15 December 2011

The Ideal American Identity: Male. White. "American"?

The Ideal American Identity: Male. White. “American”?
“I’m A., a woman, white and American.” What would you think if I approached you and introduced myself as such? If your reaction is anything like mine, you’d probably be a bit taken aback if I felt the need to mention such information concerning myself, my identity. Without ever really thinking about it or making a conscious decision to do so, I’ve always omitted it whenever I introduce myself. Perhaps this illustrates that I tend to take my Americanness, my race, and perhaps even my sex and/or gender for granted. I doubt that I’m alone in that. Have you ever considered your own identity? What parts of your identity are considered to be crucial? Is it your nationality, race/ethnicity, gender/sex? One thing I think we all need is to become more conscious of is how we see and conceive our own and others’ identities. Instead of taking them for granted, we ought to question them, and the categories out of which we build them.
Take me, for example. When I consider my personal ethnic and racial heritage, I have roots in Germany, England, Norway, and Denmark. However, there was never any heavy emphasis within my household on our heritage. Having grown up in the Western New York area my entire life, I had come to know a sizeable number of Polish and Italian families who carried many ethnic traditions, especially around the holidays.  My family was not one of these.  My ethnic heritage was something I could rattle off if someone did ask, but never did we associate strongly with one ethnic heritage or another.
            I tend to frequently identify myself in terms of my status as a student. Ever since I applied to college, my undergraduate major has become a key part of my identity.  I almost became prepared to readily spill out, “Hi, I’m A. I’m a Psych and Women’s Studies major.” The question of what my major was seemed to be a part of every opening conversation I had in college and outside of campus. Everyone always seemed to inquire as to what other people’s majors were, as if discovering the answer was to give some critical insight as to what kind of individual that person was. Some commonly overheard examples were: “Music? You must have no spare time.” “Biology? Oh my goodness, you must be really smart.” “Psychology? Are you trying to diagnose me right now?” “What the hell is ‘Women’s Studies?’”
            Perhaps one’s major, as well as the status of being a college student, is perceived as a way to roughly determine what one’s occupational and class status is. Indeed, I feel as though occupation is seen by American citizens as a sort of hallmark of an individual’s level of prestige, money, and power. We idealize the individual whose occupation is a doctor; we don’t idealize a person who works as a janitor. We assume that the doctor is more intelligent, more sophisticated, and perhaps even more compassionate than the janitor. In films and on T.V. shows, when a janitor is featured, he is almost always depicted as the poor guy being called to the cafeteria to clean up vomit. Conversely, doctors have whole dramatic series dedicated to them. In these ways, the doctor is essentially the ideal American, personifying the “American dream.”
            One of the primary ways we subscribe to the idea of the American dream is through our culture’s emphasis on family. I am A.B., daughter of J.B. and C.B., and a sister to C. and M. Locally--especially in smaller communities--strangers would like to think that they can tell a lot about an individual based on what family they come from. If a child’s parents are attorneys, that child may be held to a higher level of regard by someone who knows what their parents’ professions are. Even college enrollment can be partially contingent on a family member’s graduation from that particular college. Traditional family structures in western society also can have a significant effect on one’s gender identity and overall American identity.
            Furthermore, categorization is an important process within America. We categorize everything from sex to race to class. And when we are confronted with ambiguity, we grow extremely discomforted. For instance, consider a multiracial individual, whose race is ambiguous. One may grow uncomfortable and continue to try and pinpoint the individual’s race using various schemas, which have been built and perpetuated through society. Often our schemas harbor stereotypes and overgeneralizations, leading us to wrongly apply them to an individual. A minor problem that can then arise when a person is confronted with a multiracial individual is the application of stereotypes and overgeneralizations which could even lead for one to rule that the multiracial individual to have only one race, or even a wrong race. This instance can certainly be applied to any minority individual, for one may wrongly identify them as another race.
