Tag Archives: identity

Voicing the Voiceless

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.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Power

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

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.

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Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

The Problem with Identity

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.

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Filed under Gender Trouble, Power

1915: Thoughts on Armenian Identity from a 4th-Generation Outsider

The following post is about ambivalence and remembrance. It is comprised of unstructured vignettes, loosely tied with my thoughts on identity, family, and cultural legacy. These thoughts were inspired by the fact that today is April 24, and we are 100 years removed from the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide.

I am not an authority on the Armenian Genocide. I can only speak from my perspective as a fourth-generation descendant of someone who lived through it. There are numerous scholarly, pop, and fiction texts on the subject, as well as recent media coverage of the history and current issues surrounding remembrance. I encourage you to read widely. 


Here we are.

A century removed from the dawn of a genocide that massacred individuals, stolen family legacies, and endangered an entire culture.

Here we are. Here. Now.

We are.

We are, still.

The nation-state of Turkey does not publicly refer to the atrocities the Ottoman Empire committed against its Armenian citizens as genocide. It is public knowledge that this is a HUGE bone of contention for many Armenians & Armenian-Americans, and a sticking point in geopolitics. You may have read about it or heard about it in recent days on the news. I am glad this is getting media attention.

But I have come to realize that I don’t need a government to legitimize my great-grandmother’s lived experience and its continued effects on our family. That being said, I respect that many do need this, and I understand why they do. Recognition, admission of ancestral wrongdoing, is critical to healing. It gives a lot of power over the truth to governments, but that is the world we live in.

The Bastard of Istanbul in Armenian

I read this in English, obviously.

The thing that struck me about The Bastard of Istanbul (a novel whose disturbing reveal you can, to your mounting horror, see coming a mile of alternating-perspective chapters away) is that some modern-day citizens of Turkey might not know about this part of Ottoman-Armenian history, and thus have no simmering feelings or opinions about it. In this particular novel, when Turkish characters hear the story of an Armenian character’s ancestors, they are horrified and sympathetic. But this is the first they are hearing about what was a systematic eradication of an ethnic/cultural group.

Their ignorance shrouds truth. Their ignorance leaves no place for Turkish denial, for Armenian insistence, for indigence or entrenchment on either side. This ignorance is the fault of the state, not the individual. So it is the nation-state, not its people, that become the important players in the geopolitical and ethnic and cultural narrative. This politico-narrative reality is why so many Armenian-Americans are disappointed–if not angry–with President Obama, and thrilled with Pope Francis.

The Brand Library in Glendale has been hosting events, exhibitions, conversations, film screenings, for months now to mark the 100th year of survival. Several times I have been compelled enough, felt enough of a sense of duty, to put these in my calendar. Each time I did not go.

What is it that keeps me from participating? Keeps me from showing up?
Part of it is my dwindling ties to my Armenian heritage, and by extension any entree into the Armenian community. I feel embarrassed at the prospect of going up to someone who seems to embody and/or perform the authenticity I lack and claiming ancestry. They would know I was a phony. And yet, what is authenticity? Am I not authentically, ethnically part Armenian, Americanized to a fault and distanced from “old country” culture by 4 generations and current Armenian-American culture by virtue of not participating in it? That is my authentic embodiment of Armenian identity…or lack thereof. Having confidence in that particular identity around those who, in my mind, are more authentic and worthy of Armenian identity, is the sticking point.
Mother and daughter

My grandmother, Sona, with Vartouhi (Nana)

My grandmother is gone, her mother is gone–no one is left to show me the way.
I thought attending these comfortably anonymous events would be a different way in–an acknowledgment to myself that I could at the very least learn more. Hear what those who are involved in the diaspora community, who are immersed in Armenian-American culture, think and feel. But I did not go. A ceremony was held for the new memorial in Pasadena, and I was not there. There will be a parade today that I do not attend. I am afraid to impose, afraid to feel like an impostor. I have no right to participate. I have little knowledge and have paid no dues–I am not tapped in to the community.

My great grandmother’s name is Vartouhi.  Her story is not unique. I will probably get some details wrong, even in this brief sketch. She fled from Turkey to America by way of marrying an Assyrian whose family was harboring her. She had managed to smuggle Uncle Arto (dressed as a girl), and Auntie Bergie, who she pretended was her daughter. Their parents had been killed as they watched. Too many children could say this by 1920. Too many children can say this now. Once in Washington Heights, an older brother and extended family awaited them and they made a new life. My great-grandmother had two children, worked, divorced, sent her son to war and her daughter to work and got her son back and eventually they all moved to the San Gabriel Valley to start yet another life. Lives. Our family branched and grew. Vartouhi had escaped genocide and created a legacy.

