Recently a high school student in Utah was subjected to an online hate campaign. What was her sin? She wore a traditional Chinese dress to her Prom—but she was not Chinese.
I live in Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, and we’ve spent the past couple of decades arguing about the decision to expel the presence of the traditional University of Illinois sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek, from all games. The Chief’s sin? Being a ridiculously enthusiastic—but decidedly non-Native American—undergraduate dressed up in buckskins and a feathered headdress who dances at halftime and entertains the crowd.
A few years ago a woman named Rachel Dolezal was roundly vilified for self-identifying as African American—she was at that time serving as the President of the Spokane, Washington office of the NAACP—despite her obviously Caucasian parents. Her additional sin? She was also teaching Africana Studies at a local college—a job from which she was promptly fired.
Particularly because race, gender, and ethnicity are now tied to a range of government and private sector benefits connected with employment, education, housing, and finance, the labels that we use to identify ourselves have become sources of ever greater contention over the past few decades. In addition, as more individuals band together—often through social media campaigns—to battle the injustices caused by the discrimination and misunderstandings that unfortunately still occur in American society, we are daily reminded that relatively small issues can cause huge pain for some. This is a good and helpful process in theory, but the snark, slash, and plain silliness that sometimes accompanies it is not. We should all think before we speak and avoid the beguiling power of the put-down when we respond to the words and actions of others, but this unfortunately seems to be advice that is roundly ignored as so many compete to be the biggest smart aleck in any conversation.
Race, gender, and ethnicity shape both our perceptions and the perceptions others hold of us, but we also simultaneously shape ourselves through them by choosing to embrace or reject different facets of all three. As a result, we are both defined—yet not so easily defined—by these parameters. Look around you. Is every man you meet exactly the same? Every woman? Are all African Americans the same? Are all white people alike? Can you gaze out at a sea of humanity and instantly spot a German? A bi-sexual? A Senegalese?
It seems odd that the more walls we break down the more that we want to erect others to replace them. Our often restrictive concepts of race, gender, and ethnicity also fail to account for fluidity and cross-pollination that creates “feminine” men and “masculine” females, white teens who love hip-hop and black classical musicians, or Japanese baseball stars and American karate champions. Our daily personal interactions and the stupendous reach of international business and mass culture now allow us to enjoy the full range of the richness of life on our vast and amazing planet. Should we tenaciously cling to labels and automatically attack others if they want to redefine themselves by assimilating other influences to create a unique personhood? Is there a difference between respectful “borrowing” and disrespectful “appropriation”—and do we even understand the difference between the two?
I must admit at the outset that my default setting is to be open to influences and ideas from everyone and everywhere, and I do sometimes get frustrated when I realize how often people look at me and see nothing but a tall, white, older male—the Cheese Whiz of humanity, by the reckoning of those who considerate themselves more transgressive. This apparent pale maleness is further compounded when I put on a sport coat and a tie to head off to work; my individuality is erased by a host of societal preconceptions based upon my appearance—which seems to be exactly what we claim to want to avoid. As I once pointed out to a student, there are many of you here wearing artfully torn jeans and sneakers to class and only one of me in a jacket and tie. Who, therefore, is the cool rebel—and who is the craven conformist—in our classroom today?
By the way, I am fully aware that some reader somewhere will smugly assert that my feelings indicate that my “white privilege” has rendered me insensitive to the plight of historically marginalized groups who have previously been erased by the biases of mainstream cultural norms. I get that, but does this excuse other compensatory biases that exist today or provide permission for the kinds of awful personal attacks that seem too often to be mistaken for thoughtful commentary at this troubled time in our history?
I encourage and support those who want to expand their personal boundaries in whatever way they choose—as long as their intentions are pure. Attacking that girl from Utah who fell in love with that Chinese dress seems both churlish and childish. Are we no longer allowed to admire the beauty of cultures other than our own without being subject to attack? I would hate to even consider the monitoring mechanisms that would need to be in place to stop us from enjoying the incredible richness of our planet and its people.
The ongoing—and perhaps never ending—Chief Illiniwek controversy here in Illinois is furthered confounded by a long and depressing history of Hollywood portraying Native American culture in the crudest and rudest manner possible. As someone who grew up watching Westerns on television, I can easily understand the anger generated by the ridiculous halftime hopping that is meant to represent ceremonial dances that often also carry religious overtones. No matter how pure the hearts of those who love and admire “The Chief” and the institutional honor and integrity he symbolizes, one need only to imagine a dancing rabbi in order to better understand how good intentions are just not enough in this particular circumstance. Although there will likely be little to celebrate about some poor freshman sweating in a plush animal costume someday soon, it will still be an improvement.
And here we now come to Rachel Dolezal, who insists that she is a black women in a white body. The alarm bells she sets to ringing are obvious: the long and awful history of white performers mocking African Americans by putting on “blackface” makeup seems a straight line connection for many observers and commentators . Moreover, the historic precedents of light-skinned blacks “passing” for white during the painful American past of segregation laws seems perversely turned about in this circumstance.
Her case also raises many difficult questions regarding the degree to which biology is destiny. Can one “feel” differently from one’s biological inheritance? Here we get into matters of personal intentions and yearnings that are often hard to dispassionately evaluate. Is hers an honest case of simply embracing a culture and race that is not one’s own, or was she somehow attempting to benefit from a hoax that used affirmative action laws to her benefit?
We now grant a bit of latitude to make some personal choices irrespective of biological fact—our gender identity, for example—so this question might be a bit more difficult than it first appears. If gender is a choice, can race be as well—or is this opening one more door than we are yet ready to allow? The boundaries regarding what “choices” are acceptable and which are not is still not at all defined in the minds of many, and the possibilities for disconnect between the biological shell and the self-identification of the person trapped within are still a source of much debate and discussion.
Perhaps questions of identity and appropriation boil down to issues of perception and deception. We perceive the surface and want to believe it tells us something about the person inside—which results in conclusions that are often wrong and sometimes insulting. We are, in addition, sometimes angered—and perhaps even frightened—when people fail to conform to our expectations based on their appearances. To simplify our lives we try to make facile judgements about those around us based on what we can readily see, and these judgements often turn out to be misperceptions driven by the biases drummed into us by our experiences and our mass media culture. Maybe we need to relax and allow for far more variability both within groups and across them—and be a little less riled up when people just don’t conform to what we deem “normal”.
The issues of race, gender, and culture that drive so many to distraction might be a bit easier to manage if we remembered that labels are useful on canned goods—but are much less helpful when it comes to people. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge our fascinating, self-contradictory, and non-standard selves in all our idiosyncratic glory—and give everyone permission to enjoy all the wonderful and interesting individuals living around us.