then again, maybe not
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April 04, 2006

Choosing your identity

This post, What should white people do? over at Bitch Lab is running through my brain right now. In comments, Barb says:

Right, of course, but the question is who is your community? I *do* feel very connected but I feel more connected with humanity as a whole rather than with
one particular grouping of humanity.
Bitch responds:

Then, there’s the problem of people who don’t feel they can simply give up their identity. After all, to foreswear a racial or national identity and say, “I
identify as an activist” is not something people of color can do. They can’t
say, “I’m not latina and I don’t identify. Instead, I belong to this political
community of historical activism.

They can say it, but it is WAY harder for them to do and it may just feel really _bad_ to them to do it. The ease with which one can shuck of US identity and whiteness — that comes from the privilege of primarily experiencing that identity and having the privilege to have the time and energy to explore how you are privileged by whiteness.
This reminded me of something that happened when I was 10 or 11. I went to a small private school in Philadelphia, St. Peter's (regardless of the name it's not a Caltholic school - long story). I started there when I was three, so all of the rich white kids were like family to me. And when I was in school I never felt like the "other." Remind me sometime to tell you how reluctant I was to be friends with the other black kids though, that's an interesting story.

Anyway, there I was, doing my smart-ass 10-year-old thing. One of my friends was a girl I'll call Nina. We would hang out at her place all the time, because she lived near the school, and I lived on the other side of the fucking universe (thanks mom). I knew Nina's dad, his girlfriend and her son, and spent a lot of time with them. Nina's family was Salvadoran, if I remember correctly, and her grandmother was teaching me spanish. So la, la, la, I'm so happy-go-lucky with this family that I think has really embraced me. But then all of the sudden I'm not hanging out at her grandmother's house anymore. Everyone is still super-sweet to me, but something is going on. So, I ask Nina what the deal is. She reluctantly tells me that after my last visit to her grandmother's house, a ring or a bracelet or something went missing. Nina suggested that her grandmother had just misplaced it, but apparently she thought I'd stolen it. Now, being the naïve little privileged snot I was, I was so upset, and couldn't imagine why she'd think that. I mean, I loved them. Why would I ever steal anything from people I cared about? I went home that night extremely upset and confused. My mom called Nina's dad to talk about what happened. And then she told me that Nina's grandmother admitted that she thought I stole from her because I'm black. I was floored by this. "But they know me. I've gone on vacation with them. How could anyone think I would steal just because I'm black? That doesn't make any sense." I can't imagine how hard it must have been for my mother to answer those questions. She had done so much to let me choose where I belonged, and who I identified with. And it took less that 10 minutes for all of that to disappear. And as painful as that experience was, it was an important lesson. It's a fantastic privilege to choose your identity, and your community. But it can, and will be ripped away from you at any time.

So, I can say I belong to a community of feminists, of drinkers, of activists, of liberals, of whatever, and that these communities are what identify me. All of those are true and important. But it feels like running away from an identity I didn't choose, because it's hard, and one that is important as well. Denying my blackness (and all of the many things that means) feels like spitting in the eye of my family, and everyone who's come before me, fought for me, because being black isn't awlays so great. But even if I was comfortable doing that, the world won't let me.




Comments:
Great story!

I mean sad story, but an illustration. I have been struggling to get at what bugs me about the whole critical whiteness studies for awhile and this discussion has really started to crystallize everything.

the comment you made at the blog was spot on. the whole issue of what someone is bringing to the table when you enter these 'chosen' communities and they ideals we have for how to enter them ....
 
aggh. god, so painful, that kind of betrayal.

also really goes to show just how naive it is to suppose (as I think a *lot* of people do) that racism, or any other bigotry, is like an on/off switch; like, either someone *is* a racist (which is immediately obvious and permeates every fiber of the person's being) or is not. And it simply isn't so, any more than any other identity, I suppose if one wanted to look at it that way. But: there are layers and layers and layers.
 
And layers and layers. Racism (and lots of other isms) is so tough because it's not as simple as hatred. My friend's grandmother didn't hate me. She didn't wish I was dead, or want to send me back to Africa. And I'm sure she would have been offended if someone told her she was being racist.

And that's the painful stuff to me. That someone can look at you and just not think of you as a person in the same way that they are. It's the casual dehumanization that sticks with me.
 
Deep cultural programming. People make "exceptions" for individuals at certain times and certain places, but don't change the deep feelings. Or, they work hard to eliminate nastiness, and seem to succeed on the conscious level, but when the consciousness goes for whatever reason (drunk? high? crowd reaction? ill?), the nastiness crawls out from under the rock. You find this out when old folks start getting demented. The learned or assumed reduction of prejudice can dissipate, and the elder can start mouthing off things he or she heard when a child. People who would never use the N word when in their right mind will start using it when demented.

NancyP
 
Sad, sad story. Poor 10-year-old thagmano - what a blow.

NancyP, you're so right. I had this neighbor who was Puerto Rican and professed "POC solidarity" with black friends all the time ... until he was really, really drunk or high. Then, he would say some of the most outrageously racist stuff I have ever heard. And he never "remembered" it.
 
NancyP & el

That's some scary stuff. I can't say I've had the experience of someone getting drunk or having dementia and saying things like that.

I should post something about how my mom had to explain to me what it meant when someone called me an "oreo." I think all of this stuff was even harder for her to deal with.
 
Hm. I remember it was my great-grandma who once told me it was wrong to say I "hated" anyone (which made me burst into tears at the time. not sure exactly why, now I'm thinking about it. hmm).
when *she* got dementia, she got ejected from her retirement/halfway hotel when she hit another tenant with her cane.
 
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