Two Armenian women in the 1980s

Auntie Bergie (L) with Nana (R)

In the early 1990’s, she sat in one of her favorite chairs in her sunny Pasadena living room and her son video taped her story. I have seen it just once, a few years back. It was strange and wonderful, to see her as I remember her at eight. To hear her voice. She and her story and its transmission and retelling and reinterpretation by my grandmother & mother are the reasons I became politicized around my Armenian identity when I was younger. That she and my grandmother are gone have lessened the immediacy of our family’s past, and have made it easier for me to become alienated from this identity over the years.

Armenian mother with son at BBQ

Uncle Al with Nana, engaged in a family activity.

My grandmother helped me share our family heritage in 5th grade–it must have been some sort of Grandparents Day or Immigration Celebration or something similarly and singularly Elementary School. We held up a scroll of the Armenian alphabet, unwrapped my grandfather’s Christening gown, and we must have talked about things, as well. Maybe this was the beginning of my blossoming pride. In my early teens, I claimed Armenian identity in earnest. It made me special. If I had lived in Glendale or near Washington Blvd in Pasadena, it would have been less special, but maybe I would have participated in the diaspora community and be able to feel legitimate about claims to an Armenian identity today.

The Road from Home by David Kherdian

One of my touchstone texts as a teenager struggling to claim Armenian identity.

At 13, I had grand aspirations of learn in to speak the language. I could have–my grandmother was still alive, as was her brother. I read The Road from Home by David Kherdian over and over, book-reported it in English class, told anyone who would listen that I was half Armenian. Looking back, I label myself “obsessed.” In 9th grade, I wrote an abbreviated history, complete with choice gory details, for an extracurricular publication. It drew heavily on a hardback book with a blue cover called The Armenians (I think)–a sweeping history that chronicled the horrors of the genocide. My goal was to shock readers and inspire guilt. It was amateur stuff, fueled by the fire of teenage understanding and the desire to be recognized as something deserving of recognition. My identity was the peg. I’m still glad I wrote about it. I would write it differently today, of course. I’m older. My relationship with my Armenian identity has changed from one marked by pride to one marked by unease.

If you do the math, I am fractionally Armenian–there’s also some Assyrian in there. Every time I try to come up with the actual fraction, I get a headache. “Half” is the default, but it’s probably closer to 3/8. Ethnically, I can claim this Armenian identity. Culturally, this claim rings blatantly false. The last thing my family has are memories and a few recipes we trot out during holidays. Our food is freaking delicious, by the way. We consider Armenian restaurants inferior. They don’t work from Nana’s (Vartouhi’s) recipes, which were kept in her head until the 80’s when a cousin and my mother tried to transcribe what, exactly, “this much” measured in the pinch of her fingers meant.

Armenian woman making kufta

Nana preparing for a Kufta party in the 1950’s

So we don’t use recipes, really. We use what’s in our heads. Each grandchild took responsibility for one dish. One year someone joked that we should consider sharing what has become compartmentalized knowledge & expertise among ourselves. We should probably take this seriously. An Easter without Choereg is no Easter at all, and I don’t even like Choereg. As my generation scatters, the branches of our family unite less frequently. As we Americanize, we share a love for the family food and identify as eaters, but that seems to be the extent of our heritage. Who are we? There are few left who truly remember.

Some of my relatives are still angry. It’s personal. An affront to our family. I used to have this anger, but it has waned. It’s become less personal for me–I didn’t have as much time with the people the genocide affected directly. As the years pass and my experiences with my relatives slip farther from the present, it’s easier for me to think about larger contexts. I’m not sure how I feel about my ability to detach. Certainly I lament my removal from those I love, from the immediacy of experience and into the fading haze of memory.

