Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Identity Revisited

Image taken from www.militaryhq.com

This dialogue of race has come up again in one of my newsgroups. I do wonder how many people realize that the notion of race does not exist. Cultures, yes, but a biological race? Nope. That has been disproved many times. I think of it like squirrels – there are black and gray squirrels in my parks, and even white ones out there. Flying squirrels live in certain regions too. They just adapted for their regions, but all are squirrels. Just like we’re all people. So what’s the deal with focusing on skin color?

I think as much as America may try and deny it, it is still very much a black and white world. Yes, I hear people lament about good black men marrying white demon women and other such nonsense. As much as my mother lamented about relatives that were slaves she also told me never to marry a black man because he could never support a family. Thanks ma.

I have been broken down to body parts before by people seeking to identify me but on a visual level of perceived race. Since my ears are small but my lips big this one man determined I was black enough to date him. Uhmm, not after that, no. Then there are my Turkish (or Irish apparently, it’s a double row of eyelashes thing) eyes, my Dutch hair, My Native cheekbones. It’s like I’ve become an ethnic jigsaw puzzle to people.

Well, stop it. Stop being so darn preoccupied with it all. Plus, as most discussions in the news and print still seem to be about the whole black/white issue stop that too – it makes it seem like others aren’t as important and worse, what happens to those of us who are just big old mutts?

The ‘other’ category, that’s what. We get the choice of white, black, Hispanic, other non-Hispanic, native American/Alaskan/pacific islander and I think just plain other.

So what does that make me? Hasn’t it always been human nature to fear the unknown ‘other’?

As much as I have always believed I have no ethnicity and that’s fine, it means I can take from all of them, it does bug me at times as it makes me feel like I have no voice or worth in a society that prides itself on diversity – as long as the diversity is easy to categorize and place into little boxes. This leaves me out on the rug, so to speak, to be trampled on by others.

Which is why I’m sorely tempted to participate in the National Geographic Genomic Project to see at least my maternal line. To at least get an idea of the migration patterns of my ancestors and thus, have more to contribute to society on that side. It’s pricey for sure, but will it be worth it to have one less question to ask?

I did talk to my therapist about this and she asked why I do associate myself more with the ‘non-white’ other. In highschool I was in the Black and Latino Student Union. I even helped get the banner made and held up one end during the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. parades. A friend and I were both supposed to join, but when she walked into the room she walked right back out and said she felt too uncomfortable. Admittedly, just walking in was a big step for her as she still referred to people as ‘coloreds.’ In college when I asked about the Black Women’s group I was told I couldn’t join because I wasn’t black enough. This really hurt me as it was a big part of my highschool social life, and how did my blackness change from one year to the next? But my skin tone tends toward a more ivory of shades, and that was apparently the deciding factor.

So in college I ended up in the Native American Coalition. It was great- there were a lot of elders and storytellers that came to talk to us over dinners. This introduced me to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian where I volunteered for many years afterwards.

When my therapist asked the question though, I had to think back farther, and I think the answer lies in the poverty of my youth. It’s true that ethnically, those in poverty are generally regarded as ‘minority’ status in America. I lived in Arizona, so we teamed up with Mexican immigrants as we went on searches for food. That is where I belonged. That is what the schools were comprised of. I remember once a richer neighborhood decided to bus some of us poorer students in, to provide diversity. I didn’t like the new school where I was an outcast or an oddity – a bused student on the free lunch program. When you have no money or a lot it seems race doesn’t matter, it’s only in the middle class where it does.

So I went from this land of poverty where others DID share and work together, even if my family was falling apart, to an upper echelon in college where that togetherness wasn’t really there as everyone was fighting for an identity, and physical ethnicity just seems to be the easiest one to grab on to.

Of course, I don’t have that ability to take the easy way out.

The ending of that therapy session was to get out and join some clubs and just start meeting people. Maybe join a walking group, or volleyball, or fern lovers, or whatever is out there just to start meeting people and seeing what I like. I can’t identify with any one ethnic group, and I’m not horribly poor so don’t have that, I’ve got my name. And I’m beginning to think that might be enough.


