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The Curse of Identity

Thursday, December 01, 2005
Today is Blog Against Racism Day. I thought for a long time today about what to write that hasn't been written a million times before. So I will follow the advice of all creative writing professors and write about what I know.

My entire political life has been caught up in racial politics. I grew up in the South, where the black/white dichotomy was the determining factor in every social relationship. Not class or ethnic origin or region, but simply what color someone's skin was. What was so frustrating wasn't just that people saw every interaction in racial terms, but that people self-consciously embraced racial stereotypes that were essentially negative. Hence the "redneck" white boy and the "gangsta" black guy - two cliches which are at their core far more similar than different.

I was naive enough to believe that when I left the South I would be free of all this. I moved to the Bronx and was quickly disabused. The first neighborhood I lived in was majority black, and I was driven out of it by a determined minority of young people who didn't like me because I didn't look or sound like them. Where I live now is far more diverse, but regrettably the people involved in politics are overwhelming white and upper class. Frankly I'm not much more comfortable now than I was before, because I am so conscious of the class differences. I'm also living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and I'm frequently reminded that there's a lot I simply don't understand about what's going on around me.

One of the elements of contemporary culture is the cult of authenticity. Somehow there is a proper definition of what it means to be a man or woman, black of white, anglo or latino, straight or gay, you name it. The operating principle appears to be that we recognize and appreciate these differences as the most important thing about us. If someone steps out of those boundaries, they are somehow "fake."

This prejudice extends from personal behavior to broader political loyalties. People vote with pathetic loyalty for candidates whose descriptive characteristics are more similar to their own. So blacks vote for blacks, puerto ricans for puerto ricans (but not Dominicans), jews for jews, gays for gays, etc., etc., with tedious predicatability.

But I ask you, is it simply impossible to reach across those barriers? Is there nothing we can agree can be held in common? Isn't the fact that I struggle to pay my bills the same way you do more central to our existence than the fact that you sunburn less easily than I? Can't it be that our common desire for a decent education trumps our differing sexual experiences? As long as I recognize the value of your choices, as long as I pass a threshold of acceptability, can't we set these distinctions aside?

Can't we all just get along?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:27 AM
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