In Costume

This post is dedicated to Melissa, the thesis writer.

Jennifer said in a comments thread here some time ago that “reality” is made up of stereotypes to a greater degree than we commonly think, and I found this quite perceptive. The degree to which stereotypes determine our perception and our experience it is our theme for Hallowe’en, the year’s best day.

This post was originally a long text in which I unraveled for myself the fact that a great deal of the poor advice which has been pressed upon me in my life was actually projection based on a stereotype: I was a young woman, for which reason I must be lost somehow or doing wrong. It took me decades to comprehend that the great amount of earnest advice I was offered did not correspond at all to the person I actually was.

Having written all of that out and understood it, I do not feel like publishing the plodding text. I do have some observations, however, on other ways in which I have been perceived. As blog author, for example, I was originally taken for a Latino man. Then when I revealed I was a woman, many readers thought I was Black. At that point I said I was white, but I discovered later on that at least one group of readers thought I was Latina.

It still fascinates me that when I did not identify in a category I was male and nonwhite; when I identified a gender category I was still considered nonwhite; all of this was on the basis of the content of the blog. But if I remind anyone that I am Anglo I then sometimes get lectures about how I have probably never considered that as such I am complicit in the system of white supremacy. I also got a long lecture from some bloggers at one point about how, since I am a professor, I must be committed to certain forms of elitism and alienation. If I disagreed, I was in denial. My intellectual orientation and education were forms of coldness.

And in real life I was for almost seven years, unbeknownst to myself, the official lesbian in one of my departments because:

1. I have strong opinions
2. I spend a lot of time in New Orleans
3. I wear a lot of black
4. I do not wear spike heels, only chunky ones
5. I do not discuss husbands, boyfriends, or lovers in class.

I had thought the reason I was on all of the queer studies dissertations was that I was open to them, and there were at that time no actual gay people or queer studies experts in that department. I discovered that I was considered gay when a student mentioned it to me directly and I said I was not. I had not been faking a lesbian identity but she felt that because of the five characteristics listed above, I had been. She was very angry and put a more “honest” straight woman on her committee in my place.


16 thoughts on “In Costume

  1. Well Like I said, the West is just bubbling with the toxic fumes of various identity politics — and it is far too dangerous for someone like me, who is already culturally marginal — to participate in this milieu.

    For a person who is already a Westerner (that is, one who naturally employs a lot of a prioris in their thinking about others), the field of identity politics can be navigated quite well. They just need to say certain things and avoid saying other things and they prove their purity. For someone like myself who thinks more in terms of actual, concrete observation, rather than in terms of a priori categories of identity, I am likely to be caught out sooner rather than later, when I say something about what I have perceived which is deemed to make me impure.

    Really, there is nothing that can be done about this, and I don’t expect anyone to understand it. It is the white Westerners who set up a system to regulate themselves in this way — and I am not one of them.

    Fortunately the Western system has given me benefits as well as causing damage — since I now seek for genuine friendships elsewhere.

    I was wondering why my relationship with Stewart M in Zimbabwe always seems so pleasing to me. It is because he does not censure joy the way that all Westerners censure the daemonic. There is no need to “keep one’s place” in this relationship, since communication simply flows, without the need for one or the other to consider how this reflects back upon us (although peering at the other’s social reflection is the whole point of conversation in the west.)

    Yeah, the ability to flow in and through a conversation is friendship. The Westerners have replaced genuine communication with petty politics.

  2. That’s what I’ve been saying. You are not what you are, you are what others say you are. That is taking over a form of oppression and becoming the oppressor.

    I think you mentioned something about the book “Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Didn’t you? Do you remember the part when the white woman could not say her name so she gave her a name, she made up a name for her?

  3. Jennifer – petty politics in place of genuine communication, that’s for sure.

    Kitty – it has been so long since I read that book that no I do not remember – tell the story, please? Dedra Johnson, a New Orleans blogger, has just come out with a book which has been compared to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


    “You are who I say you are, not who you say you are” – this of course was the root message of my main Bane, Reeducation.

    What I still have to remind myself of on almost an hourly basis: I am not cold or unfeeling. I do not have to accept abuse or manipulation just to prove that I am not myself mean or crazy.

    What Kitty was supposed to go through on That Site was structurally the same: prove non-meanness and non-craziness by accepting abuse and manipulation.

  4. What Kitty was supposed to go through on That Site was structurally the same: prove non-meanness and non-craziness by accepting abuse and manipulation.

    Western puritanism has a lot to answer for.

  5. It certainly does. And it was Puritan trials I thought of as I read the thread on Kitty, and as I went through Reeducation as well.

  6. I wonder if they realise how obstructionist it is, not just to normal conversation but to good will, when they stop to correct some manner of speech or other, in order to put people into line with their expectations. And this is, of course, linked to the idea of purity and that we are all some kind of religious community looking out for each other’s sins. According to the assumptions entailed implicitly in this framework (the framework itself being implicit and un-self-reflexive in a broad cross cultural sense) we should be grateful that somone cares so much for us to point out the errors of our ways.

