I grew up in Queens, New York, which just happens to be the most diverse place in the country. When we talked about each other as kids, we were always very race and ethnic conscious. I don’t mean racist, but aware of people having ethnic identities. I don’t even see this as a negative thing. Who wants everyone the same? A person’s race and identity was just an identifier, like their height or weight. I might say, “Remember Bob, the tall black guy from the party,” just like I would say, “Remember Ellen, the pretty red-head from the party.” We would even go further than just race. He could be the Puerto Rican-guy or the Italian Guy. We would separate Jews as being religious “frum” or not, or Israeli, or Persian.
Things changed in college, when I became aware that this type of identification seemed blue-collar in tone. Even when people still identified as Asian or Black, it seemed wrong to identify someone as such, at least in public. In private, between friends, one could be as racist as the next guy, but everyone feared being seen as a blue collar type from Queens.
College Friend: “Did you meet Dan yesterday?”
Neil: “Which was Dan?”
College Friend: “The history major. He was wearing the green sweater. From Maryland. With glasses. Bald.”
Neil: “Oh, you mean the black guy?”
College Friend: “Ugh, don’t say that!”
I found this attitude a little odd, as if acknowledging his color was akin to acknowledging some sort of weakness in his personality. What was the big deal? On the other hand, I guess I can understand the sensitivity. At Columbia, Dan might be the only black guy at the party, and I’m sure he would hate always being known as the “black guy” throughout college. The rules change when the amount of diversity changes.
I’ve never truly resolved this issue for myself. I’m pretty open to all types of folk here on Citizen of the Month, even though I’ve gotten in trouble a few times for some gay joke or stating that Portland only had one black resident. I don’t think of you as black or white, Jewish or gentile, although I have to admit that it is exciting to me when a reader is different in some unique way. The blogosphere can be so bland, that it is cool to interact with someone a little different. I’ve written about this several times already. I’m still waiting for my first Native American blogger friend! The question is — can someone be identified as different, and still thought of as the same as everyone else? Am I Neilochka the blogger or Neilochka the Jewish blogger? Or can I be both? I’ve already spoken to a few of you that took a while before coming out as “black” or “ethnic” because you felt that other bloggers would perceive you differently.
I think about these ethnicity issues while I’m writing. Recently, I was writing a post while sitting in Starbucks about this guy sitting next to me, a brainy-looking grad student, who kept on trying to read my monitor. He was Asian (another loaded issue — I sometimes find it difficult to tell if someone is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese) and when I was writing the story, I started to describe him as “this Asian guy.” Then I censored myself. I thought to myself, “People will wonder why I him making him “the Asian guy.”” Am I trying to make a statement about Asians? Is there some other meaning for making him Asian? In truth, the only reality was that — he was Asian! Still, did it add anything to the story that was unintended? If you read something you wrote where a “Jewish guy” was looking over your shoulder, wouldn’t I have the same concerns?
On of my new blog friends from Los Angeles, Los Angelista, also writes on a cool website called Anti-Racist Parent — for parents committed to raising children with an anti-racist outlook. It brings up some important issues for parents. The site was “my muse” for this post. You should also check out Los Angelista’s terrific blog, too.