Monday, June 8, 2015

Identity Outside of Spirituality

I've been writing a lot about my spiritual and philosophical musings lately.  But sometimes I find that there are aspects of my identity that really push spirituality into the background.  I've been learning a lot about race lately, participating in #mywhiteprivilege Facebook status updates every day in June.  At first I resisted, arguing that as a non-English speaking immigrant to the US, White privilege somehow didn't apply to me.  But I soon realized that while I experienced my own share of prejudice for being "a foreigner", I nonetheless could "pass for White American", and hence I benefited from White privilege.  And so I began the challenge, because I realized that there are multiple prejudices in society, race being only one, and just because one applies to me doesn't mean another doesn't, or vice versa.

I've been learning new terminology such as microaggressions, small comments or actions, often unintentional and not necessarily "a big deal" on their own, that collectively serve to be a constant reminder to racial/ethnic minorities of their "non-standard status" in society.  I'm reminded of a friend, White American, who takes great interest in people who show "interesting" physical features. She approaches total strangers to ask where their heritage is from.  She considers this a neutral expression of her appreciation of their looks.  Apparently, the fact that people who are the recipients of such inquiries from her are having to deal with multiple such comments and questions only adds to their sense of "otherness".  My friend means well, but she is coming from a place of her own White privilege, where the reason she asks these questions is because she considers people with seemingly mixed heritage as out of the norm.  I can see that getting old real quick if I can't go anywhere without having to have my racial identity questioned.  And what about adoptees or donor conceived people who may not even know their full racial/ethnic heritage?  This sort of question not only reminds them that they look different from the norm, it reminds them of the loss of their genetic relatives and the associated heritage.

Another phrase I'm trying to wrap my mind around is "people of color", which refers to anyone who is not fully White.  I question this phrase, as it seems to only perpetrate the idea that Whiteness is the norm, that it's "colorless".  My husband doesn't care for the phrase either.  While I understand that "racial/ethnic minority" may not roll of the tongue as easily, that's what I use.  Then again, I also realize that the term "minority" is problematic, because in terms of sheer numbers, Whites are outnumbered worldwide by the other races put together.  This conundrum reminds me of the issue of calling Native Americans... well, Native Americans.  I've heard some who do not like being grouped under this umbrella term, and prefer to go by their specific tribal association.  I lived this preference for a couple of decades.  I fought being grouped with White Americans because I considered myself specifically Polish.  But with time came assimilation, and since now I identify more closely with my adopted home, I likewise identify more closely with other White Americans.

And speaking of losing ties with my native Poland... I recently wrote an article about my experiences growing up bilingual and how I struggled with one aspect of Polish grammar - differentiating between the formal and informal "you" when addressing my mother.  Since I did not grow up hearing any child address an elder in an informal way, I struggled for years with this.  But the first comment I read from a reader was from a Pole who grew up in Poland who never had this struggle, yet found it appropriate to call my experience "funny".  This stung, but only a little.  Since I have already distanced myself from so-called "fellow Poles", this comment only served to confirm my decision to self-identify more closely with Americans.

My final observation has to do with the idea of color-blindness when it comes to race.  Some people think this is the solution to racial prejudice.  I see this sort of thinking as similar to one flavor of feminism which encouraged women to be more like men, instead of valuing women's uniqueness in its own right.  Why should we pretend that race doesn't exist?  No, it exists.  It just doesn't need to come with all the associated baggage of stereotypes, phobias, privilege, bigotry, power struggles, etc. But people should be able to celebrate their racial/ethnic heritage, just without it being turned against them.  Diversity, not color-blindness, is the solution to racism.  IMHO

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