Monday, October 12, 2009

Who I Am

I am taking a Women's Studies course with my sister this Autumn at the University of Cincinnati. Our first assignment was to write a self-identity paper, explaining who we are through the lens of our ethnic/sexual/gender/class identity. My identity paper is below. The last line exists because my professor had made several sexist comments about men--she called us 'simple'--before triumphantly quoting Sojourner Truth's famous 'Ain't I A Woman' speech. The potential for hypocrisy among the self-proclaimed enlightened is never to be underestimated.

I am a white, lower middle class (or upper lower class) male who is married with two children. I am primarily an institutional liberal when it comes to politics, am mostly heterosexual in my sexual orientation, and don’t derive my self-definition too strongly from any tribal membership.

I understand that the above statement regarding self definition may be more easily available to me as a function of my white/male/primarily hetero privilege.

I have never fit in too much with any group. I’ve always been kind of a lone wolf and individualist. I’ve never had a group of friends, but have had friendships with individual friends who typically do not know each other and usually belong to separate groups of friends. I’m the guy they hang out with when they’re not hanging out with their clique. This used to bother me, because the order to conform and to belong/collectivise (my word) seems to be strong in our culture, but I’ve become used to my iconoclastic status. I’m even a little proud of it.

I am not proud to be an American, but I’m happy to live in America. Not because it’s ‘America’ so much as because I’m happy to be alive. I’m not proud of my ethnic heritage, because it’s as accidental as my nationality. I’m a member of the democratic party, but I’m not a sexy liberal, meaning that I think Che Guevarra was an asshole, and tend to spend most of my time in political argument defending our welfare state and neo-liberal foreign policy agenda, rather than arguing for radical change of one sort or the other.

I’m not religious either. My wife and kids and I have been going to a local Episcopal church because we like the preacher (he preaches love and service rather than fire & brimstone), and because neither my wife nor myself benefitted from being members of any tight-knit communities while we were growing up. My wife and I are both black sheep, and we would like our kids to be able to navigate society more successfully than we have.

I may have all of this white/male/hetero privilege in a theoretical fashion, or may be expected to benefit from it statistically, but I think I may have equalized many of those white/male/hetero perks by being myself.

I’m interested in people as individuals, and cringe when people don’t seem to be interested in me for the same reasons. I don’t like stereotypes, groupthink, or strong group associations in people. I believe that I have succeeded in life because of who I am and because of the work I have done, not because of some kind of hidden identity-advantage. I believe that my failures are my own too.

Most of the encounters I have had with people with strong group identifications have been somewhat uncomfortable. My personal bias is to believe that the more evolved minds among us will always rely less on group affiliation, generalizations, and stereotyping, simply as a function of an increased capacity for complex processing. As a function of this bias, I tend to get cranky with folks who view themselves and others as microcosms of a larger unit rather than as individual beings who aren’t guaranteed to validate our personal prejudices.

I’m proud of my role as a father and as a husband. I identify myself as person who is capable of thinking, rather than as a person who is a member of this or that group because he thinks one thing or the other. Mainly, I identify myself as a growing individual, capable of feeling, loving, learning, and creating.

And ain’t I a woman?


Lodo Grdzak said...

I dont know if this is a graded paper, but I give it an A+.

Willie Y said...

Who wouldn't want you as a friend. And I would also give you an A.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks, guys. I think I might be cheating a little bit by using my school papers as blog posts, but I haven't had much time for creative writing lately.

I hate papers like this, because they are geared to make people think of themselves tribally instead of individualistically. I hope I irritated my professor just a little bit with my response.

The assignment criteria was this: "In a short essay you are asked to explore your own identity in terms of race, class, gender (sexual orientation, nationality, ability, educational status, marital status…ect) in terms of how this gives you privileges or is oppressive."

If that's not rigging the game for results, I don't know what is.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

I like the paper but I think you focus to much on the negatives. Groups can allow for safety and a place to bounce ideas, very similar to stated goal for your other blog. Everyone uses generalizations (see I just did). All who comment here do. I site the examples of the biases against republicans. If stereotypes were to disappear tomorrow, most comics would be out of work. Stereotypes can be and many are funny. Get cranky at all the people who position themselves as a micrcosm or a larger organism if you want. Aren't you part of a family, part of the drop-in center, a liberal, a democrat. The groups you gravitate to help define you as an individual, and its not a bad thing. Being a member of the group doesn't mean you agree with everything of that group and it shouldn't. I think the problem really lies with the people who try to put ALL the dogma of the group on each individual of that group.

I think you are more than you identified. Just try to look at the bright side, you are unique, just like everyone else.

Spencer Troxell said...