            One personal example of this includes my younger sister’s boyfriend, R..  When R. first moved to my sister's school, he was classified as Mexican and/or Black by many people, when in fact he is Puerto Rican. Friends of his would either be the source of the question or the receivers of the common question, "What exactly is he?" When people weren't troubling over what his ethnicity/race was, he was often called Mexican in a degraded sense and a "grape picker". Stereotypes were certainly at work: Latinos were invariably Mexicans and/or illegal immigrants. He even was asked by some of the teachers to pronounce a certain Spanish word or to translate, even though English is his first language, and he doesn’t feel particularly comfortable with his Spanish skills. There is certainly a need for people to become aware that despite the seemingly common core of values, Hispanic/Latinos are diverse and encounter different challenges and opportunities. Particularly within educational settings, Hispanic/Latino students must be looked at as individuals with unique characteristics, personal academic strengths, and learning styles.    
            American animator Mike Judge’s “The Goode Family” pilot provides a pop culture commentary that mocks both stereotypical "liberal" and "conservative" mindsets. The eponymous Goode family struggles with the social and environmental responsibilities of being American liberals, and the conflicts that arise for a working-class family when trying to be politically correct about everything all the time. Situations in the premiere episode included shopping at a natural foods store without having brought reusable bags, and how to refer to ethnic groups in a politically correct way. In the same episode, the Goodes explain their decision to adopt a child from Africa in hopes of promoting racial tolerance within their community. However, the Goodes end up with a Caucasian South African baby instead of the black child they expected. His name, Ubuntu Goode–taken from Ubuntu, a concept from African philosophy—means humanity, compassion, and goodness. This example, while humorous, demonstrates the very real misconceptions which people may have when considering Africa’s demographics. People in the West tend to use "black" and "African" synonymously, essentially leaving out all those who are African but not black. Also, not all black individuals are African. A similar situation arises when one thinks about how Western cultures characterize Asians. In the Americas, "Asian" tends to refer to individuals from China, Korea, Japan, and other Pacific Asian regions.  Conversely, in Europe, "Asian" is understood to mean Indian or Pakistani. The episode of “The Goode Family” demonstrates how individuals may believe they are aware of racial issues, yet fail to recognize their own ignorance. In addition, the application of stereotypes and the need to racially categorize people needs to be critically examined and challenged, for the effects can be detrimental to an individual’s own identity.
Another example of ambiguity which we grow uncomfortable with is ambiguity of gender or sex. Intersex conditions are often treated as a medical emergency that requires immediate surgical intervention. Concerns for the inability of parents to bond with the child appropriately due to the ambiguity of the child’s sex are a high priority for doctors treating intersex individuals.  This attitude suggests that an individual whose genitalia is ambiguous would find socialization and peer interaction difficult because their sex and gender is unclear. Consequently, there is a perceived need to label individuals within an appropriate sex box in order to socialize them into appropriate gender identity. Note the final steps of our birthing process, and how child birth certificates--which ask parents to specify the sex of the child--are due within 42 hours. As children grow, they are constantly learning about themselves, developing their own identity and how they are “supposed to act.” They learn what is deemed as appropriate gender-specific behavior. Gender typing is how children acquire not only a gender identity but also the motives, values, and behaviors considered appropriate in their society for their sex. Children conceptualize gender in a different ways depending on which level of development they are at, according to the cognitive developmental theory. However, to be exposed to gendered role content can highly influence their personal gender schemas.
It is clearly evident that children could learn the stereotypical characteristics from things such as fairy tales. Snow White, for example, emphasizes the importance of beauty and the ability to perform domestic housework. Beauty is what the whole story is based around for the evil queen wants to kill Snow White because she is the “fairest one of all” and the reason the hunter who is sent to kill Snow White is unable to commit the murder is because she is so beautiful and sweet. I feel that these scenes can easily influence a young girl into thinking that the greatest qualities for a woman to possess are youth and beauty. Snow White is also depicted doing stereotypical activities of a woman--like housecleaning. She is shown smiling, singing and happily doing domestic housework for the seven dwarfs almost on impulse after entering their cottage. She also makes the comment upon arriving into the cottage that whoever lives there must not have a mother. I feel that this comment assumes that it is a mother’s job to clean and care for the house, and that domestic chores are part of female nature.