It’s not my place to forgive.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Power

Edible Miscegenation: Food for Thought (groan) on a Recent Ad Campaign

Full disclosure time: I have a nasty note-taking habit, and as a result, the forthcoming book review of Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe has turned into a bit of a term paper. A term paper that needs some serious work. We’re talking outlines, spreadsheets, coding, lists of themes and tropes, meta-structuring–obscene amounts of (dis)organization, here. And, if history is any indication*, most of this thorough preparation will be ultimately ignored in a sleep-deprived “holy fuck, fuck this fucking shitpile of amassed notes and ragged half-finished paragraphs I’m just gonna write the fucking thing I can’t even gaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhrgh!” moment of desperation.

So stay tuned for that monstrous gem. In the meantime, here are some disorganized and underdeveloped thoughts on a commercial about a new snack food. Fair warning–it’s a messy one:

Mel the Milkbite “has issues.” Yes, yes he does. Milkbite is basically a granola bar, and the advertisers have been tasked with coming up with a clever way to convince American consumers that this particular granola bar is different. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It offers hereforeto undiscovered combinations of deliciousness. Their marketing strategy has been to produce a virtual mini-series of these commercials. In each, we are made privy to the fraught inner life of one, Mr. Mel Milkbite, depressed offspring of milk and granola. “Who are you?” he asks his reflection. “I don’t know,” is the whispered reply. This identity crisis seems to stem from his mixed-food lineage.

One commercial in particular seems to play on the idea of a (damaged) mixed-parent child who confronts said parents about their decision to procreate. “You didn’t think, did you?” About how it would affect me, he goes on to say. The idea is that inhabiting an interstitial category makes life hard: one is “unclean” based on normative social structures, matter out-of-place. Mel is a product of miscegenation, and we’re supposed to laugh at this, or at his having “issues” because of it. This is where things get complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can tease everything out perfectly. But I do think it’s worth at least trying to unpack what’s going on here.

On a superficial level, it’s pretty dumb that a milk/granola-bar is talking and has an inner life. There’s a type of surreal, absurdist humor in that by itself. But to make the character’s inner life so fraught with the internalization of social stigma is…crazy awful. And in that awfulness, in that banging together of expectations, also comes the humor.

Broadly stated, humor says what cannot be said in serious contexts. It draws its power from placing categories of things together that cannot normally coexist, often exploding them. This is the unexpected aspect of humor–combining those things that are not normally combined (e.g., a granola bar that talks…to a therapist, no less). The other, related aspect, is that one of speaking the unspeakable: drawing attention to what is rendered invisible in daily life. In a way, humor combats erasure and epistemic violence. The ugly side of this is poorly timed and unsympathetic “ironic” humor, to be discussed further on in this “essay.”

To get back to the break-down of the layered humor in the commercials, besides the inherent silliness of a talking snack food is the fact that Mel takes himself very seriously. This is another source of the intended humor of the whole ad campaign: we, the audience, are not supposed to take Mel seriously. We are meant, on some level at least, to dismiss his serious concerns as those of a fake, normally (hopefully!) inanimate character made of food. It’s ridiculousness played as seriousness, which I’m tempted to call satire or irony, but I’m just so confused at this point that I can’t quite suss it out.

The humor of Mel’s milkbite commercials at least partly comes from making fun of the very serious issue of racism and how it plays out in cases where children have parents that society marks as racially different. The commercial serves to reinforce this taboo against miscegenation…or does it question the taboo? I’m not entirely sure if the “humor” in these commercials is combatting or exacerbating the stigma…or denying that the stigma exists all together. But I’m obviously leaning toward the last two.

The commercial takes license to make light of racism because its creators seem to believe that our society is past all that. Look how ridiculous we were to have had anti-miscegenation laws! If those still existed, we’d have a bunch of depressed Mels wandering around, blaming their parents for giving them such a hard life. Boy, I sure am glad we aren’t racist, anymore! In any case, the fact that we identify with Mel and feel sorry for him (do we? or do we think his problem isn’t serious in this day and age? are we just laughing at him?) means that we recognize the taboo being referenced. In encouraging the audience to both understand and then dismiss Mel’s perspective, it at once negates real people’s lived experiences and makes the (faulty) declaration that we are post-racism. But we can’t be post-anything if we still understand the signs of that thing. And anyway, is this laughter at all healing? Because the humor is very dry…almost ironic. And that gets dicey, as I will try to discuss below.