Amel's Realm said...

Interesting. I never visited nor lived in America.

I think in Indonesia it's an interestingly different case. As a Chinese descendant, a minority in Indonesia, some natives used to hate us. It's all because of history.

Indonesia was occupied for 350 YEARS by the Dutch. During the years, they caused rifts between ethnicity as they provided a higher level of education for the Dutch and other white-colored people. They also provided a middle level of education for the Chinese, Indian, and such. However, the natives only received a small amount of education (except some few).

The Chinese were allowed to be merchants and thus they could reap more money than the natives. So over the years the natives envied the Chinese as they thought all Chinese in Indo were rich. And some of the Chinese were also slimy as they bribed here and there to gain access to more wealth and trades.

I'm glad that nowadays that's not the case, but there was a period of time in my childhood when I felt sad that I was born a Chinese, a minority in Indo. I was also afraid of some fanatics who still held grudges against Chinese (we were advised not to wear jewellery for fear of being robbed in the streets and so on).

The fact is there ARE LOTS of poor Chinese in Indo as well, even though I have to admit that there are also some VERY rich ones there.

Talking about ethnicity is never easy, isn't it?

I remember one time in the past...when I was in High School and there would soon be a Presidential election...there were lots of people campaigning in the streets. I went home by public transit that day and got stuck amidst this HUGE mass of people yelling and screaming, "Kill the Chinese men! Rape the Chinese girls!" I was the ONLY Chinese in that public transit. You can imagine how scared I was back then. I prayed in my heart so that nothing bad would happen. Nothing happened, actually, though they kept on yelling those words.

The last election I experienced went well, though. GLADLY!!! I think nowadays more and more natives get higher education (at least in big cities), so now they're more open-minded. ;-D I can say that nowadays there are less and less old-fashioned people in Indo, even though there are still a few Chinese haters there he he he...

OK, this is TOO long he he he...

Victorya said...

Thank you for the insights! I'll admit, I know nothing about Indonesia and this was very informative and interesting. I can't imagine how frightened you must have been on the public transit that day.

I do remember in Arizona even among this one family of Mexican's we were closest with, they discriminated most against those that looked most Indigenous and less anglocized. There was this one girl in the family that everyone said was so ugly because she did have the wider nose and darker skin. It's a tough thing to understand, and hard to talk about I'm sure. Some stuff is so ingrained in history that I think the people of today don't even fully understand where these feelings of hatred come from.

dawn said...

You know what victorya I never even considered your race. Funny how it's never been important to me what color people are. It did piss me off when my oldest started school and they labeled him hispanic and they wanted him to be english language tested. Even after I told them English is the only lang. they know.Believe it or not because our last name is spanish the Board of Eds policy was to test.I fought them and won. It was so stupid and I fear things like that are whats wrrong with America. Thanks for a good post

Victorya said...

You know Dawn, that's why I love the internet - we take away the whole skin color issue and just talk to one another, the way I think it should be in life. It bugs me that it isn't.

When I was applying to colleges I got a lot of stuff from NYC schools that referenced Spanish Harlem (my last name was hispanic as well) and the wonderful trove of Spanish foods, etc. Bugged me.

I'm glad you won that fight, how horrid to have to take a test in your home language before going to school? Wow, that just blows my mind.

Amel's Realm said...

You're SO right, Vic. Some stuff is really so ingrained in history indeed.

Dawn's story is crazy!!! How could they do such a thing?!?!?!?! I don't get it. But yeah, I'm also glad to hear that SHE WON THE FIGHT!!! YYYYAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY!!!!

Come to think of it, I think there are always weird things happening in this world. Simply inexplicable.

Jessica Weisenfels said...

