a jackass by any other name
count me out of that race
by dan gonzalez
I want a new minority, something I can call my own.
The whole Mexican-Irish with a Jewish/Spanish Grandfather, French-expat Great Grandma, and tenous Central American Natives in the woodpile thing ain't working out. It's too much to fit on the line next to Other. Besides, you can't really discriminate against that mess anyway. My gene pool is shallow but broad. You can pee in any end of it and never really get to me.
One time in desperation, I checked other and wrote Men for Paisley on the line. As an anti-collectivist, I blame almost all my defects on myself, but a fashion-sense this bad has to be congenital. And I can argue that it's impeded my viability in the job market. Needless to say, the beaurocrats did not agree.
I once thought about claiming to be a lesbian trapped in a man's body who declined gender reassigment after discovering that the unwanted equipment came in handy from time to time. But that's just plain wrong, and insulting to anyone who actually endures that particular condition.
Hispanic was probably my best option. Real hispanics always speak Spanish to me first anyway. But the only Spanish I know, roughly translated, is "My grandfather took his mother's name to avoid the Nazis". They simply shake their heads and occasionally pat my arm. Pity from the so-called oppressed masses does wonder for one's self-esteem, but if they saw my abuelo's blue eyes and prominent nose, they would have seen the folly in the name ploy.
But knowing that my real name, however arbitrary names are in the first place, should have been Daniel O'Carroll Goldberg or some such, mitigates the urge to check Hispanic. In fact, it makes the lesbian thing sound pretty good in comparison.
Alas, there is no hope for one such as me, a mongrel. I must walk alone.
All this ethnic angst started in a Multi-Cultural education class I took years ago. Actually, I was ordered to take it by the Ohio Dept. of Education who was, in turn, ordered to include it in the certification process by the NEA. Well, the NEA didn't actually order them to them do it, they strongly suggested that they include it so as not to have federal funds withheld for non-compliance. Nothing sends cell-phone toting, SUV-driving State Board Republocrats scrambling faster then an imminent threat to their own compensation funds.
Unaware that it would result in the cultural schizophrenia that haunts me to this day, I approached the class with optimism. I wanted to teach in the inner city. Noble me, and all that. And I thought that the class would be chock-full of strategies for curriculum development and lesson plan execution needed to lead a pack of diverse adolescents to academic greatness.
The class was a nightmare. A full-bore, bull-goose looney nightmare. It was actually three nightmares, because my megalomaniacal instructor saw fit to require 15 credit hours of work for the 5 hour class. So she designed her syballus to include full doses of multi-cultural theory, reading in multi-cultural content areas, and practical multi-cultural field experience.
She started the class by saying "You will do more work in this class than any other in your quest to become teachers because, whether you know it or not, you need more work in this area. Discrimination is a disease that works silently. It does most of its damage behind the scenes, for every incidence that we are aware of, there are 100 behind the walls of our institutions. In fact, after this class, you will find that they are the very walls of our institutions, and you must break them down."
Fuck, I was in trouble out of the gates. I just wanted to teach high-school English. Reading and writing had always helped me wrap my brain around life. Pragmatically, I concluded it would help less priveleged kids the same way, if they embraced it. I just wanted to figure out how to get it across to them, and suddenly I had a gnawing suspicion that this class wasn't going to help at all.
"America is not a melting pot," she said. "You have been enculturated to believe this, but will learn the origins of this myth, and why it is false, by the end of this class, and with much effort."
"The truth is," she continued, pausing for dramatic effect, "America is a tossed salad." She said it with a great big smile.
But I wasn't smiling. I was starting to get pissed-off. What the hell was this? A class in multi-cultural food metaphors? Because I needed a passing grade to be able to student-teach, I resisted the urge to ask exactly what kind of salad were we talking about, Caesar, Fruit or Taco?
"The first step is learn about our own multi-cultural backgrounds. We all have them, though you may not know it, and it's essential to begin there." With that, she handed out a worksheet. It was a big old tree with blank lines on every branch.
"Start filling it in over the next few minutes and then we'll talk about it."
I hadn't filled out a family tree since 3rd grade, but I did it, remembering all I could about about the nationalities of my forebears. The good doctor circulated the room, watching us work, mumbling inanities like "Mm-hmm, splendid, really, I thought I saw something in your face".
I looked down at the thing when I was done, and that's when it hit me: I'm a total jackass.
