omnipresent: present everywhere at the same time.
I have walked much of my 34 years in this life seeing myself, and the world, through the lens of race. My particular racial identity being mixed, mulatto, a half-breed of Black, white. There is a sprinkling of Native American blood in there, too — but I don’t live in a culture where we bother with one-sixteenths. There was a elementary school phase where i was name-called an Oreo; by a handful of white classmates (in an overwhelmingly white school). 2005 was the first time that I began to put my identity in terms of class. In June of that year, I had an epiphany that my white mother came from a working-class, white family. That was the first time that I had uttered that phrase. Seven years later, I am confident that ‘working-class, white family’ is a phrase that my mother will not use for the rest of her life.
I have entered into identity’s abyss in recent years. On Super Bowl Sunday of 2008, one of my two surviving grandparents passed. Dick Uhlenhopp had been in hospice for a month or so. Prior to that he had lived independently and on his own since Grandma Shirley died in October of 1987. Aside from my paternal/maternal great-grandmother, Buddy Jackson, my branch of the Jones/Uhlenhopp family trees had been spared death for the 21 years spanning from 1987 until 2008. What was different, in 2008, was that I was nearly 30 when Grandpa Dick passed. And I had been poking around family history, and asking quesionst hat had never occurred to me before, or topics that I had quietly agreed to remain silent about, as my siblings and others had. But with Grandpa’s death, I began to see how deeply identity goes. How many layers of an infinte onion, identity is.
Identity has become a doorway into personality, opinions, values, vantage and feelings.
I remember an exercise in college, where we were asked to compose a list of 20 or so identities for ourselves. Then we narrowed the list down to 5 by eliminating 15. Then we were told to whittle five down to one. In a room full of students of color, most of us had been selected for our leadership in student of color groups. Most of us settled with a singular identity emanating from our racial origins of Blackness, Latino/a lineage, API, immigrant or Native ancestry. That is, all of us saw ourselves as people of color. Except Sherman.
There was one guy who picked ‘friend’ as his one identity. He chose it over all others. I remember sitting near him, perplexed. Unable to fathom how a guy borne of two Chinese immigrants in Canada could see himself first as a “friend.” See himself only as a friend, especially when I saw his black hair, eyeglasses, toothy and nerdy smile wrapped in the skin and features that I had learned was Asian. I had even known that he was majoring in Economics, was raised in Saskatchewan, finished high school in Hong Kong, and had siblings. But at the time, all that I could distill Sherman down to was race.
How things have changed over a decade. I sense identity, multiple identities, everywhere (I suppose that I did with Sherman, too. But I placed a value on one identity over all others). I like to taste identity in the air, as if it is nectar of a flower or the smoke of a fire or from industrial pollution. Identity is that readily available. Identity is omnipresent. I listen to stories similarly to how a serious fan logs a baseball scoreboard. Identity has become a multi-faceted, nth-dimension in each of our souls and characters. Race and class are simply veneer for deeper stories, lives and identities that are buried within. I have come to see identity as including:
- siblings: number of siblings, and place in sibling order (or an only)?
- place of birth:
- hometown: (do you consider this the same as the previous answer? that is indicative of something else)
- place of current home:
- closeness to mother/father/grandma/grandpa: relationship, distaste, struggles
- favorite subject in elementary school: math, spelling, recess, science, p.e.
- you get a high school diploma, GED or college degree:
- more street-smarts, more book-smarts, or some of both?
- math or literature: or as i like to say now-a-days, do you speak more fluently in numbers or letters?
… aka, MS Word or Excel?
- major or subject studied:
- type of work:
- reader: of fiction, current events, (even that distinct subpopulation passionate about) sci fi
- paying rent or a mortgage, or multiple mortgages?
- favorite author:
- favorite vegetable:
- favorite meal: breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Embracing more of our identities is vital in order to weave together stories that encapsulate more of the lives each of us has lived. I am unsatisfied with race alone, because as my father has pointed out, he finished high school in an integrated high school in West Virginia rather than attend a segregated school in Tuskegee. It wasn’t even his choice, but his parents sent him to live with family in Charleston, WV.
Back in 2005, I began to sense the nuance of identity by exploring the distinctions between each of my parents. My white mother has certainly had race privilege her entire life. Yet, I have come to appreciate how she lacked many of the class privileges that my father was raised with. Since then, I have explained it simply as “my mother had the race privilege while my father grew up with the class privilege.” The vestiges of my mom being the first in her family to get a four-year degree are alive today. In ways that I choose not to ask my extended family about, but alive, nonetheless.
Taking class identity and blending it with race identity has been an awakening experience. Class, is such an avoided topic, that what that means needs explanation. Middle class for me has been a father who’s entire career was as a white collar employee with the federal government. A father who had union representation, was trained as a lawyer, and has had comprehensive health insurance for as long as I can remember since i got my first physical the summer after kindergarten. I got a physical as a six-year old because the family was headed to Kenya. A gaggle of dependents and a diplomat for the US Embassy in Nairobi.
So I add:
- health insurance coverage: any or out-of-pocket?
… PPO, HMO, Medicare or Medicaid?
… that you have on your own, or are a dependent on someone else’s?
I have honed how i tell my 1984 story, too. After years of telling the chronological story of living in six countries, four states in the country, three continents over 15 years, I now say how I finished kindergarten in Denver and began the first grade in Nairobi.
Last year, I was asked: Who are your ancestors?
Such potency in four words. There is a fits-and-starts fascination with history in this culture. For the most part, a historical amnesia when it comes to the history of families. How many people can tell where all four of their grandparents were born, grew up, and lived? How many of us readily know the years that our four grandparents were born, and died?
I have a much lengthier answer than I did seven years ago because I have slowed down to ask. To explore, and to inquire with family members over the phone, and email messages as well as in person. The stories are too vast and invaluable to not ask now. There is a great risk in waiting until I will see my last living grandparent.