I am a white (and by white I mean maybe the palest person alive) woman from the South who was raised in a small town where until the sixth grade, only 2 of my classmates were not white. At home (despite many other unfortunate poor decisions about parenthood) my mother raised us not to see color in the same idiotic way that rednecks did. She taught us that race didn't matter. Color is only skin deep and all that. I am very grateful, and so are my siblings. I lament being sent to a school with no diversity. The only dividing lines in a school like mine were rich vs. poor and whose-daddy-is-somebody vs. whose-daddy-is-nobody. I was in the poor/no daddy category. Which gave me the opportunity to live outside the town's "What We Expect of Someone Like YOU" attitude. Because someone like me was nothing and nothing could be expected from them.

I was the president of three clubs my senior year in high school, and every time I would go in to ask about one of those clubs doing some activity, my principal would say no. UNTIL my ACT score came in. Then, he was all slaps on the back and "Hey Jes!" "Where are you going to college, Jes?" "How are you, Jes?"

And of course, I daydreamed about punching him in the face.

I know this comment isn't exactly about race ...I think what I am intending to say is:

I might be descended mostly from Germans, but I still feel like I should be allowed to check the "other" box...

Victorya said...

Jess - I think we should be allowed to check whichever box we choose too! Noticing differences is fine but it's the preconceived notions or total insistence on pointing out differences that annoy me.

I tell you, not having a firm 'race' to call my own I've appropriated a lot of stuff. I love all the variances in culture out there, but hate the sujugation because of it.

Oh - and I've had that sort of discrimination in highschool too. My senior year I was the highest ranked female in Mathematics and in a class of two - me and one guy. A representative from a college came in to talk to us. When he was done he asked the guy where he was going to college. The guy told him. Then he turned to me and asked, goodness, how did he put it, something like, "and do you think you should apply to schools?" in a patronizing manner. I was livid (and crossed that college off my list)

I had that happen at another function, when the Black/Latino club joined up with a Jewish club to open up dialogue (Farrakan was big at the time). One of the mother's of the other groups asked where I was applying, when I told her she said, "It's nice that you think so highly of yourself but be prepared for disappointment. My daughter didn't even get into those schools."

Knowing nothing about me she made the judgement that because her daughter didn't get in I wouldn't? (I did BTW with a good scholarship too)

I do think your comment meshed in that it was about discrimination, be it economic or ethnic or other lines, is still out there and one more thing we have to overcome as a nation and a world.

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Oh boy, has this post rung the bell with me! Growing up dirt-poor, I lived where all the disadvantaged families did, in a rich, multi-ethnic cultural mix. My bestesd friend in the whole wide world was first-generation British, with a wonderful Kashmiri family who welcomed me straight in to their hearts. Colour was never a question, culture was a delightful adventure to be exchanged.

Many years later, moving to London, I wanted to make some friends, and decided to join a netball team. I searched around and found one in my neighbourhood who were actively seeking new members. I phoned the Captain of the team, she sounded keen and friendly, I asked to meet up with them.

"Er - what colour are you?"


"You sound white."

"Um, well, yeah, I guess I am"

"Well, thing is, we're all black here."

"Oh. Well, that's okay.. I don't care - that's fine."

"Sorry love, see, we do. We like it all black."

I couldn't believe she'd hung up on me. It was the first time I'd ever experienced racism, sadly I found a whole lot more in my years in London (mainly, being "white", it was from others of my skin tone making disparaging remarks against anyone else who were a shade darker than them - I didn't need to invite these remarks, they simply assumed I would belong in the same "club" as them - God forbid).

Wanting to know where you originate from is a whole other different thing though. You had two parents, you have both their genes and history swimming through your veins. It's perfectly natural for you to want to trace where you began. I say take what you have (ie. your mothers side) and dig as deep as you can - it can only empower and enrichen you. Good luck, bonny lass! x

Azhira said...


Apparently there are 'legal' definitions of what 'Native American' means in the US. My former-other-half is Mexican Indian...in other words, Native American from Mexico. However, he is not allowed to claim 'Native American' by the US government, and is instead labeled as hispanic. There's this convoluted system in the US of 'recognized' and 'not recognized' Native American tribes...the big difference being in how benefits work. (Tuition assistance, health care, etc.)

I don't get why someone else can tell him how to identify himself...it's his culture, his childhood. If he says he's Mexican Indian, he is.

