Last post, I began looking at the ways that we place individuals into categories, separating them from ourselves, and how this affects the ways that we think about others. Over the next few posts, I want to continue that discussion by focusing on Khadra Shamy in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf and the ways that her need to place individuals into specific categories affects her perceptions and interactions with individuals. In many ways, these moments in the novel make me think about a question that Malaka Gharib talks about in her graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream. Gharib talks about being at school, both high school and college, and asking her classmates, “What are you?”

When Gharib asks this question, she immediately calls upon her interlocutor to identify themselves, providing a label or category that Gharib can attach meaning to in some way. As she gets older, she learns about, as she says, “the flaws of this question.” When she starts working in Washington D.C., Gharib begins to see the flaws with asking people, “What are you?” This begins when she gets excited about a co-worker who is Korean. She goes up to David and asks him questions, including if he is Korean, and David responds by telling her that he is Korean, he doesn’t speak Korean, and is from Delaware, not California as Gharib initially thought.

This moment leads Gharib to break down the problems with the question. She asks a woman from Chicago the question, and Gharib keeps asking the woman questions until she gets to what she’s looking for, that the woman is of Indian descent. “I used to love this question,” Gharib says, “because it gave me the opportunity to talk about my ethnicity.” However, her desire to talk about her ethnicity causes her to expect that others want to do the same or that others, based on their appearance, connect with their ancestral culture in the same ways that she has when they haven’t connected in the same ways.

While Gharib asked others at college the question, they did not ask her, “What are you?” This surprised her because she wanted to share with them her culture. When she prodded them and eventually told them, “I’m Egyptian and Filipino. Isn’t that crazy?”, their response “was always so lukewarm.” Sometimes, that response included them saying, “I don’t see color.” This response made Gharib angry because she wanted them to see her for who she is, not ignore her culture.

The default “I’m not a racist because I don’t see color” statement ignores what makes individuals different and unique. During her time at college, the statement ignored Gharib’s culture and her identity. Later, in the workplace as she experiences microaggressions, it ignores her lived experience as a Brown woman in a mostly homogenous white space. Even though Gharib doesn’t talk about systemic issues explicitly within her graphic memoir, the statement minimizes and erases the systemic issues that affects individuals of color. It says, “We’re all the same. We’re all equal. We all have the same shot.” We know that is not the case, and by denying this reality we continue to perpetuate systems, which are based on color and cultural biases, that oppress others.

The paradox, if I can call it that, here is that when someone asks, “What are you?”, it immediately others the individual, and when someone says, “I don’t see color,” it denies the individual their identity and individuality. This is the paradox I have been talking about over the past couple of posts, our human need for categories to help us navigate and understand the world around us but also the ways that people use categories to maintain and support systems and actions of oppression.

We must not place ourselves in opposition to others, but we must also acknowledge our differences. Here in lies the key. I always think to a couple of times where this fact has come to the forefront. A few years back, I was working with someone for a few months, and as our time came to an end, she told me, and I do not remember how it came it up, she was Latina. For the whole time, I didn’t think about her ethnic or cultural background. While I asked, when we met, “Where are your from?,” “Where do you go to school?”, and other such questions, I never asked “What are you?” Rather, it came up in conversation, months after we started working together. Later, I spoke with someone else whom I had known for a little while. During a conversation, the person said, “I’m Hispanic, and I’m passing.”

In each of these moments, I identified the person I was speaking with as “white,” not even questioning or pondering their ethnic and cultural identity. My default was white, and that in and of itself should be examined, but that is not the focus right now. Instead, the point is that these two individuals told me who they are. They did it on their terms, not mine. I had placed them in categories, yes, as we all do, but they shifted those categories. They defined their categories. I did not poke or prod to get to them. For me, this is the way to bridge that paradox. It comes down to, as Marissa says when talking about the problem with asking someone, “What are you?”, “It all depends on timing, topic of conversation, and tone.”

I’d add that it depends of who does the categorizing and identifying. Allow individuals to answer that question, without asking it, in their own way, on their own time. It’s not my business how someone identifies. If someone wants to tell me, let them do it in their own way, in their own time. Don’t force it upon them. That doesn’t mean I haven’t formulated my own perceptions of a person, and those perceptions, as I’ve written about extensively on this blog, may be problematic in and of themselves. It does mean, though, that I give the individual agency to define themselves, allowing them to be who they are, not who I want or expect them to be based on my preconceived notions.

These thoughts come to mind with Khadra in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and in the next post, I will begin to focus on the ways that she individuals challenge her categories and preconceived notions of others. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

1 Comment on ““What are you?”: Part II

  1. Pingback: “What are you?”: Part III – Interminable Rambling

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