A crucial part of American identity is the need to categorize individuals, whether it is race or gender or sex. We need clear-cut, definite answers, and are uncomfortable with ambiguity. This is a major flaw within American identity, for the need to categorize individuals leads to denial of parts of people’s true identity, whether they are intersex, multiracial, or perhaps both.            
When did I first realize I was a woman? I would have to say I was forced to realize this essential part of my identity when I first began to experience crude behaviors and acts from boys, and perhaps more disturbingly, older men. This included hearing wolf-whistles, seeing kissy-faces, being cat-called at, and having slow-moving vehicles with men inside them stare and give a thumbs-up as I walked down the road. Being a woman is certainly a crucial aspect of my identity, because despite being biologically female, gender plays a significant role in all aspects of my life. While growing up I experienced a lot of sexism, but it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I was able to revisit a lot of the situations I had encountered and label them easily as sexist. Now, I am a senior majoring in Psychology and Women’s Studies, a certified advocate for the Anew Center in Jamestown, passionately involved in the Women’s Studies program, Vice President of WSU, and have completed an internship with the CEASE program on-campus. Being a woman and considering the experiences--though often negative--I have faced, they helped me pursue certain goals and harnessed that part of my identity, in order to further grow and establish multiple identities.
Sexism plays a large role in the American identity.  Sexism in the United States certainly helps form our model for what the ideal American should be: Male. White. “American.” America was discovered and built by our “founding fathers,” and it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Amendment that women were even given the opportunity to vote, to be a part of the political realm.
Today, women continue to fight to gain equality, such as striving to diminish the wage gap that exists, gaining equal pay for equal work. Women on welfare may face prejudiced attitudes and behaviors for many reasons, but particularly because prejudiced attitudes and behaviors are justified through the legitimizing of myths about women on welfare. One myth which often keeps stereotypical thoughts surrounding women on welfare established is the bootstrap myth. The bootstrap myth, which states that the best way for a person or group of people to come up in the world is to create their own opportunities and lift themselves up by their bootstraps, is often illustrated and romanticized by classic American “rags to riches” stories. This myth may explain why many people attribute poverty to individualistic characteristics; they were able to get where they are by themselves.
One structural attribution which may contribute to poverty includes low wages. The wage gap continues to exist despite The Equal Pay Act of 1963. As of 2006, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Minority women fare the worst. African-American women earn just 64 cents to every dollar earned by White men, and for Hispanic women, that figure drops to merely 52 cents per dollar. The feminization of poverty may also contribute to prejudiced attitudes towards women. Feminization of poverty describes an overrepresentation of females among the poor. In 2007, 13.8% of the population was classified as poor women, whereas 11% were poor males. From this statistic, it is clear that women are overrepresented among the poor. This is a double-edged sword, as it may lead to additional prejudiced attitudes to be focused on women.

Exploring Social Injustice as an Identity
I think I first became aware of race and ethnicity-related issues (at least at some primitive level) as a toddler. At an early age I was exposed to different media, already creating schemas to help me organize and perceive the world around me. However, influencing my views greatly were my parents, who taught me to always be socially conscious and to treat everyone with respect. I was taught at a young age that everyone is created equally and should be treated as such, and to “do onto others as you would want them to do unto you," and that it's never polite to point.
At an early age, my parents always focused on equality and educating my siblings and I about the world and oppression through historical events and personal experiences. Another important lesson which my parents taught was to "never judge a book by its cover," to never allow for someone's physical appearances define who they are. Now I know that many parents may follow similar golden rules, but I believe what made my parents’ advice so effective was their ability to practice and not just preach.
However, within my high school system, we rarely discussed racial and ethnic issues, unless we were talking about the civil rights movement or we were just finishing up reading Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (which I discovered is no longer in the curriculum). Although this is definitely more than what some educational systems may provide, sadly, it wasn't until my freshman year in college that I began to have a sort of social awakening.
