Yesterday, I braved the APD protests and also parallel parking with Jamie to see what Sherman Alexie has to say. (Although about 25 police with riot gear were swarming the Yale campus access point when we got there, it was more stressful to me that it took, oh, about 1000 back-and-forth maneuvers to get parked.)
Anyway, if you don’t know who Sherman Alexie is, go read up on that. And then come back and read this. His web site gives a very, very good insight into how he presents himself on stage, by the way. The 4 blurbs on the main screen really do justice to the persona. He did say that off-stage, he is a conservative prick, but I am not sure I believe it.
In no particular order, he discussed racial profiling, airports, infidelity, indian-ness, white-ness, road rage, What Marriage Is, how beautiful Navajo are, how bad res schools can be, masturbation, daddy issues, banned books, how confusing Albuquerque is, confluence of ethnic types, 9/11 aftershocks, and the importance of being a freak at the correct time, and not rebelling when it will ruin everyone else’s day / life / culture / world. And these are all good topics!
Because I can’t even begin to do justice to the insight and energy and way with words the man has, I will simply encourage you to seek out some of his work. His writing, his public appearances. Don’t stalk his family; that would be wrong. I will tell you, however, what his time on stage made me think about.
He talked about the plural nature of “being indian”… what is indian-ness for him isn’t what it is for any other indian. Or anyone else, for that matter. Lately I have been thinking a lot about whiteness, and the associated characteristics — sure, the physical ones are obvious. But the social / cultural / historical connotations of being white are kinds harsh, and frankly, I am not sure how much responsibility I share in those heavy legacies. White People did this, white people did that… Were they MY white people? Did I do those things? I don’t condone them, does that mean I am honorarily not-white?
I have heard more than one European express annoyance that Americans like to associate with their ancestry back in Europe, even if it was many generations past. In Europe, being white seems generally to be trumped by what kind of euro-thing you are. (“euro-thing” might be another way to say “nationality”, but there are trans-national ethnicities in Europe, too.) In America, there isn’t differentiation beyond what we claim. My ancestors were ___________, with a little bit of _________, and some __________ for good measure. It doesn’t matter what is in those blanks, really, because most white Americans of non-descript european descent tell the same story. Jamie said that she doesn’t identify as white, because she was raised poor. But poor and rich aren’t check boxes! And no one cares about my ancestors. (Even me? Hmmm….)
Being white can be a very dismissed space. White means … oppressive. Privileged. Abusive of others. Rich. Educated. Advantaged. Somehow On the Inside. Good looking? Presumptive. Arrogant. Grabby. Selfish. As a person who has spent some time poor (by American standards, where we flush toilets with drinking water and even our house pets are fat), I know for a FACT I have experienced white privilege on many occasions. I will even step up and acknowledge that it is likely far, far more often than I can even begin to guess. But I kinda think I’d rather have a concrete ethnicity beyond guilt-by-association. There is no way for me to claim that, now — not sure there ever was. White isn’t entitled to ethnicity; white is, by definition, lacking it.
Mind you, I am not complaining. This is more like mourning. I have heard people of many different ethnic and culture groups talk about deciding – consciously – how much they want to blend in with their like-cultured folks, versus how much they want to pass for white and get the associated benefits, perceived or real. I don’t have a choice in this — I couldn’t pass for not-white if my life depended on it. Meaning (in case you were going to ask, as I just asked myself) that I have no physical or social characteristics associated with anything outside mainstream American-ness. As Sherman Alexie might put it, I might as well be the white guy with the dreads, holding up his iPad on which is written I AM THE 99%.
Is there An Answer to all this? No.
Is it possible that to be white in America these days means I am supposed to believe I am entitled to anything I can imagine … as long as that doesn’t come from anywhere else other white Americans? Maybe.
Should we see about adding Rich and Poor as checkboxes on the forms? Definitely!
Tell me your thoughts, darlings. Especially if you are Sherman Alexie!