Identify yourself

Sunday February 08, 2009 @ 09:31 PM (UTC)

I’ve mentioned my discomfiture with the term ‘white’ and its pseudo-scientific relative ‘Caucasian’ on at least one occasion. ‘White’ is a false monolith of assimilated, ‘non-ethnic’ culture. It’s also, in one sense, a useful diagnostic term: I’m white, because I have white privilege. I think it’s worth acknowledging that privilege, even though I would love to tear it down along with the nonsense, ‘unmarked’ category.*

I thought I’d accepted that definition: I have white privilege, I acknowledge it by admitting I’m white. But on a panel at Orycon, I came up short. It was a panel on using non-European folklore in fiction, and the moderator asked each of the panelists to sketch her (and in one case, his) background, personal and artistic. I was last, and she turned to me and said, “And, Felicity, you identify as white, right?”

I sat there, opened and closed my mouth. Eventually, some words managed to tumble out, probably to the effect that yes, I am white. I felt stunned for a few minutes, not to mention (still) quite embarrassed for turning incoherent in front of a room full of people. It seemed so silly. How was this any different from the aforementioned ‘ethnicity’ checkbox? Wasn’t this a ludicrous reaction on my part?

I’ve managed to convince myself that it wasn’t. ‘Identify’. It’s a loaded term in these contexts. Perhaps the most well-known example these days, known even to those of us who haven’t (yet!) read Dreams from my Father, is President Obama’s identification as African-American. The media’s obsessed debate over his racial identity showed that people think this kind of thing is mutable, but most agree that it’s fundamentally Obama’s right to mediate his own racial affiliation. Naming has power, and self-naming is particularly heady. From race to political inclination to gender and sexual politics, people self-describe and self-categorize: feminist or womanist, gay or same gender loving, disabled person or person with disabilities: these distinctions are meaningful, often crucially so, to those making them. You cannot stop others labeling you, or understanding you according to their own rubrics, but you can choose your terms. You can define yourself.

For me, this question of ethnic identity is not so simple as ‘do you have white privilege?’ To say that it is is to wipe away the traditions from which my ancestors rose. It’s affirming and embracing the false homogeneity of white mainstream culture. It’s not as simple as my DNA. I have drops of blood from places only recently discovered by my grandmother’s genealogical excavations, and gouts of it from cultures deliberately put aside and denied by my forebears. Those contributions to who I am may be too far back, or too far away, or too small, to claim. My identity is something I am still making, something I am naming based on an interplay of factors.

But if I could go back and whisper in my own ear at that panel, I would say: “I identify as Welsh-English-Irish-French.” Yes, it’s long, and complex, and messy. But it’s true. I have studied those cultures, histories, even languages, and they are part of who I am. I am not unmarked. I mark myself.

*I’m pretty interested in this concept of ‘markedness’, as it applies to people and types of writing. It’s what I was trying to get at with my post “Maleness is the human default.”


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