What do people see when they look at you? (1 of 2)

Author’s note: this entry needs a prominent disclaimer. This is MY story. I do not claim or pretend to represent anyone else with my words here. Well, except my sister, sort of, but I’m doing my best to transmit her perspectives. Part two of this topic will be focused on Lily and will be linked back here later and may not go live for awhile; this first part is allllll me. I’ve posted a lot of links, some of which are tangents from the words or sentences in which they are located, but all dealing with experiences of racism etc.

Oh, and I should alert you that there’s some profanity in this post.

A friend of mine and I were sitting in a park in a large city on a lovely summer day awhile back, chatting and hanging out in the afternoon heat. We were also people-watching. My friend made a comment about the various groups: some of them don’t see each other. Who looks at the homeless, and who actually sees them? Who looks at the chess players? Whom do they see? The young couple flirting near the fountain – do they notice the young woman with the toddler in tow? the hipsters sauntering by? the guy giving a dog water from a water bottle? (We both thought that the dog was cute.) This conversation we had, as we watched almost everyone, in a very deliberate way, helped me to solidify my perspective on this post (which I’ve been trying to write for months): all of us have the potential to be invisible to one or more groups of people, for reasons that range from benign to frightening.

The reason I want to write about this here is that I suspect that the reasons that most people wouldn’t fully see my sister act synergistically to make her especially visible, and not in a good way.

Here’s the thing: she and I were raised in predominately white, middle-class neighborhoods in the United States. We’re Jewish. We’re half Eastern European and half Native American. We’ve both got dark brown hair and dark brown eyes and are on the shorter end of the human height spectrum. Lily’s hair curls; mine is very, very straight. We’ve got lovely teeth, if you ask me (or our dentists), even if I needed braces. We’re both a little brown, in terms of skin color, although I often get washed out these days, since I’m at work all the time indoors and now have trouble with sunlight after my fibromyalgia diagnosis. (I’ve had people tell me that I must be Asian, Italian, and Russian, though, so who knows?) I’m heterosexual and cisgendered, and I suspect that Lily is, too, based on her behaviors, although it’s hard to be sure. We’re already in a position to be a little out of the mainstream – but, really, only a little, when you think about it – in the US. And of course, on top of all of this, Lily’s got many visible disabilities (and many invisible disabilities).

I can only fully speak about my experiences, and what I can see in Lily’s responses to the world. For myself, I’ve almost always felt like I was located on the fringe of whatever group I’ve been in – inside the group, admittedly, but not fully welcomed. At a minimum, only some parts of me are acknowledged while other parts of me are deliberately overlooked or just ignored. (I want to be clear that this is in a more important way than the ways in which we routinely favor one or more parts of ourselves over others in groups; when I’m teaching, I play up my inner scientist and play down my inner snarky commentator.)

I stick out for being half-white and Jewish in the Native community, which is largely Catholic/Protestant. Why, yes, when that student sang a psalm during the community end of year celebration? I was a little uncomfortable. I am Jewish amongst Protestants in many other work/school situations, and even more Other when those situations involve primarily Caucasians. I often stand out as female (and non-white) as a scientist. (Biology has more women than many other sciences, but my work involves more math and computer science than some subfields, so I’m still often in a minority as a woman.) Once, and at a scientific conference, the profile of my nose/face reminded someone of people belonged to one of the tribes of the Northern United States, so I guess I stand out as not white among some biologists? (My family hails from the southern half of the United States, for what it’s worth, and I don’t feel like naming the tribe at the moment because I don’t want to reveal that directly, publicly, in a place where I cling to some semblance of anonymity.) I’m not white – or not white enough – when I’m in some parts of Jewish culture. Like in that one synagogue, which amazingly had a special ed class in the religious school, but also was the place where my Hebrew school classmates told me one of my parents “looked Mexican.” (This was not meant to be a real insult, I think, but it sure as hell wasn’t meant to be flattering.)

Sometimes my background makes me somewhat more visible, in a fairly neutral way: in my current geographic location in the US, native Spanish speakers assume that I am a native speaker and address me in Spanish. Sometimes my background makes me somewhat more visible, in a not good way: I’ve been queried much more often since moving here about my ethnicity than at any other time in my memory, in a way that makes me feel like I can’t have access to a conversation – even for simple exchanges, like how much I have to pay the cashier – until I’ve been put in a box of some sort. (Needless to say, I am developing ways to deflect such interrogation.) There was one day in high school when I wore my hair in braided pigtails and a classmate told me that I “looked Indian”; I must have given this person an odd look before saying, “That’s because I am.”

Here’s the thing that makes me cringe the most: I always had this sense of being on the fringe as a child, and sure, people said and did racist and sexist and ableist things to and around me. But…it wasn’t until I hit graduate school that I actively felt those effects, with greater frequency and intensity than at any other time previous. It became personal, not just something that happened to family members, often in a hazy past, or to friends or to people in textbooks or PBS documentaries. A friend recently asked me why I’ve started identifying as a woman of color; I think it’s because other people have recently imposed that label upon me, and I’ll be damned if I let them make that a bad thing, or isolate it from my overall identity. Also: by the standards of the culture in which I live, I am. Because anything less than 100% white is almost always shifted hard and fast to Other in this country, normally with some label associated with it. (Which has been fascinating to watch in current American politics; our president is – like me – half and half, and yet watch how he’s chosen (had?) to talk about that in public.)

