Arbiters of Normality

LizardBreath’s responded to the feedback she received about her whiteness post, including my post about the issue (welcome, all Unfogged readers). She raises a valid point about decentering identity, namely that it makes the default group – in the USA’s case, whites – the arbiter of what’s considered mainstream.

This does not appear to be the case: people who commented in the thread (and others) came down pretty heavily on the side of thinking that this is a bad idea — that whiteness should, rather than being treated as a marked ethnicity, be de-emphasized until it essentially disappears as a concept, and is just what people without any other strong ethnic identity do (eat meatloaf, Mexican, and Chinese food; decorate holiday cookies; dance poorly and without enthusiasm). People with no other ethnic identity just end up partaking in the melting pot of all the various ethnic stuff that’s gotten normalized as American over the years; people with a strong ethnic identity can do the same at will, or not, as they choose. And I can see that maybe this might work: I can’t imagine being able to erase ethnicity at all from people’s minds, but I can see it being possible to sort of erase whiteness — it’s what the discomfort I talked about in the earlier post leads people to want to do.

I’m curious about this, though — doesn’t it still leave people like me, white folks with no other particular ethnicity, as the arbiters of normality? Ordering take-out Chinese food is a normal, ordinary American thing to do, because white folks like me do it. Naming your daughter Tamesha on the other hand, is a weirdo ethnic thing to do, because white people don’t do it. And I come back to thinking that treating being Anglo as a marked ethnicity is necessary. A white boss shouldn’t have any more reason to think that a black employee’s being named Tamesha rather than, oh, Karen is abnormal or bizarre, than a Latina boss would have to think that a white employee’s being named Karen rather than Rosita is abnormal or bizarre — in each case, it’s a wildly unimportant expression of ethnicity.

When I talk about decentering identity, I talk about a lot more than just retreating into some vaguely defined mainstream identity. My individualist project is about much more than that; it’s about deemphasizing conformity to the mainstream, too, to the degree that it’s possible to avoid conforming at all. It all depends on how daring you are with things, but at a minimum, I’m talking about not even caring about the American mainstream to judge people by.

To put it in less pie-in-the-sky terms, decentering ethnic identities will work because any standard of conformity that’s now applied will have to be applied equally to everyone. (White) racists will obviously have plenty to work with – skin color, hair texture, and accent for one – but it’ll be much harder to devise ostensibly neutral standards to exclude minorities.

The problem of what’s considered normal is more or less independent of that. The standard of “ethnic food is okay for OKOP, ethnic names aren’t” is as far as I can tell universal, though obviously, different countries’ dominant ethnic groups disagree on what’s considered “ethnic.”

So it’s probably not that when ethnicity is deemphasized, the dominant group gets to define what’s acceptable – it’s that certain cultural aspects are considered more acceptable to appropriate. And, I think, it’s generally about what is considered easier to change and less central to one’s culture: food is something you can easily mix and change every day, fashion styles slightly less so, hair style even less, and names even less.

Coming back to LizardBreath’s point about names, I therefore don’t think deemphasizing race will change the current situation. Most Americans are native English speakers, so it’s safe to assume that whatever happens, English names will continue dominating. The trick is not to make Jerry as marked as Tyrone, which won’t happen under any circumstance, but to make people stop caring about whether someone is named Jerry or Tyrone.

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