When you fill out a form that asks for your ethnic origin, which box do you check? White, African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Other? There’s a very good chance that you could rightfully claim to be a member of more than one of those groups, but you may have chosen only one as a useful method for presenting yourself to the world.
For Gary Younge, who was born and raised in England by parents originally from Barbados and who has lived in Sudan, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, his answer is often challenged by those who have appointed him a category in keeping with the color of his skin while ignoring his accent and even his attempts to explain his heritage.
It is our nature as human beings to categorize. Our brains insist on doing it as a way of making quick and easy sense of our surroundings. We know, of course, that few things and no people fit so neatly into those check boxes, but we continue to process those around us in the same way that early hominids did – friend or enemy, like me or not like me.
As Younge points out in Who Are We, everyone has an identity. “In general, the more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all.” Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack gave us insight into White Privilege and forced those of us in that category to either accept truths that we’d prefer to ignore or to create elaborate and often ridiculous denials of membership. A few years ago when I was participating in a cultural competence exercise, everyone at my table agreed that we shared a certain culture: white Southern women of middle-class background. When asked how we thought others viewed that culture, I suggested that they might perceive us as a group that has inherent privileges. One of the women at the table literally shouted, “What? How can you think that?” It was inconceivable to her that we had or could be viewed as having advantages over any other group. We are, after all, women – a traditionally oppressed gender.
For the most part, power belongs to white Western males, who certainly represent the group depicted by these lines from Younge’s book:
“Those most wedded to preserving their identity… are often powerful. When all is said and done, they have the most to lose. They just don’t refer to it as identity. They call it tradition, heritage or, simply, history.” Just like the White Privilege Knapsack, male privilege, which almost every male will deny having, is an identity advantage clearly visible to everyone except those within its shelter.
Whether or not we think about it or like it or accept it, certain ethnic and cultural groups are assumed to be the norm, and all others are tacitly required to explain themselves. As Younge points out, “Nobody asks me when I first realized I was straight….” Because ‘straight’ is the cultural norm in his world, he is assumed to be part of the majority until someone spots a telltale sign that marks him as ‘Other.’
In Nazi Germany, Jews were forced to wear identifying stars on their clothing. In France these days, women who do not wear hijab are the norm, and the government has actually taken legal steps toward banning the wearing of any head covering that resembles the traditionally Muslim apparel. In the United States, there is still a raging controversy about the birthplace of Barack Obama, largely because he does not fit the image many have for President of the United States (i.e. he is not a white male), even though his mother is white and he was raised by his white family in their culture.
Skin color, religion, ethnic background – why do these minute differences matter so much when our similarities are so much greater? According to Younge,
“It is in no small part because the borders of our identities are so porous and fluid that some seek to police them so rigorously.” When we look objectively at the history of our species, we can see that it is “…to isolate one particular group from the rest of the human race.” It is far easier to draw circles around the Other and assure ourselves that we are superior than it is to acknowledge our commonality and accept our own flaws.
Who Are We is built around the many and varied identities of the author, with explorations of the way in which we humans determine our own identities and norms. “There has never been a time in human history when someone hasn’t been trying to rally one group against another on the basis of their differences,” writes Younge. It hardly seems likely that we will change our stance, given the emotional value placed on identity, but recognizing the grounds for our behavior and judgments is certainly a solid beginning.
Who Are We is the best introduction to cultural understanding and competency that I’ve ever read. Gary Younge covers a broad range of examples, enough to tag every reader with at least one instance of self-identity that has been overlooked. This is the book that should be required reading as early as middle school because it has the potential to show us not only how we appear to others, but to bring us closer to a clear understanding of ourselves.