Friday, June 12, 2015

Ethnic, cultural, gender identity - good luck with your definitions

What makes a person whatever it is they say they are? What makes a person male, female, black, white, Scottish, Native American, whatever? I’m having trouble coming up with absolute definitions for any of those identifiers. Is that a good thing? Should we all just be people? Or is the elimination of identifiers from our language taking something important, something precious, away from people who use those identifiers for themselves, who take value from being a part of the community that embraces that identity? After all, strongly-held racial identities and a passion to preserve such can lead to strife - and death.

I really don’t have an answer to any of those questions.

My husband is German - born and raised in Germany, German is his native language, his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are also native born and native speakers, etc. Not at all patriotic except during the football (soccer) World Cup. Often, someone here in the USA will say to him, upon learning he’s German, “Oh, I’m German too!” When he first moved to the USA, in response to such a comment, he would say, “Wo sehen Sie kommen?” And the person would laugh and say, “Oh, no, I don’t speak German. I’ve never been to Germany! But my great-grandfather was German, so…” Often, they didn’t know where that relative was from in Germany, or even the person’s name - they were told, by family, that they had a German relative, and so they identified as German. But are they?

For much of her life, Senator Elizabeth Warren identified as, in part, Native American. She was told by her family that she had a great-great-great grandmother that was Cherokee, and perhaps other ancestors that were Delaware. She was proud of this heritage. She was even listed as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) directories. But that heritage has been called into question - there’s no documentation at all to support it. She wasn't trying to deceive anyone - she was just going with what her family believed. So… is she part Native American, having no confirmed ancestral ties to a tribe? Or not? I worked with American Indians in the San Francisco Bay area back in the 1990s - those I worked with preferred that term to “Native American” - and many times I heard them arguing about who is and isn’t “really an Indian.” Do you have to grow up on a reservation to be Indian? Do you have grown up regularly attending tribal events to be an Indian? Do you have to have a story about a time when you were treated differently - and negatively - based on the perception of your Native American appearance to be a Native American? If you can pass as “white," are you Native American? If you never identified as Indian, and then you confirmed Native American ancestry through solid documentation, do you get to list “Native American” on university and job applications, start wearing tribal dress, etc.? The debates would rage regarding all these questions - even turn ugly. I would sit at the side, have no answers, and hope we could eventually move on to the causes at hand (job development, health promotion, etc.).

I recently took the DNA test to know what my genetic ethnicities are. The results: I’m
29% Scotch Irish, 22% Scandinavian, 18% Western European (Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands etc., 16% English, 14% Italian/Greek, and 1% Iberian Peninsula (Spain & Portugal). So… do I get to start wearing a kilt and talking in a Scottish accent and supporting Irish and Scottish independence? Would Greeks be offended if I declared myself Greek - having never been to Greece and not speaking Greek?

I think of all this as controversy swirls around Rachel Dolezal, an African studies professor at Eastern Washington University and an NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington. She has been identifying for many years as mixed race, as part black American, but has no proof of black African ancestry and, in fact, has two white biological parents asserting she has no black African ancestry at all. She posted a photo to Facebook, implying that a black man she was standing next to is her father - he’s not. Many people are angry. Others say she should adapt the same words that Caitlyn Jenner used in identifying as female: Caitlyn Jenner says she has always felt she was female, and is only now getting to live as her true self. The transgendered community supports her and says biology is not the determinate of gender identification - a vagina doesn’t mean, automatically, that one is a woman, a penis doesn’t mean a person is a man, etc. So, does skin color or appearance determine race? Or how one was raised? Or how one is perceived? This blog, titled Here's why every Rachel Dolezal-Caitlyn Jenner comparison is wrong, does a rather lousy job of proving its title, but it does do an excellent job of showing the range of opinions about Dolezal in relation to Jenner.

Of course, the big difference in Dolezal and Jenner is that Jenner has never lied about her family, how she was raised, her heritage, her life as a man, or her genitalia. Dolezal has lied about such things, even claiming a black father.

If I was working at an accounting firm, and I found out a woman I had been working with for a year was transgendered - had been born with male genitalia, raised a male, and only started publicly identifying as a female in the last five years - I’d be surprised, but not at all offended. And I’d go right on treating her as her.

If I was a donor to an organization that advocated for the prevention of ovarian cancer and better treatment for women with ovarian cancer, and the woman who ran the organization for two years, who talked passionately about her family’s history of ovarian cancer and how, therefore, she  fears getting it herself, turned out to be transgendered - had been born with male genitalia, raised a male etc., had lied about being born a female and having ovaries or a risk of ovarian cancer - I’d be angry. I would have felt a fraud has been perpetuated upon me.

Maybe that’s how I feel about Dolezal - she may be able to speak to what it’s like to be a black American for the last 10 years or however long she’s been living her life as such, but she’s been deceptive about how she grew up and what her family life was like. That’s troublesome.   

But this Jenner comparison has given me pause, even if it mostly doesn't fit in this case. I fully support people that want to dress as a gender different from their genitalia, who want to be treated as a gender not represented by their genitalia. I’ve had no issue walking into a bathroom and seeing a woman standing there that I am relatively certain is transgendered - if she feels she is a woman, and presents herself as a woman, and wants to use the women’s bathroom, that is fine by me. But how would I feel if the head of a pay equality group was transgendered? Could she really understand the plight of girls and women who struggle with lower pay than men in the workplace? Should she really speak for something that she may never have experienced herself? Would it matter the amount of time she had publicly identified as a woman - 5 years? 10 years? 20? My answer: I just do not know.

Elinor Burkett, a journalist, former professor of women’s studies and an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, tried to delve into this in a New York Times opinion piece; she was eviscerated for her commentary in this Jezebel piece, which made a point of finding an unflattering photo of her to show with the piece. Even attempting to discuss this can bring a LOT of grief... I wonder what I'm inviting by daring to blog about it...

Identity. What are the boundaries? What are the definitions? Can we really say anymore, with certainty, who is and isn't male, female, black, white, whatever? Does it matter? I do know ethnic, cultural and gender identify are each very personal things, sometimes even precious things, and that many people, even me, are possessive of how they identify. That's something to keep in mind if you work with… well, people.

What is the point of this blog? I don't even know anymore.

Oh, and one last note: I am not Caucasian, and I refuse to check it when it’s the option given on any form - I'll check "other" instead. Caucasian means people from the Caucasus region of southeastern Europe. The term was applied to all white Europeans by German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who believed race was determined by his cranial measurements. I consider it inaccurate at best and racist at worst and refuse to use it. And I bristle at reading the word anywhere outside of stories about people from the Caucasus region of southeastern Europe. Call me white, call me a Kentuckian, say I'm of European descent, call me a mutt - just don't ever call me Caucasian.

No comments:

Post a Comment