I have experienced and seen far too many instances of racism (one is too many). One experience that sadly isn’t an isolated one is when my Korean-American boyfriend and I would visit a restaurant; the hostess would often assume we weren't together, offering me a table for one. Another instance that I can recall is when someone harassed T. with racist comments and threats, using his race as a target of violence and hatred. Also, during a lecture, I watched as a professor was getting familiarized with students’ names, asking them to say their names before they shared an answer. But when the professor arrived to an Asian-looking male student, she didn't ask for his name, perhaps assuming that she wouldn’t be able to pronounce that student’s name correctly anyway. The student then shared the answer, speaking perfect English with no detectable accent. I feel that through my personal experiences of race and ethnicity, I have gained a better understanding of how crucial being white is to the American Identity. With being white comes privilege, a sense of security. Rather than worrying about whether someone is going to make a racist comment or the assumption that you can’t speak English based on physical features, being a white American allows one to rest assured that your children’s history books will include ancestral history that will not be restricted to a special month out of the year. Furthermore, through instances I have witnessed, to be able to speak English is an important part of the American identity. To be an American is to speak English. We see this expressed in adages such as, “Welcome to America, we speak English.”
Another personal experience that I have had which has helped me gain a better understanding of the American identity is an experience of sexism. During high school, I sadly experienced quite a few occasions of sexual harassment. One incident involved a boy who decided to grope my chest. In defense, I bit him right above his nipple, on his chest. Now, I hadn’t been aiming for this particular area, nor did I really know why I reacted with biting, but I did, and I left a bruise of teeth marks and I got written up. Conversely, the boy got away free. Later, I challenged my write-up explaining what happened to a guidance counselor with the boy sitting right beside me. The boy still got away with nothing.
Despite the fact that I didn’t have to serve detention after the meeting, I still felt grossly dissatisfied with its outcome.  I felt as though the school’s administration truly didn’t understand that what had happened to me was part of a bigger underlying problem in American identities. The administration failed to recognize that he had performed an act of sexual harassment and despite the apparent physical harm I had inflicted on him they ignored what psychological effects the incident may have had on me. This incident helped me realize that women do have to overcome obstacles which men may have to ever encounter.  It helped to solidify the American identity to me because it demonstrated the value of a man and woman within our society.
Many people may never experience a social awakening, for they may never be given the opportunity to consciously explore themselves and the culture which they live in.  Others will choose to deny their social awakening, for the path which they have been following has been a comfortable path, a path within a society which has been good to them. Those people might say, “Why challenge that path?” I have been allowed the opportunity, and continue to experience a number of opportunities, to continue to learn and explore my own biases and culture which has helped to instill and support them.

Adopting a Conscious Identity
On some levels, it is important for one to be proud of his or her home country, as a society which is completely apathetic toward the place it resides will fail to contribute to its betterment. However, blind pride is just as dangerous as apathy, and it is important to examine the assumptions we do make about the United States. For example, the phrase, “love it or leave it--it’s the best country in the world,” excuses the faults of our culture and policies, and places criticism on anyone willing to pass judgment on the negative aspects of the U.S. It diminishes the likelihood of positive change. It is important to recognize that the American identity as it stands now is an unrealistic one, built upon stereotypes. The American identity needs to be more realistic and encompassing of America’s general population. It should be constantly shifting and changing, as does the make-up of the general public. In truth, some of the adages have become so ingrained into our attitudes of the United States that they often blind us to the truth and the existence of crippling propaganda.
The American identity should be one of complexities and multiplicities, and one which embodies everyone. I do not subscribe to the concept of a colorblind society as a means to alleviate our problems. As I have stated, one’s race/ethnicity and gender are important parts of one’s identity and should be recognized, rather than ignored.  Furthermore, as the population make-up of America grows increasingly more diverse it is important to recognize so in the American identity. We can recognize each other’s differences while still remaining conscious of the challenges that different demographics face. Additionally, we must reexamine (and eliminate) the assumptions that we make about each group. Otherwise, people will severely suffer in attempting to aspire for an American identity which is realistically unattainable, especially if you’re homosexual, black or female.

No comments: