Enough Check-Boxes?

March 31, 2008 at 3:45 pm 1 comment

My dad sent me this article from today’s New York Times that really struck a chord. Barack Obama’s recent speech on race was met with cheers in our house. He finally talked to the American public “as if we are grown-ups” about the complexities of ethnicity, to borrow John Stewart’s phrase.

And this particular article focuses on Obama’s discussion of his mixed heritage, a familiar topic in our home as well. My husband identifies as “half-Japanese, half-Jewish”; and while I may be “all white,” coming from one parent raised Catholic and another raised Jewish, I also had similar issues and choices and judgments placed on “what I was” religiously/ethnically (if you believe Jewish to be an ethnicity, as some do), according to others and wondering myself.

Just last week I spoke for a few minutes to the congregation of our Unitarian Universalist fellowship (a place that celebrates  complexity in beliefs and identifications) about identity, and described how, as a child, when people asked me “What are you?” I would answer, “An Earthling. How about you?”  Trying to be funny, but also tired of the unanswerable question.  And, having known my husband for some 23 years now (gasp!), I’ve certainly seen him answer that question countless times, in various settings and countries, over the years.  Now thinking of our daughter trying to answer it simply someday is almost laughable.

Sure, there is some natural comfort in being able to “locate” someone in perceived categories — but, of course, this is also a slippery slope to stereotyping and, really, to simply just not listening to who people are in all of their complexity. Race, religion, sexual orientation, even “home” — many people’s answers aren’t a simple one-word answer, even though it would surely be easier if that were the case.

I just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love, in which author Elizabeth Gilbert describes the culture in Bali (one of her three destinations in her search for “everything” and herself).  It is so ingrained there to be able to locate everyone (where they are from, whether they are married) that outsiders have learned to answer locals’ questions about them in specific ways so as not to disturb the Balinese so deeply that they will not relate to you at all.  As a single woman, she learned to answer “not yet” to the oft-asked question of whether she is married, for being single in Bali after about age 20 is wholly unacceptable (imagine that?!).  Gilbert writes, “Even if you are eighty years old, or a lesbian, or a strident feminist, or an eighty-year-old strident feminist lesbian nun who has never been married and never intends to get married, the politest possible answer is still: ‘Not yet.'” 

I digress, but I loved this passage, and it reminded me that issues of identity run so deep in every culture, and have since the dawn of time.

The NYT article concludes that our culture’s goal should be to eliminate people from having to “check boxes” when it comes to personal identity.  And, that concept, as we have discussed many times in our home and in various grad school classes and such,  is one I also find questionable.  “Color-blind” can also be dangerous, and unwanted (“You erase my ethnicity, you erase me!” as my husband always says).  Forcing people to identify with nothing is as stifling as forcing us to identify with one thing. And I worry that many liberals think they are so color-blind, so “above” issues of racism (and sexism), that they actually do a real disservice.

This election is obviously bringing this identity politics issue up on every level.  As women, if we identify with Hilary, there is a nagging feeling that we are identifying “white.”  And so on — you’ve heard it all before. (The recent Newsweek issue on “Hilary, Gender, and Class” is worth picking up if you are interested in this topic, though.)

Why we loved Obama’s speech in our house was that he did not try for color-blind, but for complexity.  He didn’t try to erase the topic of race/ethnicity, but to dive into it on a level where we should be talking about it by now.

So, I’m not sure I’d advocate eliminating check-boxes altogether, but I like allowing multiple boxes to be checked — and some days allowing one box have more weight than others, and less weight another day.  In the end, I’d advocate simply listening to what someone is trying to say when they talk about their own identity or issues they face in that regard, without thinking we know their answer in advance, or that their answer should match our own.

Enough ignoring issues of race, gender, class and ethnicity.  Enough stereotyping.  While I still favor Hilary’s policy ideas (see this other NYT article on this topic!), I do like Obama’s oratory prowess, in that he seems to be getting people to actually hear his talk of cultural topics we often try to sweep under the rug or make “black and white.” (Hilary has spoken about gender in its complexity as well, by the way, although I’m not sure she’s been heard!  And both candidates shy away from really liberal positions and discussions on topics such as gay marriage. But I digress again…)

Enough bickering.  Let’s seize this Obama speech moment as the positive it is.  Let’s work together, in all our contradictions and identifications, and  bring the national conversation on who we are, and who we have the potential to be, to a higher level.

Entry filed under: Ethnicity, Gender, Media, Politics.

Ahhhh. The Heart of the Matter

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. anniegirl1138  |  April 19, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I agree that it is not necessarily the best thing to ignore our differences. Differences are not bad things. They should be viewed as enhancements and things of interest and wonder.

    I get where the “color-blind” things comes from – a feeling that the world would be a more harmonious place – but we should be striving for tolerance and the idea that people shouldn’t have to conform in all things. It should be okay to believe, feel, look, behave to custom so long as you are not harming anyone is doing so.

    I prefer Clinton as a candidate myself, but Obama does give good oratory.


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