Omnipresent Identity

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)?
  • gender:
  • 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.
Advertisements

Creative Destruction for the Education Industry

I read an intriguing article this morning on changes needed to 21st century education, by Harvard President Larry Summers. Despite my own misgivings, spawning a bias that speculated ‘what elitist notions would the controversial, tin-earred Summers’ put forward. To my delight, and my own reminder about not pre-judging someone today based on who they have been before, I found a lot in the article, which provides plenty of wise foreboding.

The article addresses changes in education. Changes to education. Changes that are coming. Inevitable change. Or change that depends on breaking through the status quo that serves plenty of existing, economic interests.

The business models of learning, education and schools (all related, distinct, and inter-dependent) are grappling with this lifeforce called the internet. The internet’s trends — five of which I can name: pervading our lives, mobility, decentralizing and distributing, multimedia, networks — are transforming how we learn, how we educate, and how our schools are designed. These trends diminish the old ways of doing things, where we needed the physical contact, of being in the same room at the same time. Being in the right place at the right time is less and less a concern with the growing ease of documentation — in words, videos, the triplet forms of summaries (email messages, tweets or google.docs) — of what happens.

What used to happen once, is capable of becoming infinite — if it can be found on the appropriate server or cloudware. But, as a friend said to me last night, “if it is unseen, then it may as well not exist.”

The six obser-dations (my compound word of observations + recommendations) in the article are:

  1. more accessing (or in his term’s ‘processing’ and ‘using’) and less about imparting knowledge.
  2. collaboration and ability to work with others.
  3. better presentation/design, provides for more time for discussion.
  4. active learning classrooms, rather than passive learning.
  5. “cosmopolitanism.”
  6. emphasis on the analysis of data.

#3 mentions “accelerated videos” (in a medical student example). I am not even sure what that is. Not having been to medical school, I have not watched one there. The question is, who else is already using ‘accelerated videos’?
#6 is  — a long-winded way of re-arranging the term “data analysis.” Yet, the inclusion of emphasis makes it a

Since I love/speak/think in math so frequently, my single favorite normative statement is one of the last line of #6: “Today, basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis make far more sense.”

###

A short while later, i glimpsed at Apple’s promotion for the iTunes U app:

an easy way to design and distribute complete courses featuring audio, video, books, and other content. And students and lifelong learners can experience your courses for free through a powerful new app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.

As they state, “an entire course in one app.” It is not just the syllabus, but the reference DVD that i had to sit in the library with because i couldn’t leave the building with it. Not just the syllabus, but all of the handouts that would be given out in the course of a 13 week semester. And, video clips of any class that I might have missed due to illness or some outside obligation. All of those moments of my Spring 1997 semester would look radically different, which this app/store is intent on hastening. Or as Summers’ wrote:

A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could.

###

Lawrence Summers article opens with the stagnant learning environment, and the parameters of the academic semester. In the middle of the third paragraph, my mind was jumping ahead hypothesizing if the article was going to proceed with ways to dismantle the parameters of ‘four courses a term, three hours a week, one professor standing at the front.’ That isn’t where the article went. That mental jumping ahead is an instance of “the processes of human thought” that he mentions in item #4.

The following sentence states, “We are not rational calculating machines but collections of modules, each programmed to be adroit at a particular set of tasks.”

Adroit (adjective): dexterous, deft, or skillful. (h/t to wiktionary, wikipedia’s little sibling)

Those unique, distinguishing characteristics are what foster collaboration and the betterment of our days and lives by engaging in interdependence. Of inviting in more interaction rather than further individualism and isolation.

tell a story: of your life in two pages

I was born may 1978. My skin had a green hue to it under the lights of the hositpal’s maternity ward. Or so my two brothers thought, probably their own comic book projections. They called me the Hulk, in my mom’s presence, the first birth she had given where she had not taken any drugs – or shot to the spinal column. That was a big regret or surprise to her, because my head was many orders larger than the two others that passed through her birth canal. In addition to my 2 brothers, I have 1 sister who was also awaiting my arrival. My dad, supposedly, was awaiting a 2nd daughter, who he hoped to name Stephanie. He got me, instead.

So, I’m the last born. The final seed. In the early years, my status as the fourth of four meant that I was a spoiled baby, in the eyes of my 3 elders. My sister is 18 months older, one brother is 5 years older, and the other is 8 years older. We were the four-hued siblings, mulattoes born in the mile high city during the ‘70s. As, I’ve learned in the last decade, one of many outposts in fly-over country.

We jettisoned from 5280 early in my life. Kindergarten was in Denver, with 1st grade beginning in Nairboi, Kenya. After 10 years as an employment/discrimination lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, my dad joined the foreign service. Big lifestyle change in mid-career, as Reagan’s re-election campaign was ratcheting up. At that time, the State Department was the least diverse agency in all of the federal government. So issues of inclusion, access and race-at-work is in my genes. That was unbeknownst to me until a year ago. Guatemala followed Kenya. Virginia after that. Swaziland came after Kenya. Back in the U.S., I have lived in NM, CO, MN, NY and WA over the last 17 years.