    If I was subjectively part of that framework to begin with, I would understand the subtle sado-masochistic joys of being corrected — and of correcting others — in this way. But really what people need to understand is that this whole approach to life is so DEEPLY Western and ascetic that it has no meaning (and no, not even to those on whose behalf they are admonishing others) except to fellow Westerners who suffer from the same desires for social approbration and the same sense of sin.

    Meanwhile, sinful creature that I am, here is what I am doing in Africa, with my poverty-line income:

    Thank you so much for such a noble gesture once more, I can never be able to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for being so kind and helpful at such a bad time here. You are truly a humanitarian in all respects. I mean this from the deepest levels of my heart. Tell me do things like picture frames with decorations like wooden animals sell well there. I have known people to take them to South Africa and also sell them to tourists here.

    We could do another business, I would just buy them here and send them to you so you can sell there. I don’t know but I am sure it can work. We can make money from art and that’s where the Mozambique issue can come into play. We just share the proceeds, Jennifer there are so many things we can do while we wait for our main venture which depends on politics here. What do you think?

  7. Yeah, I’ve been through those puritan trials, and the term sums it up perfectly. So much so, that it has come to be that for me “society” means “puritan trials”.

  8. This is a great post; while in a N.I.A. class tonight, I was mentally composing my own H’ween identity version, but I may not get around to it now.

    I want to commend you on defying the stereotypes; I could never figure out your race/ethnicity until you recently stated it, though your gender seemed apparent (or you had specified it). I have really respected your p.o.v. on this site in part because you seem to be easily of the world in many different ways that defy easy identification.

    As you probably know from my long-winded commenting at this site, I also feel like I have multiple identities, or float across categories. Folks don’t like this… your getting kicked off the committee is hilarious, I think. I am also amused by this because my mother was mistaken by some of my (male) friends growing up as a lesbian, because she was a) single, b) worked full-time, and though they probably could never have articulated this, c) unconventional and independent.

    Happy Halloween!
    (and thanks for the link below)

  9. Y’all are convincing me I am not Western, either! I am used, in foreign countries, to being told I do not seem “American” – I just don’t fit the most obvious stereotypes, and as someone astutely pointed out, I have brown eyes (not blue, the American color). But in the last few years I have been taken for a foreigner in the U.S. This really knocks me back.

    Jennifer – I’ve got those sorts of businesses going on with prisoners here (and our prison is called “Angola” because it was originally a plantation staffed by Angolan slaves). “I’ll send you the leatherwork, Z, and you just sell it for whatever you can, take out the costs and enough for a nice dinner or whatever you’d like for your time, a present from me, and send me the cash that is left.”

    Redstar – yes, I’d figured out you and your family were category-blurrers too! 🙂 And I love your blog!

  10. Yeah, well did those business deals work out for you?

    Ultimately I would like to travel to Mutare (where this guy lives) and we would start a Zimbabwean nation-wide martial arts venture there. He’s already got something going, so I would run the women’s self defence part. Also, he tells me that land there is very cheap right now because of the defunct economy, so it could be a good time to buy.

  11. You should definitely buy the land. The martial arts venture may or not break even but it will be fun. Business deals, they work out for them not for me – I do it to help fund raise but not as a cooperative venture. I did get a great handmade briefcase out of it. Alligator skin. (No, not very vegan.)

  12. This is a wonderful post that does not disappoint, and I thank you for it. Sincerely… I am honored by the dedication.

    I will have more to add when I am not exhaused.

  13. Melissa – sometime if I actually write an autobiography (or some autobiographical essays) based on material in this blog, I will meld this post on stereotyping with some of those having to do with race and perceptions of nationality or national origin.

    Living in the West, I never took the few times I was taken for or included as a Latin@ very seriously – it was always by Latin@s including me in their group, and I speak Spanish, after all – but over here it happens constantly and it is white and Black Americans who do it. Sometimes they say I am Mexican or Puerto Rican, but sometimes they say I am French; I’ve even had some say I was Creole. A yellow girl. Most recently it has just been “foreign.”

    And I am really not posing. I am from a beach in Southern California and Anglo, and I have never said otherwise. Except on this blog, where I have always said I was a sculpted skull on a stela at Copán.


  14. Profecero,
    Thanks so much for this post; I have been waiting
    for it! Not only do you give me lots to ponder in this
    post, but also, a bit of serenity in knowing that
    there are others who believe in the freedom to
    search for answers unhindered by the confines
    of past opinions or convictions, or by the boxes
    others might try to put us in.
    I have been reading That Other Site for a while,
    feeling disappointed by some of the falsehoods
    and inaccuracies in some posts and comments.
    Thanks again!

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