Dear Sir or Madame:

January 11, 2009

I’m pretty used to people misreading my gender. I now have stock answers for each time a grocery clerk, flight attendant, or random woman in a public bathroom calls me by the wrong pronoun. (My response, although it depends somewhat on my mood, usually amounts to, “Yeah, I get that a lot, but I’m actually a woman.) If I’m feeling expansive, sometimes I try to point out to people that the characteristics they were using to gender me–height, a baseball cap–aren’t exclusively the domain of masculinity.

But when I go to a queer event, I’d really just like to be read as a lesbian.

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You better be using that giant diploma for something.

December 2, 2007

There’s a good little post up at Afropologe at a recent three-parter in my alma mater’s dumb newspaper. It’s an article ostensibly about “bridging the opportunity gap” (that’s in the sub-headline), about coming to Harvard from a background that isn’t the super white, super rich one many associate with Harvard students. I initially only read the first in the series and found it pretty ho-hum–it seemed kind of like a token “Diversity is swell!” piece, with the requisite This Man Is From A Scary Place setup and Uplifting And Inspirational ending.

Anyway, Kaya really nails a few of the problems with the article (not, she’s clear to point out, with the subject of the article; and, as at least one commenter points out in the discussion thread, the Crimson has a history of misquoting people egregiously and manipulating statements to fit their pre-determined narratives), so you should head over there to see the discussion happening. This is my favorite of Kaya’s points:

the most offensive part of this to me was the part where he implies that those of us who go into public sector work do it because we don’t need money as much as he does, because our families don’t need us, or because we’re just rich. if someone could please tell that to my checkbook, that would be great.

Anyway, here’s one of the things that struck me: whenever a piece like this comes out (“Harvard kids aren’t all pampered preppies! We swear!”) it seems like it’s inevitably about a person of color from a lower socio-economic class, and the piece tries to tackle issues of color and issue of class simultaneously. What about all those Harvard kids from more privileged backgrounds who aren’t white? And what about all those white kids from less privileged backgrounds? Personally, I’d be really interested to hear about them, too.

The other thing that struck a nerve, though, was this comment of Kaya’s:

i am SO offended by the implication that public interest careers are a privilege that people from working-class backgrounds can’t afford. if you really want to help out your community, why don’t you go teach their children? no salary in the world is so high that it’s going to lift your old community out of poverty, so dont kid yourself into thinking you’re “giving back,” when you’re just “giving a bit.”

That last sentence is key. I think she’s right to question the notion that students from less privileged backgrounds are pressured to go into i-banking or whatever, but I’d also be interested to hear what other people think about the feelings of responsibility and guilt that go into the decisions of more privileged graduates who choose to go into the public interest sector. Speaking as one of those graduates myself, I know that I often feel a desire to “give back.” And as I near the end of my master’s program and think about where I’ll end up teaching, I definitely feel a tension between my desire to work somewhere with job security and a supportive parent community and high-achieving students (in other words, a school with money) and my sense that I should be somewhere that “needs me more.” (If I’m not mistaken, this comes up a lot in discussions of Teach for America, and its history of sending idealistic young white people into inner-city schools.)


Identify Yourself

January 31, 2007

This is the second draft of this post, sparked by yet another round of the awkward introductions that accompany a new semester. In general, the things I include in my ten second bio have more to do with the details my classmates have already offered up–how far along we are in the program, our specialty, what our undergraduate degree is, and so on. But it got me thinking about the various aspects of my own identity, and which ones I choose to embrace or downplay based on circumstance. In other words, what part of me is relevant to my academic life? How much is assumed, and what must I declare? What follows, then, is a list of the ways I could introduce myself.

1. Female. Although I’d like my gender to be obvious, the fact that I choose to go by my (gender-neutral) initials and wear almost exclusively men’s clothing (the day they start selling sports bras as menswear is the day I stop needing the women’s section entirely) means I’m often mistaken for a man. Although I correct pronouns most of the time, I don’t make much of an effort to declare my gender.

2. White. I suppose this goes without saying, though I have had people ask if I’m Native American thanks to my last name. (I’m not.) This isn’t an identity I embrace by any means, and I’ve often wondered if anyone really can without getting into white supremacy territory. Because, honestly, what is there to be proud of when it comes to being white? We certainly have plenty to be ashamed of in our past, but it’s hard to say if that should carry into our racial identity in the present. I dislike the notion that Caucasians can’t talk with any authority about issues of race, but it seems to me that this criticism is usually leveled against whites who attempt to speak on the experiences of people of color–not against whites attempting to speak on whiteness as an identity in itself.

3. Queer. I suppose this is one that goes left unsaid a lot of the time, and I’m pretty okay with that. I don’t introduce myself as a lesbian, although I’m generally comfortable dropping a “my girlfriend” into casual conversation. I do think it’s an important part of my identity, and probably the one that enters most into serious discussion.

4. Rural. Because I now live and work in a city, my rural roots often don’t come up, but my background–born on a farm, raised by two sheep ranchers–has an awful lot to do with the way I interact with others and perceive the world around me. Sometimes I think it would be nice to point out how urban- and suburban-centric a lot of discourse is, as well as how skewed I think common perception of rural areas can be.

5. Ivy-educated. I’m honestly a little embarrassed about where I went to school, which is sort of ironic given the international prestige of the university in question. But the fact that my school is a trademark, a tourist destination, and a sort of archetype makes me very self-conscious in casual conversation. I still suffer from the “I was the admissions mistake” syndrome, which makes me think I won’t be able to live up to the perceptions I assume others have about me when they hear the name of my Alma mater. (I think the best line I’ve ever heard came from a friend of my brother’s at Brown: “Well, I just think that’s where rich kids go when they need to feel smart.”) I also feel like my college damages my street cred, making it harder for me to talk about things like issues of privilege without sounding like a total tool.

6. Well, kind of a rich kid. To clarify, in my day-to-day life I’m a paycheck to paycheck kind of guy; I only work part time, I’m in grad school, and I live in kind of a crappy apartment. But my grandmother has paid for all of my education to date (well, I think my parents paid tuition for high school themselves, but that’s in kind of a different financial bracket), I have one of those weird accounts with investments and savings bonds and things that I know nothing about but apparently totals a pretty penny (and currently pays my rent), and my parents are well-off. But I’ve never identified as rich, probably because my dad in particular instilled a pretty rigorous work ethic in me from a young age. The folks paid minimum wage for summer labor like moving irrigation pipes, but other chores–many of them just as physically demanding–were done as just a matter of course. I’m also really eager to feel financially independent, and not just because my parents would never let me be a freeloader.

I guess I don’t really know the point of this post, except that I wish I could engage in discussion on all of these categories more comfortably.