No, not the figurative kind. I'd always been one of those, like Royal Tenenbaum, it was kind of my thing, my particular idiom. But a literal jackass, a mixed-blooded, braying punk bastard? My head dropped, my shoulders slumped. It made sense, my lack of refinement, spurious refusal to be disciplined, clueless rebellions against conformity, so forth and so on.
I'd accepted these faults, and all my others. They were my own. I'd accepted them and taken responsibility. You take the good with the bad, even if it the good is woefully outgunned. But to think that they could be congenital, influenced by the purity of blood or lack thereof? Was Hitler onto something? I had to reject this.
The good doctor cleared her throat and stirred us from our meditations on the cultures of our ancestors. She asks "How did you do? Who'd like to share?"
A well-groomed girl with greek letters on her sweatshirt raised her hand. "I'm mostly Scotch and Irish, but my grandmother is Sioux." She said it as if doing that worksheet just revealed that fact to her.
The good doctor nodded and said "The goal is to identify your own multi-cultural heritage, to explore what's influenced you." Rounding the first bend, it's Perfect Sorority Girl in the lead, and she does whinny pretty.
"How about you?" she said to a preppy guy with blonde hair and glasses.
"I'm German and English. I consider myself to be American pretty much." I never noticed the nasal tones in his speech before, he was all honky.
She shook her head. "We're all something more than American. African-American, Native-American, even European-American. No one is just American. You are European-American, and as you dig deeper, you'll see how this affects you." Uh-oh, Classic Cracker stumbles early but is not yet out of the running.
"How about you," she said, her eyes twinkling knowlingly in my direction. My last name always has me marked for death.
"I've got a little bit of everything. There's not enough hyphens to really classify me, Mixed-American perhaps?" I said without a trace of hope.
She shook her head and looked at my tree. "You are mixed, but Hispanic is dominant and has probably been more of an influence than you know."
"I don't really consider myself Hispanic," I said, shooting first, thinking later, as per usual. "I don't speak Spanish, and haven't really had contact with any of these people," I said, tapping the Latino side of my family tree.
Gonzo the Jackass skids to halt and summarily refuses to run.
"Give your father a call," she says, "dig deeper, you'll find your Hispanic heritage."
"His mother was probably half-native and his father was half-Jewish,", I say, and brayed a stuttered laugh. I wonder if I looked like Pinocchio on Pleasure Island by that point.
She looks at my tree again, as if trying to puzzle out how my four obviously insane granparents ever got onto the same continent in the first place, much less ever met and made whoopy.
"Why don't you focus, perhaps on your father's father?" she offered.
"I could," I said, trying to be amenicable and failing. "But really I'm mostly Irish." I'm rolling now and can't stop braying. "See, Tommy Carroll, here, of the Kilkenny O'Carrolls, is my one pure grandparent."
She stared at me as if to measure the length of my nose.
"Of course," I continued, "My mom's mother was German and French, but my dad's dad, the Jewish guy--he wasn't actually full Jew by the way, his mom was Spanish so the Jews wouldn't accept him--he was either Russian-Jew, due to his name Ivan, or German-Jew on his father's side. In the latter case, if you add that 1/8 German to the 1/8 from my mom's mom, you've got a push with the Irish."
I looked up at her, and she squinted at me as if I was the most deranged tossed-salad she had ever seen. Obviously, I was one of the biggest jackasses as well.
"Focus on your grandfather, pin down the Russian/German uncertainty," she said and walked back to the head of the class. Apparantly, I was a little too multi-cultural, and she wasn't quite prepared to deal with it.
"A five-page paper on your heritage and how it's affected you will be due one week from today, you may have the rest of the class to begin writing it."
No rough drafts, no tentative foreplay, this lady was all business. I took out my notebook. One thing I could do was write an essay. Fiction was another story, but if she wanted an essay, she was gonna get one.
I flipped past the few half-assed short-stories and premature ejaculations I called my novel notes. I cracked my knuckles and grabbed my pen. And stared at that page for an hour without writing, until the class was over. She had unmanned me, I no longer knew who I was.
I drove to my cheap little apartment in the city, deep in thought. The other students were still young, and would go back to their campus abodes and somehow come up with good papers, even if they didn't believe in them. I was an adult student, and wouldn't. Or couldn't.
I turned off, and instead of going home, went to the corner bar. Who was I? I drank a Rolling Rock or two over it, and thought. I had no idea who I was, but somehow Ginsberg popped into my head: We are not our grimy locomotive exteriors, we are all shining golden sunflowers within. Fuckin-A!
That quote inspired me to write the paper of my life. I wrote about how culture nurtures individuality, but does not define it. It wasn't bad either, and arguably heart-felt, but I got an F.
