By Ryan Stanton
Who am I? Complicated question right? Before learning much about privilege, racism, and social inequity, and my part in perpetuating these oppressive systems, I’d have been quick to say I am a father, socially liberal, that I love baseball, outdoor stuff and sharing good food with friends. I probably wouldn’t have thought to mention that I am white, male, cis-gendered, English speaking, heterosexual and able-bodied. And it turns out I am not alone in forgetting my dominant social identities when thinking about who I am. These social constructs serve the dominant group in oppressing non-dominant groups. That’s not easy to own up to. Confused?
Consider this quick story about ethnic food and how I learned that all food is ethnic food. Some years back, I was talking with a colleague, Sergio, at a job I had in Social Services in Oakland CA. From previous conversations I knew Sergio identified as Puerto Rican, male, gay, and able-bodied. For some reason I wanted to impress Sergio whenever I was with him. I think I wanted to prove to him and to myself that I was one of the good white guys, and that I wasn’t part of the problem.
One day at lunch, Sergio asked me what kind of food I like. I blurted out something like, “I really like different ethnic foods.” Sergio paused. He said, “Tell me what you mean by ethnic food. I rattled off my favorite places to get tacos, the spot in Chinatown where I get spare rib soup, the Iranian place that serves all you can eat brunch, as well as, the great Ethiopian food down the street from my apartment.
“Is your food ethnic food?” Sergio asked.
I wasn’t sure, what was ethnic about meat and potatoes or burgers or pasta; it was just the regular old food I grew up with.
Sergio took the time to explain to me that he was somewhat offended by my remarks. I had committed a micro aggression. He went on to explain that, from his perspective, the subtext of what I said when I differentiated my food from ethnic food was that I didn’t see myself as having any ethnicity.
He said, not only did I think of myself as white and therefore not ethnic, I thought of myself as the “norm” and folks who are different than me as the “other.” Ouch, he was right.
All food is ethnic food because all of us have ethnicity, but that who I am means how I see myself and how the world sees and treats me; which is shaped greatly by my social identities.
Sergio gave me a gift by talking with me about identity and intersectionality, privilege and micro aggressions. It wasn’t however, his responsibility to teach me. That’s some of the work I need to continue to do in understanding the blind spots of my dominant identities and what my impact is on those around me. It can be hard to know where to begin, and to take the risk to jump into a conversation that feels uncomfortable. For an excellent read on this point checkout Beverly Tatum’s article, “The Complexity of Identity, Who Am I?”
All of our humanity depends on it.
Ryan Stanton is a personal counselor at the Bergeron Wellness Center, and a member of the Campus Climate Committee.