I am white...plain vanilla, Midwestern, farm style. :) We used to get annoying stares and rude comments before moving to the Southwest. It seems multi-cultural couples are only okay if they are pre-approved mixtures.

fishwithoutbicycle said...

I'm extremely lucky to have never been discriminated against because of my ethnicity (white), but I have friends who faced daily judgments because of it. My friend Francesca is black, from Trinidad, and she says that people often assume she's the office assistant because of her skin colour rather than the high falutin' PR exec she actually is.

On the flip side my Jamaican friend Jacqui is a lawyer and at the private firm where she works she's labelled a "coconut" by her Black and Hispanic co-workers simply because of her ambition and the fact that she takes swing dancing classes - apparently swing dancing is a white woman's activity in their eyes. No matter that modern swing has its roots in Harlem.

The ignorance of some people makes me so angry!! A few years ago after race riots in the UK they conducted to find out why it had happened. The study cost billions and concluded that because people segregate into groups eg. this area is where the Muslims live; this is where the Irish settle etc, it causes tension. Well....Duh!!! I'd have told them that for half the price.

Victorya said...

Azhira - yeah, Native Americans are the only ethnicity where you need to register with the government. When I used to volunteer at the museum I remember outlash against it - register to say that this was once your homeland? What's with that? Also, the government can (and does) strip tribes of their status via certain rules (number alive, I think 250 or so, etc.)

Shrink - we have so much in common, no? My across the pond sister it seems. First the SA, now this. Yeah, when you're poor it's fine and race doesn't matter. I kind of miss those days.

fish - that was I dialogue I got into recently too. My skin isn't dark enough to be considered black, fine, but then when friends of mine are called 'oreo's (I hadn't heard of coconuts.)

There was this comedian that talked about it, said when it was politally incorrect to insult based on differing races people thought up slurs to insult their own - white trash, oreos, etc. So why this need to segregate?

Ani Star said...

As a survivor of childhood abuse, I’m trying to reach out and connect with as many other survivors in the blogging community as I can. My hope is that the blogs I come across, yours included, might be helpful to not just myself, but to the thousands of other survivors that blog the online world if we can all come together in one place.

I’ve recently added a link to your blog onto the ‘Survivor Blogs’ page of my own website, ‘My Dissonance’. The ‘Survivors Blogs’ page of my website has been created as a listing of blogs belonging to known public survivors of abuse. I’ve decided to use ‘My Dissonance’, to connect with as many other survivors of childhood abuse as I can. And, through these pages, my wish is to connect said survivors with one another.

You may find your site within the listings at my site at www.withdissonance.net. If for any reason you would like me to remove the link to your site please let me know. My contact information is listed below. And please, if you know of any survivor blogs that you think might be helpful, or if you own one that isn’t yet listed on this page please let me know and I’ll check it out.

Thank you,
~ Ani Star

PS: Also if you would like me to edit, delete, or add any information regarding your site please let me know. :)

My Dissonance
URL: www.withdissonance.net
Email: anistar@withdissonance.net

Michelle said...

Lovely post, Victorya. I really enjoyed reading this one. You made me think - and remember.

I wrote about being a "mongrel" when I first started blogging (Kombai, about two years ago). I'd forgotten all about that post until I read yours here. Perfect timing too, as I've been chewing over the whole concept of "rights" for a while now.

I went back to read my old post and the last paragraph struck me hard. It was just what I personally needed reminding about at this time.

I'm going to pop it here too, ok? In case it resonates for you on some level. ((BIG HUG)))

There's a saying in Southern Africa - to be a "dog of the wind". Something homeless and restless, a person who has no roots. I am a dog of the wind and it can feel lonely. For a while it made me feel rather lost, but then I remember the blessings it brings me. If I belong to nothing I can also belong to everything. If I stand with my ancestry on different continents I can be a bridge between different cultures. I can enter many places of religion and find God and I can celebrate a dozen different holidays. At times like that it feels good to be a mongrel."

*woof* :-D