An Identity-Specific Analysis of Cultural Geography Concepts, Part IV
This week Norton and Roberts tackled the myth of race and the reality of racism, with further explanations of ethnicity and discussions of genocide, religion, and language. In total, these concepts spoke to my personal journey of self-exploration and helped me think deeper into what really constitutes identity. Identity is something I've struggled to understand my whole life, due partly to some unique circumstances within my family structure and some (relatively) unconventional beliefs I've held since a young age. We also read the "Conflicting Landscape Values: The Santa Clara Pueblo and Day School [Vision, Culture and Landscape]" article, another piece of writing that was highly evocative for me. The lessons from these pieces gave me a better understanding of both my nation's identity and my own.
In Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, 3rd Ed., chapter 7, we begin by reading about the myth of biological race and the reality of racism. The myth of biological race is something I've been deeply interested in over the last year, and my personal intuitions regarding race as a hierarchical categorization have driven me to be rebellious within my own "race" for most of my life. I grew up in a series of poor country towns and was a poor country kid until I turned 18 and joined the Army. My single mother raised me for some of my childhood, her mother for some other parts, and later, her husband adopted me. The family that I was adopted into was like me: poor, ignorant, and white. While at first I was happy to finally be part of a group identity, it quickly became clear that this family, like many other white and white-passing families I would interact with throughout my childhood, were very openly and outwardly racist. We lived in towns that only consisted of people that looked like me, and unchecked ignorance regarding black and brown people was rampant. I'm not sure if it was because I had had 7 or 8 years to form my own opinions beforehand, or whether it was some intrinsic feeling I had, or whether I was idolizing some black and brown performers from Sesame Street. Still, I furiously fought against racism within my new family, to the point that it was one of the final driving wedges to break open an irreparable schism between me and the rest of the group. My new father was severely and selectively abusive toward me and my biological sibling (who he also adopted) and rejected me within the family unit. This was in part because of my very stubborn and assertive stance about most things I believed in, including inclusivity and tolerance. This might have been due to my own complex experiences with identity, being an outcast within the family, and not feeling like I ever belonged to any group identity. I never felt like I belonged anywhere, or like any group, family, or community wanted me.
I think this was another of the driving forces for my rejection of racism at an early age. I can remember taking a backhand to the mouth on a few separate occasions in defense of people I had never even seen in real life. Suffice it to say, I did not stay with my new family for very long, and at 16, decided I was better off on my own than being part of the perpetuation of racism. The year prior to my emancipation, I went to Warped Tour and bought two t-shirts that I thought I would proudly wear under my parents' roof. One said, "Fuck Racism" and the other, "Fuck Sexism". Later, I would date almost exclusively outside of my race, partly because I was so curious to learn what it was about culture and melanin that the white people I knew hated so much. I'm sure the other part was yet another act of rebellion. Today I still date primarily outside of my race. However, now that's based more on common interests, professional endeavors, and sometimes on the shared experience that transcends other group identities: growing up in poverty. While racism was a very real part of my childhood, I wish I could say it ended there. The truth is that even today, whether in professional settings or otherwise, racism is rampant among white people, from my experience. I was a bartender for 15 long years, and it was a rarity to see a room full of white drinkers not somehow turn the conversation toward the perceived inferiorities of other races. Today I am the proud parent of a beautiful "multi-racial" child and couldn't be happier for those mixed genes to be the mark I leave on the world when I'm gone. I think she's taught my family a thing or two about tolerance as well, although I could never be sure. I haven't spoken to my parents in many years, or to most of the folks I called family back then.
I agree, mostly, with the constructionalist theory of identity, that "identity is fluid, contested, and negotiated." As a person who has changed form many times and is still wandering, unpacking, growing, and adapting daily, I see how much of our identities are performative, socialized, and meant to categorize us in a way that promotes the current social hierarchy. Today the world sees me as a cisgender female, white, and still poor. I've learned to embrace that latter group identity in order to fight for the rights of those disadvantaged by poverty. After all, it’s the only group that seems to have ever openly and willingly accepted me, aside from the Army. Social justice activism has always been in me, although now I better understand the label. As for my whiteness, well, I've always rejected that categorization. After a horrific childhood, it was people of color that raised me. Through the Army and my neighbors, communities, and allies in some of the roughest parts of my city, I figured it out. I built a life. When I was about 25, I decided to find my biological family. It turns out they were from the same group that my adoptive family was: poor, white, and ignorant. One of the first and only things my father taught me when we reconnected was that our bloodline was prominent and proud in Scotland. We are Scottish. That's what he wanted me to take home. The reality is that I will never know my actual ethnicity or the nationalities of my biological family members. According to the six components of ethnicity outlined in the chapter, I don’t have an identifying ethnicity whatsoever, because of my life experiences. The reality is also that it doesn't matter anymore. I am who I am today because I am working to become the person I want to be. My daughter will experience the reality of racism throughout her life and has experienced it many times already. But she won't have to experience it in her home.
Once again, language was a recurring theme in the text and is a lens through which I view many of my world experiences and academic concepts. I was happy to see the chapter address the centrality of English and the way English has become this ethnocentric source of power for white people worldwide. An important concept for people to recognize is that we, as white people, as Americans in total, are still centering ourselves in this seat of power that compares aspects of all other cultures to its own as the "norm." One concept that has been eating away at my thoughts throughout this course, as I read the world news throughout the pandemic and beyond, is that American culture and politics have such a heavy influence on other countries of the world. It's much more than cultural diffusion. We lead the way in so many aspects of humanity, and we do a really pathetic job of it. As a human rights and environmental activist, that weight crushes me sometimes.
The pueblo school article was equally as insightful as the chapter. As a poor, abused white kid in the country, I found peace and solace in nature more than anywhere else in the world. I used to take my dog and get lost in the woods for hours at a time, building new houses out of found natural materials. Every day I swore I’d move out of my parents' house and live as a hermit in the woods, one with nature. It's always been easy for me to romanticize indigenous American lifestyles and cultures as a result of my affinity for nature. But the pueblo school article did a great job of contrasting the lifestyles of white America and the pueblo village and made it very clear just how influential and manipulative “white culture” has been in the erasure of other cultures. The American government tried to eradicate the Pueblo culture through shaping the landscape to conform to their own cultural truths/perception of reality.
I find it especially interesting how America has historically justified this mass erasure of identity and cultural history. Their "benevolent racism" has worn many masks throughout history. These include helping the pueblo people become "civilized," and spreading "God's word" globally, converting people to Christianity in order to "save their souls." Today, I believe this type of benevolent racism operates under the guise of spreading democracy. We travel the world sticking our noses in other countries' business, sometimes with the façade of protecting humanity, but always with the mindset that our political systems are superior to all others. Maybe we should spend less time trying to convert cultures to something they're not, and more time listening to the perspectives of cultures and peoples that do not match our own.
Yet another week of deep personal and intellectual growth has passed for me, and here I am, with more curiosity and wonder at the human race than I've ever had. This week's unpacking had me replaying a favorite quote in my mind. Ralph W. Sockman said, "the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder." I think maybe he was right. It seems cultural geography as a discipline has had a similar experience.
UC Berkeley-Places 7(1), “Conflicting Landscape Values: The Santa Clara Pueblo and Day School [Vision, Culture and Landscape]” Swentzell, Rina Publication Date:1990-10-01
Norton, WIlliam & Roberts, Margaret Walton. Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press, 2014. Chapter 7.