Nearly one-half of my life has been back in the US, with the first half of my life lived was in Colorado and then as the son of a diplomat. Dad was trained as a lawyer, Mom was trained as a schoolteacher. Until she had my brother. Her passion for teaching shifted to PTAs, as my dad’s work was enough for them to raise a family. They bought a house in 1971 for $24K, which was one-fourth (or one-sixth) of my dad’s income at the time. They still own the same home, 40 years later.

Living abroad, I had functional Spanish, and elementary SiSwati. In hindsight, Swahili would have been curious, but it was my first place abroad and I was 6. In a place where getting accustomed to a new country was plenty. From one country to the next, good grades translated. I excelled in numbers and math, while I blumbered in English, literature and grammar. I have a fond memory of spelling, that was my forte in grade school. My mom inquired about writing assignments from my sister and me. At a certain point in elementary school, I only brought math homework, assignments and test home for updates. There were report cards at the end of a school period. But, I learned at an early age to cloak my writing to myself. The critique was more than I could stomach. So went to great lengths to avoid it.

For a few years, math was eclipsed by geography. I struggled with art, being artistic, and being creative. For some time early in high school, I was so scared that I resented art class. A few moves around, did place me in a setting to get to work on the yearbook by the time I was in high school. One year led to the next, and I was one of 3 yearbook editors. It was a wholly different medium, of published matter that captivated me. In exchange for a kick-ass cover illustration, we promoted a contest for a free yearbook for the best design. To my knowledge, we received a single submission. It was all that we needed. On a black cover, white dots from a white-out blotter to illustrate the sky, moon, letters and a castle tower.

That same year, I embarked into the first t-shirt making endeavor I was a part of. Again, we threw the conventional wisdom, the parameters and norms that had defined others and confined me. Instead, we put text and images on the chest and back. And deviated from the white/off-white backgrounds. I still have that tan colored shirt with orange illustrations. A long sleeve in dark brown, with the same orange were color combinations that awakened my peers.

I sustained my studies when still in high school. As dating and girls began to enter my life, I found that student groups gave me an outlet beyond the classroom intelligentsia. I had heard the duality of book-smarts and/or street-smarts for years. Along with life, certain subjects began to wane. It may have been the reading and writing components, as I still enjoyed the social aspects of learning together.

My relationship with books has evolved. I struggled with Shakespeare constantly. Literature blossomed late, relatively late. I had been a reader of non-fiction for so long. Although, reading Borges, Garcia Marquez and Richard Rive. Years later, I wonder if Rive was a foreboding to Chris Abani. Over the last decade, I have read a handful – yes, 5 – of books that have fundamentally altered my worldview and outlook on life: Botany of Desire, Spontaneous Healing, Fire on the Prairie, Kindred, and When the Past is Present. Just this week, I learned that Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 12 weeks. As she left an intense relationship in NY for the Caribbean.

One way that the internet has impacted my life, is by making me more literary and finding more tools, and supports to nurture my voracious appetite for words and reading. If Cupid had a bookworm arrow, it missed me until I was out of college. My palatte opened up once I was no longer commanded to read. And directed what to read, irrespective of how dry or ho-hum it was.

I use the internet to read more about authors, their lives and the environments that affected them. I use my cell phone to note book titles and a list of authors that arise in conversations, on a whim, or in passing. My list has grown to more than 120 books. And the public library is one of the beloved public institutions. I have numerous library cards, three in my current possession. As an adult, I take the time (sometimes frequently, other times rarely) to visit the library for so long that I can wander through the stacks. It is a form of synchronicity and trusting the universe, long before I had read such phrases that apply directly to experiences that I have lived, known and breathed.

At this juncture of my life, my relationship with money is at the fore. As is my relationship with masculinity. After two and a half decades of leaving those stones unturned, I visit them often. Probably daily. I no longer want to perpetuate cultural norms that act oblivious to such powerful social forces.

I have less fear now of writing. Of debt. Of the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unseen. Less fear of unemployment. Less fear of myself, and my limitations. I delight in those.

I do not need to have the life of the generation before me. Yet, I was glad to realize it back then and be open to it going forward. Monumental changes made for a tumultuous 2010. 2011 was an era of rebirth, renewal and redirection.

Death has been lingering, maybe since Buddy’s passing in January 1997. The first death of a family member since Gma Shirley had died 9 or 10 years earlier. Death at 18 in the states felt very different than it had at 8 outside. It felt isolating, confusing and fracturing in Guatemala. There had been ridiculing, shaming and enough punishment that the one time I recall crying over Shirley’s death was inside the warmth of my fleece jacket one day during lunch. It was overcast overhead, seated on some bleachers overlooking a soccer field, and I shut the world out in order to cry inside my red pullover.