Thursday, September 30, 2010

Slip of the Tongue

What's your "ethnic make-up"?

A couple days ago I was sitting in the Multicultural Community Center working on some homework when another student sat in the couch across from me. He began to talk to me about his upcoming midterms which he was stressing about. The small talk led to him asking me about my ethnic/racial background. He asked, "what's your ethnic make-up?"

Immediately, this video came to mind. As our worlds become more and more globalized, different communities across the globe are coming into contact in new and interesting ways. These constant moments of "clash of cultures," as some would say, involve very significant processes of identification and "othering." How we perceive and treat difference tends to say a lot more about "us," than about "them."

I have always found it very interesting the ways that we, in a sense, decode people as human texts; the ways we read for race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and identity in general. We look for aesthetic markers, such as jeans that may be too "masculine" or shorts that may be too tight or short for a "man," as a way to decipher bodies and render them knowable through sight. I remember one student from a class I took abroad, who said that she had the ability to read Latin@ bodies and determine what country they were from by simply looking at facial features; she is/was an anthropology major.

I find it very problematic to reduce the identities and experiences of people to the garments they have on or the way they look or behave. This is not to say, of course, that we do not perform our identities. Judith Butler has very eloquently demonstrated that we are actively performing who we are, whether it be via gender, sexuality, and/or race. However, it can also be very dangerous to limit and constrain the lives of others according to our own individual, and often anecdotal, preconceptions of what different people are supposed to look like and be.

If someone were to ask you, "what's your ethnic make-up?" what would you reply?

1 comment:

  1. Great post Cris--but I also know that this is a question I sometimes ask people precisely because I don't want to make assumptions. So how does knowing "ethnic make-up" help us connect, or help us think we can connect. I have also been asked this question. So the question really is when is this important--who is asking and why? What do we expect to learn when we hear Guatemalan, or Filipino or mixed Pakistani and African American?