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Pondering identity: Race, class and gender

It is, if not amusing, certainly bemusing to me that the older I get, the less clarity I have about my identity. When I was 20, I attended, very briefly, Evergreen State College. And the one class I enrolled in was titled, “Race, Class and Gender in Comparative Perspective.” The subject matter was a comparison between modern-day India and the antebellum South in the the United States. I didn’t get very far in the class because I got knocked up, and got my own personal sojourn through the roles of “young, single welfare mother” and “college dropout.” At the time I identified as bisexual, female, white, ethnically Jewish, polyamorous, democrat, feminist, and liberal. I never quite figured out the class thing because I had professional parents, who didn’t have much money while I was growing up, and I spend a couple years on welfare… so I had a middle class upbringing with working class resources. I dropped out of college mostly because I didn’t want to waste my money while I wasn’t able to focus. I didn’t go back yet because life is complicated. 22 years and I still say “yet”.

I’m still a liberal, feminist democrat. And I’m still incredibly pale, and I still like lox. I’m still the child of a white, Anglo Saxon protestant mom whose family roots go back to the Mayflower and a Jewish dad whose parents’ families fled Russia and Poland in the early 1920s, long before Hitler had power in the area. Because lots of  people were assholes to the Jews back then.

In high school, during my junior year, I wrote a research paper about the history of Judaism. People have been kicking the Jews around for a hell of a long time. There was a lot of material. On the one hand, I felt it very personally, that these people like me had been so abused for so long. And on the other hand, Judaism doesn’t claim me, nor do I claim it as more than a cultural factor, because my mother is not Jewish. I grew up celebrating Christmas and Easter with rare forays that felt like tourism to seders and Hanukkah parties.

Recently someone said to me, “How do you dance the hora?”

I looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “And why do you think I know?” I asked.

“Well, your last name….”

Clearly someone who does not understand assimilation. (Side note: I actually have danced the Hora, many times, but I wouldn’t be able to right now and I only “know how” when I’m in a big circle of people dancing the hora because it’s that kind of dance.) It greatly reminded me of college, when a girl from Texas turned to a roommate and drawled, “You’re from California, what’s IN tofu?”

My roommate responded much as I did. She put on her best valley girl accent and said, “Like, I don’t know.”

But people have treated me different for “being Jewish”, no matter how little I look it or the fact that I don’t practice Judaism and never really have. I’m a freckled redhead with green eyes and pale skin, and really all I get from that side of the family is a lot of curl in my hair, full lips and a really flat butt. And my last name. It’s the name that makes people jump to conclusions, like, “Your people killed Jesus,” and “Do you sacrifice babies?” In contrast, assuming I know the Hora is pretty mild.

Growing up I went from being the weird white kid at the mostly black school (the school, now, is 97% black, in the middle of Detroit) to being the weird Jewish kid in a relentlessly white, sorta rural town in southern Oregon.

When people started saying, “White people don’t get it” I always felt kind of weird because growing up with my best friends being Black, and hearing the kids at school talk about their fears, and then ending up being identified without my taking the identity with a people who have been systematically oppressed for millennia, who have been the victims of genocide and segregation, who have been vilified, caricatured, rejected, and feared… it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t kind of a lot of commonalities. And yet… do we ever really understand where other people are coming from? If someone asks me if I’m Jewish, I can say “no”, honestly,  and they shrug and move on. Most of the assumptions, even the negative ones, that people make about Jews tend to be fear of financial or political power (accurate or not) rather than assumption of inadequacy or violence, unless we’re talking sports. It’s a different thing.  Just different.

So I’m sort of batting around thoughts about cultural appropriation. Intellectually I understand the concerns, but I also come from an incredibly mixed background of religion, ethnicity and place, and grew up with people talking about the melting pot as a good thing. I grew up liking moccasins and Baja hoodies and matzo balls, was baptized in the Episcopalian church and ultimately ended up as a lapsed Unitarian Universalist. And if you ever wanted a religion based on cultural appropriation…
As a teenager my go-to-sleep music was this:

Which is a Punjabi Buddhist mantra (I think) set to Celtic harp music.

Even baby carriers, everything comes from somewhere. Some of them come from multiple places. I like talking about where they come from but mostly I just want people to be comfortable wearing their babies, so sometimes the fact that things like the ergo are really Westernized adaptations of a number of Asian baby carriers gets lost in the shuffle, but hey, there were similar things in Sweden and Africa and yeah, it becomes challenging to know how much to worry about the cultural appropriation side of things.