If you’ll allow me to elaborate on that point: I don’t see myself as white or Native or biracial or anything, really, most of the time – I am just, uh, me. But American culture has white as the default, so when I try to think about it, I add “Native” or “half-Native” to my description. I resent tremendously when I am forced to pick a single racial identifier, because there are key ways in which I am not really in tune with either culture, and because I am half and half, and I don’t consider myself to be out of touch with both cultures. (Sometimes I say “prefer not to state,” but most days, I feel like that’s not standing up for myself. YMMV.)

A recent way in which this came up was at a scientific conference that I attended not long ago. I applied for the “minority” scholarship, which covers registration for students who have never participated in the conference series before (which I hadn’t). I received it, and immediately felt torn…and continued to feel awkward until I realized that there were very few people of color in the assemblage. That was when it occurred to me that equally important to my job to be a role model for younger students is my role reminding the older generations that I am here, and that scientists can look and be different and still high achievers. (I did, in fact, win an award for my presentation from this group, because the work was good – it’s now published, yay! – and the presentation was good.) Interestingly, I was able to engage in a conversation with other (mostly young) scientists about most of the audience laughing at part of a presentation that discussed Native perspectives on the focus of the science, perspectives which conflict (sort of) with the “Western, modern science” perspective. And you can bet that I mentioned how uncomfortable I felt around some of the senior scientists when asked for feedback on the conference.

I have had to make some interesting judgment calls on this point over the years when filling out profiles for granting agencies. On one, I was allowed to check off as many boxes as I wanted, which was nice. What utterly pissed me off was that I was only supposed to check Native American if I had cultural ties to a tribe. No other identifier required cultural affiliation. I get that it’s sexy right now to claim Native heritage, and that a lot of (otherwise white) people try to do it in a really meaningless way – “my great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess!” is not just an inside joke in my family, it turns out. (See also the current point and counterpoint on Native identity at Racialicious, and political to-do about Dr. Elizabeth Warren.) But being Native still carries a crap-ton of negative stereotypes. (See also: the Native Appropriations blog, especially this essay on affirmative action, stereotype, and college.) Oh, and remember the incident I mentioned with another member of my local academic community? Turns out it doesn’t matter how I feel about my own genetic makeup: he saw me as an object, pure and fucking simple – a Native object that he clearly idealized rather than demonized, but an object nonetheless. Which is, I’ve realized, why I felt so threatened by him; I was fetishized by him, and if that fetish led him to inappropriate professional interactions with me, I did not trust him not to pursue inappropriate personal interactions with me. It was quite the lesson in how being objectified still hurts, even if the objectification comes from a place of wanting to admire or honor or express jealousy.

It’s an odd thought: people will treat me as white or Other, as normal or So Diverse I Am Special based on how they see me, and that may have nothing to do with reality or my own declared identity.

Most of the time, though, I get away with being white in a culture where whites are privileged; I think the single biggest choice my parents made in raising their daughters was to give us as much privilege and protection as possible in the face of a hostile world. And so I feel myself carrying privilege, and knowing that I have the privilege to know that, and that I’ve got the luxury to participate in the discussion of social justice and to treat it as an abstract, and I struggle with what that means, and what I can do about it. To quote a passage from the novel Friday, by Robert Heinlein, in which the protagonist, Friday, is realizing she acted out of anger:

[...] Anger at the whole human race for deciding that my sort are not human and therefore not entitled to equal treatment and equal justice. Resentment that had been building up since the first day that I had been made to realize that there were privileges human children had just from being born and that I could never have simply because I was not human.
     Passing as human gets one over on the side of privilege; it does not end resentment against the system. The pressure bulids up even more because it can’t be expressed.

I like this passage because I feel that being Other can be a tiring, frustrating space to occupy, especially for me, with my tendencies to anxiety and excessive dependence on external measures of self-esteem – at this point in my life, I just notice how people see me because I’ve gotten so used to noticing, you know? Even as I know that I’m extremely lucky that I can “pass” in most places (as a member – either majority or minority) and that I am not the target of physical violence due to fear, misunderstanding, or other negative consequences of a social structure based on assertion of dominance. I didn’t grow up with the poverty or stigma that afflicts too many of those who grow up on reservations, or in inner cities, or in ghettos or shtetls. People didn’t routinely assume that I’d never graduate from high school, let alone college or grad school, based simply on my skin tone or name. I’ve never been accosted for being in the wrong neighborhood (although this has happened to my parents).

All of this can, will, and has impacted my experience of looking for jobs, people to date, getting a driver’s license photo (yes, really), and a lot of other facets of daily life, both with me feeling like the playing field is tilted towards me and against me. (I told a friend of mine recently that I agreed with her that a program looking to have a visible minority face at the front of the classroom might not do well to pick me. Especially now, with my spending so much time away from the sun because of my light sensitivity! #tongueincheek Ahem. My point is: I can benefit from people deciding that I am Same *or* Other, and knowing that, well, it bothers me and makes me long for a world in which people happiness is openly accessible to every human being.)

But I notice when people see, or don’t see, me, because of these details of my identity. Or, like Friday, that once they know those details, too many people will treat me as Not Normal (i.e., will deny me privilege). And I know that this affects my beloved sister even more than it does me, because of her disabilities and her gift for reading people…but I’m going to try to tackle that in another entry.

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