That bitch! I knew an F paper when I wrote one, and that sure as fuck wasn't it.
Perfect Sorority Girl and Classic Cracker got their grades, however. Apparantly sincerity was not in the criteria, lip service to vaguely defined political movements was.
I went to the Dean and complained. She said "You are not the first to complain, but there's nothing I can do."
To this day, I can't help thinking, if my skin color was different, or my gender, would there have been something done then? Would it have been different, if I had been less mixed, or perhaps a mixed female?
Probably not. Color me whatever, grant me any combination of ancestors and genes, and I'd still end up a jackass with a mean nut against authority. Even if I was purebred, I'd never whinny, I'd bray on purpose, just because I could.
In the end, I don't really want a minority, and I don't wanna race, either. I just want to be...
Maybe it's you, maybe it's Dan. Things aren't quite the way they should be. And now it seems Dan's peace of mind has come up for the bidding, and those that he respects and trusts must all have been just kidding. Dan's little world has lost control, but still it keeps on spinnin'...
ABOUT DAN GONZALEZ
more about dan gonzalez
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
3.24.04 @ 9:01a
Damn it, Gonzalez, I was JUST working on a column on this very subject. My ethnic heritage is Italian-Spanish-Swedish-German-French-American (which for some reason always results in people asking me if I am Japanese.)
I had an interesting discussion about American history with someone recently, and I had to explain that my gene pool does NOT predispose me to be a Nazi, a fascist, a slaveowner, a cheese-eating surrender monkey or particularly good at baking.
People are SO weird.
3.24.04 @ 10:38a
Aw crap, I'm sorry, I been there.
You should still finish yours, though, it sounds good.
I can pull this one if you want, no biggie.
3.24.04 @ 6:35p
This is very funny. I love the horse race analogy. Personally I want to claim my Native American status just to get in on casino money, but 1/6000 Cherokee doesn't go far. Besides, I'm also considered a Two-Spirit in the Native American culture, so even there I'm not fully understood. I'm probably more Irish-Russian, but I don't drink anymore (if I can help it). While being gay is a sexual orientation and not a race, in a way it further seperates me but also includes me in a different "family" system.
I agree with you. Be the best you that you can be.
3.24.04 @ 7:41p
Don't be ridiculous, Dan. Of course I don't want you to pull this. I just find it interesting that we both sort of went in the same direction with the topic. If and when I ever finish mine, it'll be sufficiently different.
3.24.04 @ 10:12p
All you Dutch-Irish-French-Cherokee-Americans, unite!
Hell, considering how splintered my family tree is, I'm surprised I even know any of that.
The difference between heritage and race is that we all have heritage, and should be proud of it, share it, and learn about that of others. Race is a block on a form. The more people could remember that, the better this country would be.
eta: checking to see if I closed my italics, which I did, but things are still funky.
3.24.04 @ 10:51p
If America is a tossed salad, can I be avocado?
While I agree that it's important to understand what multi-culturalism is, and be sensitive to how heritage may affect your students, it's also important not to make snap decisions, as your teacher did. People are influenced by their heritages to different degrees, and you can't force the issue one way or the other. For instance, according to my aunt, part of my heritage lies somewhere in the gutters of 19th c. Edinburgh, and I'm just as happy to leave it there.
3.25.04 @ 8:51a
Y'know, I've got a chip on my shoulder about minorities.
No.. that sounds mean. Listen: I mean that the reason we have such clearly defined minorities is that we work so hard to clearly define them, focusing on the differences rather than the things we have in common.
Recognizing those differences and even embracing them is good, but as soon as we use them as defining characteristics of our individual personalities we begin to run into inferiority/superiority issues.
Most of the time, I'd like to tell people, "Yes, you're unique just like everybody else now shut up."
3.25.04 @ 9:24a
Erik Lars Myers for President!
3.25.04 @ 10:15a
In my "research" for the column I'm working on, I asked people if they considered themselves minorities. Most people *I* would consider minority for one reason or another said no! You know who thinks they are in the minority? Straight white guys and religious people.
3.25.04 @ 10:34a
Hey. What are you insinuating about me?
3.25.04 @ 10:44a
You're in the minority among the straight white guys I queried, Russ.
I do like the tossed salad analogy, mostly because as a melting pot, we haven't really done much melting. Or perhaps we're really a stewpot, with some bits melting together and the rest just sitting in there getting squishy.
3.25.04 @ 10:55a
And Dan, you did yourself a disservice in class. You had the answer in your grasp all along: Fiction!
