“Step into the circle if…”
So goes the Orientation activity known as “Embracing Differences” that aims to “help you acknowledge & embrace the diversity of the Oxy community.” It’s a great idea, albeit fundamentally flawed.
“Step into the circle if you are from the West Coast.”
I make a half-step, but then hesitate.
“…if you are from the East Coast.”
Hmm … not me.
“…if you are from outside of the U.S.”
Another hesitation. In a way, yes. But not really.
Apparently, those were the only options, as the questions moved on to other subjects. I never got to step into that circle.
That’s because I’m an American citizen who has spent only two-thirds of my life here — and that generously includes five years in Hawaii, which has its own rich culture fundamentally separate from the rest of America.
I’m part of the military subculture, which in America is more often than not discussed abstractly, devoid of a human face. I am just one of 700,000 children in America who identifies as a “military brat” — and honestly, that number is rough, because no one in the government decided we were an important enough minority to keep track of.
Yes, I used the word minority, and it’s an appropriate label. 700,000 is just .22 percent of the total U.S. population. Little known, often forgotten about — my community serves as a talking point and bargaining chip for politicians on both the left and the right, while fringe groups hate us simply for who we are. My role models are monolithically referred to as “boots on the ground,” and we have the crime of every American soldier projected upon us.
While, undoubtedly, we will never experience the institutionalized discrimination or the common-day hate speech aimed at LGBTQIA+, African-American, Muslim and Latino communities throughout this country, the military brat community often experiences what would be defined in today’s vernacular as “microaggressions.” Statements like “Your childhood must have made it difficult to make memories” or “Why would your parents do that to you?” or “How many terrorists has your dad killed?”
Although these remarks cut deep and often leave me profoundly sad, getting angry accomplishes nothing. I have tried to understand that these microaggressions come out of benign ignorance and not malice. Additionally, at risk of preaching from a white, male, cisgender pulpit, I wish more people would realize that often other microaggressions (granted, not all) originate there as well.
Labeling statements as microaggressions limits our discussions about identity. It cements the idea that discrimination is limited to objective categories such as race, gender and religion, and as a result, this labeling reinforces the concept that identity itself is also limited to these concrete categories.
If you were offended that I only listed four groups as institutionally discriminated against earlier on in this article, you have every right to be. You may be thinking, groups such as women, Jews and Asian-Americans deserve to be listed. But did you think of the autistic community? The homeless community? Survivors of domestic abuse or substance abuse? Probably not. Our construction of identity (particularly here at Occidental) doesn’t bend to fit these groups. But I bet if you asked members of these communities, they would consider such statuses (or their experiences overcoming them) as integral parts of their identity. In our rush to be universally inclusive, we have slammed the door in the faces of others who simply don’t fit the mold of analysis.
Identity is becoming a more fluid concept. The most important part of my identity comes not from outward appearance, but from my upbringing and personal experiences. And I think that most minority communities (and really, people of all communities) would like to have others realize this same fact as well.
Yet, my decision to stand for the anthem? Upholding the system. My connection to cultures beyond this one? A white guy’s pathetic desire to appear less white. These things are directly linked to how I grew up. Who are you to tell me what can and can’t be important to be?
Now, before you accuse me of being a whining conservative, I am not arguing that white people should collectively be considered underprivileged in any way. Nor am I arguing that identity politics have gone too far. If anything, identity politics have not gone far enough. In the process of trying to be so inclusive, we have become exclusive.
I try my best to respect the identities of others — to use the correct gender pronouns, to listen to all opinions, to realize why certain statements might be offensive to certain people. I want to be inclusive. And one way you could make me feel included is by respecting the fact that when you ask where this white guy is from, the answer might be more complex than my stepping one foot into a circle.
Zach Goodwin is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org