I’d argue that the existence of this campaign and all the cultural baggage it is trading on doesn’t point to a post-racism culture, but rather to one that has a more complicated relationship with its racism. This commercial can only exist in a culture where its producers (in this case, marketers and advertisers) believe that the culture is post-racism. This makes the brand of humor “safe” enough for a mass-media audience. It still messes with expectations, but in a more meta way that comments on a social situation that is assumed to be long past. The producers seem to believe this humorous take on a historical reality–setting it in the present and using a snack food as its face–won’t offend consumers. That it will resonate just enough and in the right ways in order to sell the product. But it’s also arguably a present reality, and even if it weren’t, its “humorous” take on a decidedly un-funny cultural taboo that oppressed real people in real ways is insensitive. (The argument against the insensitivity claim would be something about irony and being post-race and why can’t I just take a joke, which I will touch on later and you can read more about at Jezebel.)

The commercial may trade in deadpan ridiculousness, but it’s still based in something very real. The undercurrent of (anti-)miscegenation is extended to and reintensionalized in this extremely absurd context, rendering it less serious, less worthy of careful consideration. But it is serious. The commercial is playing on the idea that the children of people who aren’t “the same” in one way or another have it harder. That they’re damaged. So, it’s both that this creates issues for the kid, and then creates the stereotype that these “types” of kids have issues, thus making the “project,” if you will, of actually combatting these taboos a bad thing in itself, instead of creating a world where these taboos don’t exist because there are more interstitial people, who then become accepted categories in their own right. (I know that sentence is confusing, but it’s too far gone to help at this point. I don’t even know.) But the point is that making light of the history and ramifications of anti-miscegenation sentiment and policy, “mixed” children of all kinds, and the current (effectively ignored) lived realities of people who inhabit this interstitial social categories is harmful. These commercials operate in a sort of post-racism haze of denial. Anti-miscegenation is over, so it’s okay to joke about it. These commercials try to get us to believe that taking it all seriously would be ridiculous in this day and age–we’d be like Mel.

The thing is, we don’t live in a post-racial world, as Lindy West points out. The “humor” of trying to make it seem like we’re post-race by framing someone’s difficult lived experience as mixed-race individual as funny–implicitly discounting that this experience could be less-than-rosy–falls flat. It makes fun of the individual for having “issues” as a result of their racialized social location; it belittles their own understanding of their particular experience. And that is pretty wrong.

Now, not being what our society would deem a “person of color,” I cannot speak to the lived experience of someone from a mixed-race background. But I don’t imagine it’s always a walk in the park, simply because our society remains socially stratified, and one of the markers that keeps certain populations in disadvantaged socio-economic positions is skin color. Skin color is taken as the definitive sign that signifies one’s race; as if it were a natural thing. As if it weren’t a cultural construct (which it is, and an arbitrary one at that). And in America, we still see people’s skin color. We treat each other in various ways because of this type of discriminatory vision. Now, are mixed-race couples more accepted than they were 50 years ago? Sure…but only in some contexts. Are the children of  mixed-race couples less subject to ridicule? Again, it depends. We can maybe make a sweeping generalization that things are “better,” but it is dangerous to do so. And to base an ad campaign on this very real and personal part of our cultural history (and cultural present) is hugely problematic… and because it’s meant to be funny, it’s quite insulting, as well.

To wrap up before this all gets even more out of hand, let’s get back to the milkbite character himself. Mel, if we are to take his perspective, is the product of an unholy union between milk and granola. The irony, of course, is that plenty of folks enjoy this very combination. The fact that mixing them is “normal” is why milkbite exists as a product in the first place: created to fill a newly discovered [read: invented] niche, marketed as the answer to granola-and-milk-eaters’ as yet unrealized unfulfilled need for a convenient snack that pairs their two favorite things. Milkbite was created because he should have existed all along–so the marketers want us to believe. He’s what’s been missing in this world of fast “health” food.

Is that why we laugh at Mel? Because his underlying “issue” is that he fails to grasp his true role in the world? Bringing us all together in a holy harmony of interstitial bliss? Is milkbite the future? Let’s look to the heated discourse surrounding the controversial ad that South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party put out… They don’t live in the future, and neither do we. In fact, the very existence of this series of commercials implicitly arguing that we do live in the post-race future proves, ironically, that we don’t.

*UPDATE* Balancing Jane has also written about the disturbing nature of this ad campaign and provides a link to sign a petition against it.

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*For example, I once compiled over 200 pages of notes in preparation for a ten page final. Yep. Rifuckingdiculous. It’s kind of a problem.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Racism