Where we locate ourselves

It’s probably no surprise that I’m starting out this series of blog posts with a reflection by Malcolm Gladwell, on whom I have a semi-secret crush. (As an aside, this crush really irritated my ex-boyfriend, who bore a striking resemblance to Gladwell when his hair grew out.)

Gladwell wrote a piece over 15 years ago about the success of Jamaican immigrants in his family and how they contrasted themselves from African Americans. [Here’s the link: http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_04_29_a_black.htm]

At the end of the article, he notes that just a few hundreds miles north of his New Jersey family, Jamaicans in Toronto are looked upon as crime-prone instead of as model business owners. The reason, he suggests, is that Jamaicans were the first significant contact Torontonians had with Black people, so there was no African American group with whom to contrast them.

For many of us who are neither White nor African American in this country, there is a complicated dance in which we engage, usually without even realizing it. We claim our territory–our social location–because it is a little fluid. And very often, because we’ve believed the stereotypes about both groups, we work at locating ourselves as “not there with them.” We do it because we want to fly under the radar. We do it because we don’t know the whole story about how race was formed in this country and think that we stand outside that narrative instead of being coopted by it. We do it because that ignorance means we really do think we’re different.

Malcolm Gladwell’s story challenges all of our social location “choices,” though, by reminding us that the exact same group of people can have one social location (upwardly mobile small business owners) in New Jersey and have a completely different one 500 miles north (“crime and dissipation”). It is not our exceptionalism that sets us apart; it is where we’ve been placed in the narrative before we even arrived on these shores.

I remember sitting in an anti-racism training a couple of years ago with a young Asian American man, and when we started talking about stereotypes, he said, “Yeah, but what’s wrong with being stereotyped as being good at math and being hard working and disciplined?”

I think Malcolm Gladwell might have said that what’s wrong with it is that it comes at the expense of other marginalized communities. After a few years of doing anti-racism work specifically in the church, I might add that it robs everyone of being who they really are. Many of my White friends don’t believe they have a culture. They’ve been robbed of that identity because the one thing they are is White. Many of my Asian American friends remain stuck in mid-level positions because no matter how gifted they are, their society has deemed that they do not have gifts for higher level leadership. All of our identities are misshaped by the narrative we’re placed in. And it sometimes feels like we have no control over that narrative.

Gladwell pushes us by reminding us that our comfort with the social location chosen for us can come at the expense of others. And it comes at a cost to us, because it limits us from being our whole, full selves. So instead, we can choose–we can choose intentional solidarity, and redefining that social location. It’s hard, and we have to do it over and over because every person we meet will unintentionally impose the old narrative on us.

But I think of an amazing activist friend of mine. He’s active in the Asian American community in the Bay Area, and the first time we met, we found out we were both “hapa,” or biracial. He’s half Japanese and half Black. I said to him I thought it was really unusual that he identified as Asian American. And he explained that his mother had survived the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II and realized her solidarity lay with the Black community that understood her experience of always being “other.” His Asian American identity was a strong, militant identity borne of solidarity with oppressed peoples. And he has to redefine that social location and that distinct way of being Asian American every day for people who think they already know what Asian American is.

But every day he chooses that location. He chooses that identity. He chooses that solidarity. And every one of us, Jamaican, Asian, White and Black, can choose to do the same. May it be so.

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