Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.
I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.
My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.
I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!
When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.
And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.
When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.
Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.
As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.
It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.
With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.
I must do better than younger me, for future us.
This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.
Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.