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I admit that I often find it hard to understand the Identity thing. Intellectually, I understand why Identity is empowering when one is in an oppressed group, but beyond that, I don’t quite “get” it. I am a gestalt of all my aspects. Just to name a few aspects, I am a biological woman with some stereotypical male psychological characteristics, I am a white person in a multiracial family, I am Irish and German by birth but have a strong cultural component of Mexican American, I am a Roman Catholic in the sense of having been raised in that religion and culture but am a nontheist, I am a mother who has never been pregnant. I am spouse, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, American, person of high IQ, collector of __ (many things), Iowan (born), Californian (raised), Minnesotan (now), unfaithful Democrat, liberal…  I was born and grew up in the working class, but am now solidly middle class, maybe even upper middle class. I am a professional editor of scholarly books who has no college degree. I am who I am, in my entirety.

Identity is a slippery concept. Everyone has more than one identity. Though most people have their identities more or less integrated, there are usually primary identities and secondary identities, and maybe far more levels than that. Asked, “What are you?” a person usually picks one or two; asked “How do you describe yourself?” a person makes a list, and some items are mentioned immediately.

Think of this situation: A sharply dressed busy white woman executive is on her way to a meeting and pauses at a street corner for directions. She sees these people: a black man dressed in expensive business clothes, a young tattooed Asian woman in punk dress, and a white man in a ball cap and jersey. Imagine that all make similar eye contact with her and have similarly receptive body language. Whom does she ask for directions? If her primary identity is class, she may ask the black executive; if it’s gender, she may ask the Asian punker; if it’s race, she may ask the white sports fan. If you put three different white female executives in that situation, you may well get three different identity-responses.

Members of an organization, attendees at a conference, and people in other life activities, including activists for causes, are not random groups. They are self-selected groups. They have CHOSEN an organization, a conference, an activity based on their own particular identities. Since a person has time/energy/money/”spoons” for only so many organizations and activities, a person generally chooses those that most closely match or support his/her identities. A white person of German heritage who sees herself as a supporter of racial justice may join the NAACP, while another may choose to join the German Club. A Latino counterculture artist may join an artists’ co-op, while another may work for La Raz. An accountant whose career is a perfect fit for her isn’t likely to go to seminars on opening your own franchise restaurant, but another who doesn’t see himself staying in an office forever may pay to go to the seminar. And those for whom one aspect of their identity is completely self-defining or who feel that it has completely defined them for others are likely to see the whole world through that lens.

For some women, being a woman is the central fact of their lives. They identify solely with women, they pick only women as mentors and role models, they join support groups with other women, they read books about “women’s issues,” they major in women’s studies in college, they become psychologists who see exclusively women or directors of shelters for battered women or authors of books on women’s issues or teachers of women’s studies. But that isn’t the way it is for all women–certainly not for me. Some are spending so much time and energy being doctors, wives, teachers, parents, partners, school volunteers, whatever, that they don’t get around to their identities as women, because that’s not a primary identity.

If someone doesn’t immerse him/herself in one particular identity, it doesn’t have to mean that he/she is denying that identity or rejecting that identity. It can mean simply that he/she has other identities that are primary. And I think that no one else has the right to decide for another what her/his hierarchy of identity should be.

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White Pride

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I don’t understand the concept of “white pride.”

To be fair, I don’t really understand “black pride” or “gay pride” or any of those others as well. But since I am white and straight, I am going to talk about “white pride.”

I have never grasped the idea of being proud of anything other than one’s own accomplishments. I have always been reluctant to say that I am “proud” of my (now adult) children’s achievements or character, because those are theirs, not mine. To say “I am proud of you” seems to take credit for something I didn’t do. Oh, I know that their dad and I contributed to their lives, but that’s just what we were supposed to do, the job of parenting. They are the ones who took our input along with everything else around them and within them, and turned it into wonderfulness.

So how much more strange it seems to me to take pride in things that were done by people who share one incidental, superficial characteristic with me, to take pride in things I made no contribution to at all. And if that characteristic is the color of my skin, my hair, my eyes–something I have absolutely no part in deciding or maintaining–it becomes downright bizarre.

The larger the group that shares the characteristic, the stranger this is to me. To take pride in being Irish American is less weird–“less,” but weird–to me than to take pride in being of Irish heritage or to take pride in being European American, and those less weird than to take pride in being “white.” Depending on the definition (I’m pretty sure that most people who claim “white pride” would not include as “white” Caucasians such as some [subcontinental] Indians and North Africans), there are hundreds of millions of “white” people alive today. Where is the “pride” in belonging to such a category?

