person like anyone else--what was there to be scared of?

Chad was really kind, and I was secretly very interested in his decision to change his gender, but I knew that if he was comfortable talking about it he would tell me his story. I knew I would have to wait and gain Chad’s trust in order for him to learn more about his decision, but other people at our school were not as understanding.

            People would tease him, spread nasty rumors, call him an “it”: they would do anything they could to rationalize him and his situation and what it meant to their lives. I was alarmed when Chad told me he had decided to address all of two thousand students at once, and that there was going to be an entire school assembly all about him and his story. He gave a short speech, vaguely detailing his story in hopes that it would feed people’s curiosity enough for them to leave him alone. In a nutshell, Chad told us all that he was born in the wrong body. He had undergone rigorous neurological and psychological testing as a child, and all the professionals agreed with him:  Kristy was really, mentally and psychologically, a male. He also touched on his emotional journey through his life, explaining how he had once been suicidal, but now felt strong. Chad also showed us photos of him as a child, a little girl who always looked uncomfortable and out of her element in a pink dress.

 At this point, I was almost certain that people would leave Chad alone, and maybe even reach out to him. I even thought that he may make several friends from the whole experience, but I was simply being naïve. I thought people would admire his courage, understand him, but they didn’t and the teasing and bullying only grew worse. Everything got so bad that Chad’s family decided to move to a different school district so that he could have a fresh start, and I never saw him again.

I stayed in contact with Chad for several years after he moved. He told me that things were a lot better at his new school and that he had joined some online support groups where he could reach out to other teens going through the same issues. Looking at photos of Chad now, he looks like any other twenty-one year old male. He has facial hair, a strong jaw-line, a smile and even a beautiful girlfriend. By looking at his photographs you can tell he truly is happy to be alive and even happier because he went through with what he believed to be right for himself.

            This whole experience helped me realize that gender is a huge part of personal identity and helps us, both as humans and Americans, define who we are and how people see us. Meeting and knowing Chad opened my eyes to a whole other world of people, people who struggled with gender, or whose gender didn’t fit into the binary gender roles and assignments. I’ve learned that many people feel threatened by experiences like these, and become defensive. As with most things, if people are made uncomfortable and are forced to evaluate their own identity then they dismiss something as “weird” or “bad.” These stigmas can be devastating to the individuals and cause high rates of depression and suicide.

            The amount of hate crimes committed against homosexual or transgendered people in America is quite outstanding. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs the amount of hate-crimes against the LGBT community has increased by 13% from 2009 to 2010 alone. The hatred geared towards this community is deeply rooted into our society and is prevalent in our television shows, video games, movies, and every other sort of media imaginable.

            Chad is just one of many other transgendered individuals whom are free to choose their gender as American citizens, because in some scenarios people do not identify with the genders they were ascribed. America was once looked at as the “melting pot” of cultures, but it seems as though we’ve come to a standstill and that we’d rather everyone assimilate into some American ideal that is neither realistic nor practical. Change and growth are necessary to make a culture progress and if we as a society attempt to inhibit cultural progress, we will be divided as a nation.

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

 ~Harold Wilson

PART THREE: American Change

“Sitting at the table doesn't make you a dinner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American.”
 ~Malcolm X

Throughout the course of my life I have only passively recognized that I am an American citizen but I had never truly thought about what it meant in terms of my own identity. As children we are raised to always be proud to be an American, but as we grow older it is our responsibility to put some thought into why we should feel prideful of our nationality and conversely, why we shouldn’t.

I have had the privilege of being exposed to many different lifestyles throughout my upbringing and, given these experiences; it’s hard for me to say what I believe being an American entails. I believe that some foreign stereotypes of American culture are accurate at times, but I also feel that America’s culture has so much depth that is not apparent to foreigners, and perhaps is not even apparent to most Americans. The density of American culture is profound, and the ability for it to be overlooked is quite easy. The pure size and diversity of our nation causes us to form separate cultures and identities throughout the country. The formulation of sub-cultures and area-based culture distorts any pre-conceived notion of a common national identity, making us unsure of whom we are and what we’re supposed to be. The media seems to be absolutely certain of what they want us to be, taking the extreme examples of our culture and representing our entire national identity as such. This issue is directly correlated to the amount of inadequacies people think they have in our nation, which may be why we are so eager to seek medication for even the smallest of problems.

Americans are known for being fat, for teenage pregnancies, for eating disorders, and in general being gluttonous and greedy individuals. We are known for our desire to mask our problems with a façade and carry on, self-medicating and self-diagnosing. We are known for being lazy, for being stupid, for being ignorant. We are constantly questioning ourselves and seeking some sort of societal approval; as American citizens we don’t trust ourselves to know what’s in our best interest. The American media controls most of what our society thinks about health-issues, the way men and women’s bodies should look, and the appropriate way in which to act or dress.

Even in popular culture the American identity is constantly changing and shifting as technology and the general global culture shifts, and it seems as though we have become resistant to the change. I’m not speaking of technological change, but of change within our personal convictions. We are nostalgic for the past and still want to be the milk-and-butter eating, white Americans we were in the 1950s, an ideal that probably never was a reality, and can definitely no longer exist. Yet, even though our culture is shifting towards a modern age, older generations resist, and remain conservative in their values, while the youth seems to be getting increasingly more extreme with time.

American ideals have changed and women and minorities have gained more power and more a voice in our society and government. It seems as though through the shifts in our culture people are confused about their roles in society. People appear to be unsure of how they should behave and interact with others. This may have to do with the considerable difference between values among the different generations, but can also be attributed to the vast amount of sub-cultural activity in America.

Being such a large nation, we have so many subcultures and lifestyles that vary throughout our country, it seems as though there is no way to act “truly American” other than as a technicality. Despite this, I think Americans have a certain air about themselves that differentiates them from people of other countries; our pride unites us as a country.

My advice for American citizens is to approach the American identity, and all of life, with more of an open mind. All of Americans aren’t revolutionaries or cowboys or ignorant and fat. I would say that most Americans don’t know who they are, or don’t fit into a stereotypical category, and they are just trying to live their lives. Most Americans, from my experience, value their freedom more than anything, and we should be free to pursue the lifestyles we choose.

In the modern world people are much more exposed to other ways of life and other cultures and are more apt to practice different lifestyles than the way in which they were brought up. This can lead to hatred among family members and friends, which is completely unnecessary and unfortunate. If people were open-minded to other ways of life, Americans would be happier people and there would be less division between races and subcultures of modern society.

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