Saturday, June 5, 2021

Please Let Me Be Anything but Ordinary

Jess deCourcy Hinds is a bisexual woman who ended up marrying a straight man, and she seems horrified by the thought that her “queer identity” is now being “erased.” (NY Times) A librarian, she has spent some time musing about how she would have been categorized in various versions of the Dewey Decimal System:

Dewey never made a call number for a marriage like mine, a bisexual woman with a heterosexual man.

I find solace in combing the stacks, remembering that there have always been bisexual women with husbands: Virginia Woolf, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo. And queer women through history have truly loved these men. Diego Rivera was the love of Ms. Kahlo’s life, but she never stopped being queer. She made her own rules in marriage, living in a separate cobalt blue house connected to her husband’s house via a footbridge.

In her 2019 TED Talk, “The Invisible Letter B,” Misty Gedlinske describes her marriage as “an opposite sex marriage, but not a straight marriage.” We queer women bring innovative thinking about gender and a special kind of courage and resilience to our relationships with cis-gendered men.

Got that? I am different, and I have innovative thinking and a special kind of courage. I may be doing the same thing as you, but because I am a special sort of person I am doing it in a special way, and you should recognize this about me.

See me! Acknowledge my specialness!

That, if you ask me, the goal of millions of westerners in our age: to be different, to be special, to be anything other than a plain boring vanilla straight white person. 

Or, worse yet, a plain boring human being.

This is why I was amused by Sarah Viren’s long Times article about Andrea Smith, professor who has posed for years as a Native American. Viren pretends to be shocked by the number of academics who have done this, but how can anyone be surprised? In large swathes of American society, “white” is an insult; something I co-wrote was recently dismissed by a reviewer as having “a white perspective,” and it was not intended as a neutral statement. Viren’s article describes many academic projects – conferences, collected books, student associations – framed around the idea of presenting different perspectives on American history and culture. Regular old Euro-American perspectives are not welcome in these forums. If you are the sort of person who wants to be cool, with-it, and liberal, it flat out hurts to be excluded from such endeavors. So, people pretend to be what they are not.

Viren notes that after Jessica Krug confessed to faking her identity in September 2020, 

her admission prompted the outings of a series of white people who had been masquerading in their fields over the years as Black, Latino or Indigenous — six in academia alone by the year’s end.

Fights about this were already well under way in the 1990s, but it turns out that some of the people most loudly calling out others for not being real Indians were not very Indian themselves. Andrea Smith, the completely white by genetics and upbringing professor who is the focus of Viren’s article, published an article in Ms. Magazine in 1991 in which she wrote,

When white ‘feminists’ see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. Of course, white ‘feminists’ want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be a part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse.
A perfect example of “write what you know,” I guess; who knows better than Andrea Smith about the attractions of an Indian identity for white feminists?

According to one Native American professor quoted by Viren, of the 1,500 American academics who identify as Native American, no more than 500 have any real roots in Indian society. I find that number completely believable; after all the percentage of people who tell the census that they are American Indian has roughly tripled in my lifetime, while the number of actual tribal members has hardly risen at all.

And another thing about Viren's article on Andrea Smith: it contains not a single sentence on whether Smith's work is any good. Set aside for a moment the question of who her grandparents were, or how she was raised. Indian or white, does she have anything interesting to say about Native American culture? This remains a complete mystery. Indeed the article leaves open the whole question of what a Native American perspective might be, or why we should care. That, we must assume, is a lot less interesting than the question of who gets to speak as whom. 

This is the inevitable consequence of our obsession with ethnic and sexual identities. That you might be interesting in a way that does not show up in your ethnic identity, gender identification, or sexual orientation seems to have escaped many Americans. I believe I saw more news items last year about the ethnic and gender identities of the people making movies and who was "absent" than I saw about whether the movies under discussion were any good. 

What about being special because you are, I don't know, smart, or creative, or kind, or funny?

What about not being special at all, and just settling for being human? Is that so terrible?

The question answers itself: for millions of Americans it seems to be the most terrible thing they can imagine. The goal for our age is to anything but a plain human being. Best is to be part of a group that is recognized by everyone else, and you, as having a special kind of courage. 

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