It is a wonderful thing to have a friend as a boss and a boss as a friend. I use the term “boss” loosely, but “friend” is meant with appreciative precision. Checking up on my unread RSS items this morning, the first and second items I read were improbably related. Both by co-managing editors of Global Voices and both (somewhat, sort of, not really) related to cats and dogs.
I had always been a dog lover myself (first “Spike”, then “Toto”), even though my own personality is undeniably feline (a false assertion of independence, etc.). Just like Georgia’s friend stuck in middle America, I was convinced that I was a dog’s man – or man-dog according to some – and my singular interaction with a black cat named Midnight that peed on every corner of every rug had me convinced that all cats, like totally suck.
This discrimination served me well for 26 years until Bill, or William, or Billard, or even Guillermo, depending on my mood. The deal was that to love Mari I would have to accept Bill. Worse, I would have to convince him to accept me. I won’t lie, it wasn’t always an easy process. Kung-fu claw kicks were delivered to my aorta, pouty paws would push my head off the pillow, and vomit stains dotted my favorite chair. Bill, too, had to endure some regrettably childish behavior (he doesn’t, for example, understand why I get a kick out of making his ears twitch).
But now we’ve been through a lot and it turns out that Bill is my favorite pal here at the office. See how he keeps me company:
Georgia’s right, it’s much easier for me to say that Bill is uniquely uncatty than it is to admit that my stereotypes of cats were a bit short on evidence. Why is it that stereotypes are so easy to form and so difficult to change? HP is fond of saying, “it’s not discrimination, it’s statistics” and that’s fine if the statistics really back it up, but more often than not, they don’t.
It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear, “but he doesn’t act Black”, “but she’s not, like, really Mexican”, “but you weren’t born in India?”, or, in my case, “but you don’t seem American.” I hear that all the time when I’m abroad. Of course, like any good, college-aged liberal I would take it as a compliment. But then it made me curious and even a little bothered; not because I feel patriotically American, but because I don’t not feel American either. In fact, the more I think about it and the more time I spend abroad, the more irreversibly Yankee I feel.
Here in the States it is amazing how ethnic identity teeters on the border between gangsta rap and indie rock. Not too long ago I was talking with a Filipina friend who was shocked when she came to the Bay Area and found out that to be Filipina here is to listen to hip-hop, R&B, and to dress “urban”. Likewise, last week Steven, who is Iraqi-Canadian, a fan of the Decemberists, and a really bad shot, wondered if he would be wearing size 40 pants and listening to The Game had he grown up in San Jose like his cousins. And a few months ago, Alejandro and I bonded over a memory shared by all who went to junior high in Southern California: whether to listen to KROQ or Power 106. For a 13-year-old, that decision seemed to set the path to your social destiny.
One of the most eloquent speakers against the culture of “you don’t act black” is HP’s hero, Thomas Sowell. HP gave me Black Rednecks and White Liberals (without having read it himself mind you), which argues that Southern and urban black culture today comes not from Africa, but rather a rowdy part of Scotland. You don’t need to read the book to understand the argument; just go to a high school with both American Blacks and recent African immigrants.
Just as there is no single definition of “black” or “latino” or “white” or any other check box on the SAT, there is no single definition of how every “member” of each group acts. How we pronounce vowels, the clothes we buy, the music we listen to, the friends we have: these are all things we choose, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. I recently read a wonderful piece about those very choices by David Matthews. No, not that David Matthews.