If one is going to take pride in simply belonging to a category, I think that one must also take shame. If one is proud of being white like George Washington, one must also take shame in being white like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. If one wants the pride of belonging to a group that one had no part in joining, one also must bear the shame.

For myself, the pride and the shame of things I have actually done is sufficient for my lifetime.

Not like me?

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I once took an online test, involving faces, words, and reaction times, that returned the result “You have a moderate preference for African-Americans over whites.”

Now, I don’t think that’s accurate. Except for my huge weakness for Asian or Asian American children (because they remind me of my own kids, now all grown up), I don’t think I have a preference for any race or ethnicity. (NOTE: Before you get all up in my face, I am not saying that I am not affected by racism in society.)

In the fall of 1952, I went to kindergarten in Des Moines, Iowa. As was the case in much of my early years, my father was somewhere else, finding construction work where he could, and my mother, my 11-months-younger brother, and I were living where we could find a place. It was during the Korean War, there wasn’t a lot of non-military construction going on, and affordable housing was hard to find. The place we were living this time was a basement apartment, not in the best part of town. I remember the plumbing pipes that ran near our ceiling; my mother told me years later that there were rats.

So off I went to kindergarten. It says something about the way kids lived then that at 5, in a city and not the best part of it, I walked alone several blocks to and from school each day.

In my kindergarten class I had two “best” friends and two “second-best” friends. But one of my best friends was special, because I saw her as being the most like me of any of the girls. Why? When I stood behind Karen in line, I was looking straight at the back of her head–she was as tall as I! That was the first and last time I would ever have that experience in school.

We didn’t live there long. I may never have known Karen’s last name, and I can’t remember even the first names of the other best and second-best friends. But I’ve thought of her thousands of times, I’ll bet, in the more than 60 years since then. She had been like me–a tall girl–the only female classmate I would ever have who was as tall as I.

I think it’s to the credit of my mother, a small-town Midwesterner born in 1922, that it never occurred to me that Karen wasn’t like me…although Karen was black. I may have been aware at the time that she was “Negro,” as was politely said then, but I had no awareness, none at all, that she was therefore “not like me.” Lots of girls in my class had my color skin, my color hair, my color eyes, and others had Karen’s. But among them all, only Karen and I could look each other straight in the eye when we held hands to play “London Bridges.”

That was two years before Brown v. Board of Education. So probably I had those two years before I found out (and find out I would, as I was a precocious child given to reading the newspaper) that in many places in the land of the free not only could Karen and I not have been friends, we couldn’t have gone to the same school.

What I know came from that experience is that never in my life have I looked at the color of another person’s skin and automatically thought “not like me.” It’s one of the greatest gifts life has given me.

{Parts of this appeared previously in my LiveJournal.]

The Rule of Law

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“The rule of law” works only if it is followed by everyone involved in the process, and in far too many cases–and they do include some white defendants (check the Innocence Project if you don’t believe that)–it is not.

Police, prosecutors, AND defense attorneys can be influenced by their own personal bias, can even let it dictate their entire approach. Some police look for the “obvious” (to them) answer, and no further. Some prosecutors want wins, not truth, justice, or fair trials. All defense attorneys want wins–which is their job, after all–but some are willing to smear victims or witnesses, even unfairly or inaccurately, to get the win.

And even if everyone has good intentions, there are some people in those fields who are honest and decent, but not competent to do the job properly. Not to mention, there is the issue of money–budget cuts for police and prosecutors, lack of resources to hire a great defense attorney. Many factors conspire against the process.

But the fact is that the rule of law, even perfectly applied rule of law, CANNOT protect the most basic right, to keep one’s life. Law cannot stop someone from violating another’s right to live. Law certainly deters some potential murderers, because they fear the punishment. But if someone wants to kill another, law cannot stop them. The best law can do, the absolute best, is catch, fairly convict, and appropriately punish the killer. That may (or may not) bring some closure to the survivors. It may feel like “justice.”

But it does nothing, nothing at all, about the violation of the murdered person’s right to live. The only thing that can address that is to stop the killing before it happens. That requires not law, but human change–change in society’s values, change in culture, change in the humans themselves. If we want to stop the violation of the right to live, we must stop people from doing the killing, not punish them after.

(Also published on Facebook and LiveJournal)

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