Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Race - Part 1 - Who am I?

An on-line community that I have been a part of with some regularity since Mane was small is having a discussion about race. It's an organized discussion with writing assignments and such. This seems like a good place for me to wrestle with my thoughts. So, the first assignment went like this:

"But who are you? When you look in the mirror, who stares back at you with eyes full of wonder, mystery, and knowledge? If you had to describe yourself, what community, race, or cultural terms would you use for yourself? When other people or institutions in the community describe you, what racial terms do they give for the complexity of your lived experience? Do you use the same descriptions as others? If not, why do you think there are differences?"

When I look in the mirror I check out the bump on the ridge of my nose and the freckles all over the place. I see someone who looks a lot like my mom. Some days I'm really happy with what I see and some days not-so-much. I'm struggling to find that place for freedom where I don't worry any more about whether I look young or old or beautiful, where who I am matters more than how I look.

If I describe myself in terms of community, I'd say that I live in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with some wonderful people who have been support and love and encouragement to me. I, sadly, wouldn't describe myself as a member of a church community, as it has been more than difficult to establish ourselves in any community of faith.

I am of European descent, particularly German and Swedish and Irish. My great-grandmother immigrated to the U.S. when she was 9 years old, shortly before World War I. She refused to speak German to her children, and she knew very little English. So, she didn't really speak with them at all. I would say that my family has identified much more by occupation than ethnicity. I come from a family of farmers. Sometimes I am reminded of this when I run into the cultural traditions of Mango's family - a family of more educated professionals.

To be honest, I am not fond of being "white." This is another thing I'm trying to work through. I want Mane to be proud of her heritage, not trying to become something else. My family gave me very little sense of cultural heritage, and I have to be intentional if I want to pass something of a cultural heritage on to Mane. Vespera's experience is rich with culture and fraught with the hardships of racism and discrimination. Being her mother has caused me to pause much more often in reflection on culture, ethnicity and race. Here is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a friend last week:

"The attitudes toward Hispanic people are pretty heated all over the U.S. right now. The kinds of things I tend to deal with are people's attitudes about immigration. AND the total neglect of Hispanic people in discussion about racial tension and race relations in our country. People in the U.S. view "race" as a black-white thing, as though everybody else does not exist. The science museum here just did a "race" exhibit, and I was surprised by how much I had trouble with it. As a rule, I don't use the word "race" at all, except when I'm specifically talking about the tensions in our country that have to do with skin color. The rest of the time I talk about ethnicity and culture. I was surprised that the science museum called their exhibit "Race," though that was what they were getting at - skin color, I mean. Anyway, being in such close proximity with another culture has made me think about how we humans like to be with people who are like ourselves and what that means. I don't necessarily think it's good or bad. It's the way we are. And I'm frustrated with the way adoptive parents are encouraged to find ways to connect with people of their child's cultural origins. This can lead to a lot of artificial self-serving relationships. Authentic relationships are much harder to come by and cannot be forced. I've thought a lot about how not to be just a "spectator" of another culture but, instead, how to embrace that other culture in appropriate ways. I don't want to exploit, and I don't want to act like something I'm not. It's all a big jumble in my head. It's a difficult topic, and, in some ways, I feel that I don't even have the right to say much about it since I am of European descent."

I get frustrated with my "whiteness" and, perhaps, my lack of cultural identity. It drives me crazy to check off the box that says I'm white on applications for things. White is not an ethnicity or a culture. It's a color - not to mention that white & black are not technically the color of skin of anyone I know. Mane has grown up describing herself as pink. And our neighbors call themselves brown. Vespera calls herself brown. These are actual colors of skin, and if we tried to name all the colors accurately we would run out of words. There is simply more diversity in the world than that.

So, I guess I wouldn’t describe myself in the terms that other people use to describe who I am. I am a mother, lover, friend, Christian, family therapist, childbirth educator, woman, neighbor, activist. I am German, Swedish, and Irish with a messy family history. I hold within me the characteristics of those cultural groups without thinking about them. I am a collector of diverse traditions. Someone learning to cook and sew and garden. Someone gathering spiritual traditions from various traditions. Someone gathering family traditions from the same. I am me.

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