I hope I conveyed that I was more than just a blender full of group affiliations.

I agree that group affiliation can be meaningful and enriching. I just think it's also important for individuals to realize that they are ends unto themselves, and should feel no responsibility or compulsion to speak or act for some collective. I think it's healther for us as people to be proud of what we create and how we treat each other, rather than being proud or ashamed because of the accidents of our birth.

GbiZ said...

I think youre right about your wasp privilege allowing you to take such an enlightened view. Not to say that its bad, i dont think it is, but to say that you should go easy on those who find comfort in groups. We who are disadvantaged find strength and a voice in numbers.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks, G. Maybe I didn't communicate my point well enough. Probably one of the shortcomings of posting your school papers as blog posts is that a lot of the context is lost.

Finding comfort/support in groups is fine, the problem arises when we only view others/ourselves as representatives of some imagined group that we belong to.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

"Finding comfort/support in groups is fine, the problem arises when we only view others/ourselves as representatives of some imagined group that we belong to."

I believe that someone who sees themselves as a representative of a group (real or imagined), is doing a good thing. They are taking some ownership and responsibility for the group. I don't believe anyone sees themselves only as a member of a group(s). Some one being dedicated to a cause or group does have other interests and associations that are important to them.

The only real problem comes from someone who tries to project their perception of a group on an individual who claims an alliance with the group. They may have an agreement with the group but few if any have all the beliefs of the group. Those who want to see all members of any group as the perception of the group are the true biggots. Example: Not all Yankee fans are battery throwing a**holes, even though many are.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of a group that you are born into or even accidentally associated with. Taking pride in the group and working to make the group better also may make you better.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

"I think you're right about your wasp privilege allowing you to take such an enlightened view. Not to say that its bad, i dont think it is, but to say that you should go easy on those who find comfort in groups. We who are disadvantaged find strength and a voice in numbers."

I agree that taking advantage of a privelage is not a bad thing. Abusing a privelage would be. Also, I agree that groups help empower individuals to be stronger than they would be alone. All good reasons to members of a group.

I think there are also times where one group percieves another has an advantage where one does not exist. Being born a WASP does not mean you are guaranteed a job or a family connection to advancement, it means you are more likely to be taught the value of working and education so that more doors open to you. Prisons have many WASPs where that advantage was lost. Another group may see WASPs as having an advantage, and they do, but in many cases it is a learned advantage that can be adopted by any other group. I'm not saying this is the only WASP advantage, but it is an important one.

Spencer Troxell said...

I think it's easier to make the argument that it's a good thing to be a willing representative of a group that you elected to join than it is to put yourself up as a representative/make someone else a representative of a race/sex/class/nationality/sexual orientation, etc. I think it's a fairly shallow individual who sees themselves and others primarily through the lense of these accidental affiliations.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

"I think it's easier to make the argument that it's a good thing to be a willing representative of a group that you elected to join than it is to put yourself up as a representative/make someone else a representative of a race/sex/class/nationality/sexual orientation, etc." If you choose to be a representative of an "accidental" group that you are a member of by being the best person that you can be and a person who others see as a role model then I see that as good. I think it also makes those "accidental" groups less important and it helps destroy stereotypes. There is nothing wrong with associating yourself with the various groups you are sperm lucky to join. If more people said they were proud Americans and I want to exhibit Good Behavior A, B, C. Most will respect that, may want to exhibit those behaviors as well and know they are members of the club because thay are Americans as well. Sounds very inclusive to me. Reality is American is the most inclusive group you are born to. (Since humans tend not to think beyond that level otherwise humanity itself would be)

"I think it's a fairly shallow individual who sees themselves and others primarily through the lense of these accidental affiliations."
I think this is another example of you looking for negatives. Calling someone shallow because they are proud of their country, heritage, family, state, school and enjoy the companionship of those who have these accidental affiliations seems very harsh, maybe even bitter. You are American, Ohioan, South Eastern Ohioan, Miami Valleyian, Ohio Valleyian, Cincinnatian, Clermonter, Townshiper, Neighborhooder, Street Liver, family associated, father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, grandson, and other accidental affiliations that you will use throughout your life. Everyone has similar affiliations and very few focus the prism on any one all the time. People swap these in and out to fill out forms, define parameters for a particular conversation or to make a point. The "lense" will focus on any of these to the users advantage. I do not believe people focus on one unless they feel it is an advantage. I also believe that the more groups, accidental or otherwise, that you associate yourself with, the more opinions you will hear, the more you will learn and the less strife. Imagine being some grumpy old man with no other associations, sitting on your front porch bitching about everything the neighbors do, because you can't let yourself belong to a group. Not a pretty picture. Again I don't think many people do what you are claiming and group themselves and others. I think we meet individuals and then find out who they associate with.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Philip Roth touched on this issue indirectly (or maybe very directly now that I think about it) in his great book American Pastoral. If you haven't read it, don't read this comment but he basically makes the argument (actually its a character who makes the argument--I shouldn't say Roth agrees with it) that secular America is likely to be a failed experiment in the long run, since people have to come from something. In their formative years, a child/teen has to have some cultural identity or its just lost. As the child gets older it may choose to revolt from that identity, but at least it will have something to revolt from.

