Thursday, February 08, 2007

what it means to have no racial/ethnic identity

guess there's something wrong with me, guess i don't fit in
no one wants to touch it, no one knows where to begin
i just want more than one membership to more than one club

Ok, so the title is slightly misleading.
I know that I do have a racial/ethnic identity; I'm a European mutt, and the highest percentage of ancestry is probably Italian (Sicilian!), although the plethora of ancestral countries makes it hard to say for sure. Being European, I know that I have that privilege, and I don't try to pretend that I do not.
So, technically, I'm white, or Caucasian.
But that's not my identity. That's not how other people identify me. That's not how I identify myself.

I've never identified as white, or seen myself as very similar to white people. It wasn't until I learned that "European" (especially western and southern, which is my heritage) meant "Caucasian" that I started to try to see myself as such.
When I first filled out a form on my own that asked for my "Race/Ethnicity," I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade, and I had to ask my mom, because I didn't know. I don't remember which box I wanted to check, but I know that it was one of the "brown" categories, and I was surprised when my mom told me to check "Caucasian." I'd seen "Caucasians" and white people on TV, and I knew I didn't look like them.
I checked "Caucasian" from then on, without really thinking about it, but knowing that I didn't fit in with the other people who always checked that box.

I have very dark skin. My best explanation for this is my Sicilian background; my dad, who's half Sicilian, is also very dark (we'd have tanning contests in the summer, to see who could get darkest). Sicily is a large island in the Mediterranean, pretty close to Somalia and a couple other African countries on the northeastern coast, which means that at some point, one (or more) of my ancestors probably got jiggy with an East African who traveled to Sicily (or vice versa).

I've never had anyone assume I was Italian. The identity that people ascribe to me has ranged from Ethiopian/Somalian (understandable) to Spanish to Middle Eastern to South Asian to Mexican to South American (and more). All "brown" identities. All people of color.
When I got to Smith, a friend asked me if I was in Prism - the org for queer people of color. When I joined Prism, they put me on the mailing list of queer people of color (as opposed to just the "allies" list).
It's not just white people who assume I'm "Other." Almost all of my friends who identify as women of color have been surprised when I tell them I'm "just" Italian. They've all assumed I'm "Other" as well.

When applying to colleges, I almost always marked "Caucasian" or "white," because I know that I'm not "really" a p.o.c., and I didn't want to be fodder for these institutions' surface attempts at increasing diversity or take any benefits that may have been extended to "real" p.o.c.'s. Sometimes, I'd mark "other," but I would never specify when they asked.

But in high school, when I realized that I was almost always being treated as "other," as a woman of color, I stopped checking "white" when I didn't feel morally obligated to proclaim my privilege.
Because, truth is, nobody ever extends that privilege to me. I have white privilege, technically, but not because anyone's ever assumed I have it. Often, I would assume I had it, and often, I would be denied access to it because my skin colour does not fit as "white."

The identity other people ascribe to me is almost invariably "Other."
The identity I give myself? I have no answer to that. I'm brown-skinned. I'm Other, but I'm still other than Other, because I'm technically not that kind of Other.
I have white privilege by virtue of technicality, but I'm never afforded that privilege by anyone other than myself.

I'm filling out my registration form for the 21st Annual Reproductive Rights to Social Justice Conference at Hampshire College (shameless plug: go register! It's free!), and it asks for "Ethnic/Racial Background."
I don't feel comfortable checking "Caucasian."
I checked "Other," but it requires a specification.
I have no specification. Because I have no racial/ethnic identity. I have no clear background. I'm brown, but I'm white. I'm Other, but I'm the norm that Other is defined in opposition to. I'm a walking contradiction of identities.

Who do I become, then? Who do I identify with? What do I identify as?
I can't answer these questions. Because I have no "real" or "authentic" identity.


Anonymous said...

i think this is really interesting and i remember us discussing this. i thought you were italian, but only because i lived there and dated someone with similar colouring as you. you are beautiful and shouldn't have to fit yourself in someone elses box. i can imagine how hard it must be to have assumed privilege but to be treated as an other without an outlet for community based on that experience. xo jamia

Anonymous said...

Why on earth would you want to identify with a race in the first place?

Race is an artificial construct devised by racists to distract us from the fact that we're all human beings.

DJ said...

While following the link of a link of a link of a wrong search result, I came across your blogs. I don't really understand this "privilege" you keep talking about in some of your posts. Social status is highly complicated. An individual compared to a group may have the same ethnicity, religion, hometown, income, etc... but despite this, they could still be seen as an inferior outcast by the group simply because they do not share some minor behavioral traits. My mother is Jewish-German-Russian-Polish and my father is mostly African American (his grandmother was Jewish-Italian). I was raised by my white mother and grandmother, and if I have to choose, I choose "white", but I choose "multi" when available. However, mixed ethnicity is the least of my problems of social acceptance. I'm an abstract thinker; a geek/nerd. I'm also one of those "weird people" that have manners and care about other people (holding doors, helping strangers, worrying how my actions will effect others). We are all "others", it is just that sometimes we find similar "others" and give our group a name in an attempt to give ourselves _a sense_ of belonging. Often those groups will try to pretend they are better than those not in their groups, even though the differences are merely in their minds. The best I can tell, the "privilege" you speak of is arrogance reinforced by being accepted by the majority. (Not meant as an insult to you.) As for having to specify what "Other" you are, that is easy: Mediterranean. That is no less accurate than lumping Philippinos, Japanese, Chinese, and Mongolians into "Asian" but calling Russians from the continent of Asia "Caucasian". What are you? Human. Where do you come from? Your mother; or your ancestors. I hope one day "ethnicities" will mingle so much that there are no longer discernible differences between the different "breeds" (a more accurate term, even if it has negative tone to it) of humans. We will always divide over something. Imagine: Religion, race, and culture are no longer issues, but then we argue (go to war, even) over vernacular (localized styles of speech). [Pardon my writing quality; Its late and I'm not feeling well.]