If the daft, myopic puta running the class couldn't grasp the fact that you put the "multi" in "multicultural," you should have just made it all up. She gets her essay, you get more practice in fiction writing...and get the smug satisfaction that you played her for the fool she was.
3.25.04 @ 10:56a
The argument I've heard against the "melting pot" term is that it assumes that the goal is for everyone to assimilate to one primary culture, and that is the dominant white european anglo-saxon culture. The tossed salad is much better, I think.
3.25.04 @ 11:10a
the dominant white european anglo-saxon culture
This in itself is a multi-cultural group, no? Irish, Italians, French,Germans, British, etc., have little other then skin color in common, yet are mostly considered one culture. Melt the whites together in a pot, but everyone else is separate bits of a salad. I can't quite see it...
3.25.04 @ 11:17a
Well, if you use the qualifier "anglo-saxon" it really only refers to germanic/english people, not Italians or Celts, or even Gauls. My point, though, was that the melting pot term privileges one kind of heritage over others. Several "white" cultures settled America early on, and everyone later was supposed to melt into that culture.
3.25.04 @ 11:22a
That's a good point, Sarah. I tend to think of the positive aspects of appreciating and assimilating other cultures, rather than subverting them, but I think you're probably closer to the truth there.
3.25.04 @ 11:38a
Juli, I hadn't thought about it negatively either until it came up in some reading I was doing for a class (a class on teaching, actually). It's a good perspective to think about.
3.25.04 @ 11:39a
if you use the qualifier "anglo-saxon"
Good point, I can see that. But does anyone use that qualifier? PC folks just say European-American and leave it at that.
Oddly, if you're Scotch-Irish and you grew up in West Virginia, you're not European-American, you're Appalachian-American. But if you grew up in New York, you're Euro-American.
It smacks of arbitrary groupings of individuals to facillitate a social agenda to me. Does it strike anyone else that way?
3.25.04 @ 11:44a
Oh, absolutely. And it's just as (ultimately) destructive to society whether it's one group defining another, or one group defining itself. It's societal gerrymandering.
3.25.04 @ 4:55p
I still have a problem using the term "minority" to describe a cluster of people. Because inevitably, it doesn't literally translate to "a lesser amount of these types of people in the population makeup overall" as "this substandard segment of society." I don't think there are a lot of tall Dutch-Irish-French-Cherokee-Americans in the world, but you don't see me making a big stink about being a "minority."
The focus blurs on the practice of open-mindedness and acceptance. As someone who lived in the deep South, orignially moving from an area that was not racially divided, although racially mixed, I experienced an awakening. For the first time, I heard statements such as: "He's not so bad for a black kid" and "Well, he's my only white friend, but he's a good friend." I was astounded at the lines drawn, because I didn't do that. People were (are) people. But even I felt the pressure of being put into a position of classification by those around me.
Individually, I think everyone can respect each other. But as a collective, the mob mentality takes over.
3.25.04 @ 7:00p
But the only Spanish I know, roughly translated, is "My grandfather took his mother's name to avoid the Nazis".
You couldn't bullshit a proper essay for class, but grandpa was willing to do what was necessary to keep his line alive? I'll bet he's trying to dig his way out of the grave to kick you in the ass for not inheriting the right set of genes.
3.26.04 @ 12:41p
I'll bet he's trying to dig his way out of the grave to kick you in the ass for not inheriting the right set of genes.
He should kick my mom's in that case, no?
Oh yeah, OUCH. But I only bullshit on my own terms, tough girl. ;-)
3.26.04 @ 1:09p
But if you grew up in New York, you're Euro-American.
Or, often, Prick-American.
3.31.04 @ 5:13p
I always liked Tiger Woods' comment when some reporter was trying to pigeon hole him as African-American or Phillipine-American...his response was "I'm American. Period."
My major advisor asked me one time if I'd considered playing up my Native American heritage in the job search process. I don't have to draw on my heritage to lay claim to being a minority--I'm a female with a PhD in an agricultural discipline dominated by men. I'm proud of the little drop of Seneca blood that's made it as far as my veins, but there's no point in making myself more of an oddity than I already am. Besides, the vast majority of my DNA is Scot, Irish, and English--and I'd rather be hired on the basis of my knowledge and skills, not my gender or DNA.
4.2.04 @ 11:32a
You know who thinks they are in the minority? Straight white guys
Straight white men are in the minority: There are more women in the population, and more women in the voting population. Straight white men have no entitlements (not that anyone should have any, but everyone else does) and no special protections under the law. That would be fine, if no other involuntary groups had any.