Perhaps Miles Davis is a good example. First Miles Davis learned how to play jazz. Real jazz (please don't ask me to define what that is). Once he mastered it, he could take that identity and apply it to new genres to create something new. But ever since Miles we've had generations of musicians that have started their careers by playing the mish-mosh/fusion and you can tell its not authentic. Sounds like pop shit--not serious music.

I'm certainly no purist by any means. But I do think in your formative years, you have to have a foundation. Whether its your formative years of being a musician or writer or just a person on this planet. But the purpose of having that foundation is that you can then expose yourself to the new (the new anything) from a position of strength in yourself; and thus, be positive about the new and embrace it as opposed to being fearful. In fact, you can "bring something to the new" and add to it.

But without that initial identity, you could become Kenny G in a hurry.

Spencer Troxell said...

I think that's a really great comment, Lodo, and a perspective worth considering.

I hope it's clear that I'm not proposing we strip ourselves of all but our most esoteric identities. That's why I was very careful to include words like 'primarily' and 'mainly' and 'strictly' in my condemnation of too strong group associations. I think it's fine to be happy to be a citizen of your country, or proud of a member of your family, or interested in your ethnic heritage. I also think it's totally understandable to be proud of your association with an organization, especially if you have had any hand in making the organization what it is.

What I don't favor is automatically seeing a stereotype whenever you see a member of an outgroup, or buying too heavily into some cultural, religious, or nationalistic myth.

As an example from my paper, the graduate student that teaches my women's studies class has discounted all of the men in the room right off the bat as 'simple', and identifies herself very strongly with feminism. She makes it clear that she thinks of herself as a righteous crusader in a war to liberate women.

I am a feminist insofar as I am an equalist, but I would be committing a grave error to draw my self definition too heavily from that association. It's true, my teacher may have the simple mind of a child. She may not be capable of seeing individuals as clearly as others can, so maybe she has no choice as to how many stereotypes and generalizations she uses to describe those who she encounters. But she has done damage to herself, and others, by discounting men as simple, and by looking for oppression in every magazine she sees, and in every encounter with a man in power that she has.

My argument is that there is no holy land, there are no chosen people, and saints do not exist. As Saul Alinsky so wisely said: "One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."

I think there's a better answer to give our kids when they ask 'what am I' questions than 'you are a boy. You are an American. You are a Christian. You are of Irish extraction.' All of those things may be true, but much like our view of Santa Claus and God, our views of ourselves have to evolve as we grow as we get older, otherwise they begin to fit us in a way that can only be described as comical. A better response (in my opinion) is to answer the 'who am I question' with more personalized answers, like 'you are very creative, smart, and compassionate', or 'you are my child and I love you very much.'

Or maybe we should answer the question this way: "You are my child, but if you ever turn into Kenny G, you're out on your ass."

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

"What I don't favor is automatically seeing a stereotype whenever you see a member of an outgroup" Isn't this the problem of the viewer not the group member? I understand it happeing when the goal of the group is illegal, vulgar, immoral or even evil such as NAMBLA.

"or buying too heavily into some cultural, religious, or nationalistic myth" I think you show unkind or even angery bias when applying "myth" to any of these. There are many examples of "stories" that part of ANY group or institution. I would say all groups have stories that are factually untrue. Some have some factual basis but omit parts to help make the story more interesting, some are totally inaccurate but try to show some moral. Example: Washington cutting down the cherry tree, I don't know of anyone who has ever thought it was true. Washington has become somewhat of a larger than life figure but the truth about him is readily available and known by those who tell some of the stories. My point is the term "myth" can be insulting, degrading and really just mean to apply to a group.

Kenny G had a terrible car accident, lost any talent he had, had a sex change and is trying to act like a badass. Now he goes by Marylin Manson.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

As far as what to tell your kids, I think you should tell them everything that is in the backgroud, try not to apply negatives to any of it. If they show an interest or become an advocate of some aspect, encourage it but make sure they know the truth.

GbiZ said...

why you guys hating on kenny g for? doo doo doo dah doo doo doo dah doo doo doo...

thats some vicious stuff...