We’re well off now. Secure, not “wealthy”, almost “comfortable”. On paper we look relatively wealthy, but mostly it’s because we’re planning for my husband to retire early. Like just over a year from now. So it’s got to last a while. But very, very far from where I was when I was 22, on welfare. Or worse, before welfare, when I had literally zero dollars and got by on foodstamps. Still have to think about money but surprises only upset us, they don’t break us anymore. And I grew up not able to afford college. I grew up in working class neighborhoods. But I grew up with parents who were white collar professionals. I had more in common with the upper class kids except the inconvenience of not being able to buy trendy shit. My parents gave me lessons and adventures and put a priority on my education and they were married and still are.

I talk about privilege a lot, and I’m working through most of this stuff with much the same filter. I don’t have a crystallized, formalized opinion yet.

Last night I was watching Honest Trailers, and was laughing my ass off. What they had to say about Skyrim and Harry Potter were hilarious. And then we got to the Avengers, and it was awesome, right up to the point where they said, “This movie will make your inner 8 year old stand up and squeal, unless you’re dead, or a girl.”

And my god. I just shut it down. Closed the window and stopped watching, though there was plenty more in the rabbit hole. If they’d said pretty much any other label in place of “girl” it would have been immediately obviously offensive and I don’t think they’d have said it. But “like a girl” and “girls don’t like these things” and “fake geek girl” have been too prevalent lately to let this one go.

In elementary school, I won the competition to be on the Olympics of the Mind robot building team for our school district-wide TAG class. Won it. And when the team assembled, the boys put their heads together and told me and the other girl who’d made the team, “You guys can do the costumes. We’re building the robot.”

Their robot sucked and failed to work.

In the same class, we were learning to program computers. And when it was my turn, every time the teacher would give me the same program I’d already done, and then turn to the boys and help them do more complicated things. Not because I lacked aptitude but because clearly teaching me wasn’t worth the effort because I couldn’t possibly be interested in that. I was an adult before I taught myself to code at all. There was just no support for it.

In high school, despite having some of the highest scores in the math program, I was not invited to be on the math team. It was like I was invisible.

I grew up hearing Free to Be You and Me tell me that the only significant difference between Mommies and Daddies is the biological act of parenting. I grew up with a dad who taught me to cook and a mom who went to school and had a law office. With a dad who did much of the outside work and a mom who sewed. With a dad who wasn’t afraid to cry and a mom who wasn’t going to back down from a fight for justice. And it wasn’t until college that I learned this was kinda weird.  And it wasn’t until the past few years that I really understood how deep gender discrimination goes. That having a female name makes it harder to get published. Or hired for many jobs. Or any of a number of other biases that in retrospect should have been obvious and I thought were just me. I was “bossy” and “bitchy” and “pushy”.  I talked out of turn and raised my hand too much. I was fired from a job supposedly for breaking the rules (I didn’t) because one of the bosses didn’t like how her husband was looking at me. Once, an insurance company refused to pay what a totaled stolen and recovered vehicle was worth until my father came on the line and threatened to pull his accounts. I was 24.

And I never fit. Have literally never worn high heels. Too tall. My hands don’t fit in women’s gloves. They don’t make most women’s shoes in my size. Hardly anything is made to fit me. I’m thankful to walmart for actually acknowledging the existence of large women, as it means that I can at least wear colorful sweats and t-shirts without shopping from big and tall men’s stores (which I do anyway.)

I feel like when society defines what it means to be a woman most of it isn’t me. But I don’t feel like I’m not a woman. Except I don’t want people judging me on those terms, so I’m pretty likely to use a gender neutral pseudonym when I publish. I hate that it comes down to that. And  my eldest kid is nonbinary. In their words, “I don’t mind being a sister and a daughter, but don’t call me a girl like that’s all I am.” I get that completely.

I don’t have a uterus anymore. And now that Miles is on the very tail end of weaning, I probably will stop having breasts in the next few years. I’m letting go of the things that ever made me connect to the idea of “womanhood” as separate from “personhood”.

I don’t have any answers, but I’m reading articles right now about whether or not Jewish people are white, and sort of laughing exasperated inside because my god, I’ve never felt completely white or completely Jewish or really completely anything because are things ever that simple? I’m not NOT those things, but they aren’t all I am either.

When I look in the mirror and think about identity, mostly I think, “I’m me.”

Not entirely straight, not entirely bi, functionally monogamous but I’ve been polyamorous in the past, not sure I could deal with it now, so does it matter? I don’t know. Not Jewish, not not-Jewish, and the Jewish identity matters more than being “white” as an identity because the tribulations of my great grandparents are much closer than the struggles of my 8-times grandfathers and grandmothers. Woman, female, not feminine, not masculine either, hell, even on the Meyers-Briggs my answers hover in the indeterminate middle. Mostly I’m not binary, and don’t like dichotomies. And injustice makes me angry and sad. And I want people to be safe, secure, happy and loved.

I don’t think there’s a box I fit in. Or maybe that is the box. That I don’t fit.

Maybe that’s what it’s about. Sitting with the uncertainty and accepting that as reality.

Published in Feminism Gender and Sexuality Life Political

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