Not long ago, on an afternoon off, I took the kids downtown to our natural science museum--one of our favorite places. It's free, and there are tons of neat exhibits to roam around, and some impressive dinosaur skeletons here and there, poised in mid-lunge. When we were in the main dinosaur room I noticed another family there--a woman and man, and their infant son, who must have been about two months old. What I noticed about the woman and man right away was that they both looked Greek--the woman had dark frizzy hair and large expressive eyes and the man was very much like her, minus the long frizzy hair. But superficialities aside, there was just something about them I found oddly familiar, and the woman gave me some long stares too, as if she might have recognized some of herself in me as well.
When I headed to the parking lot with tired kids in tow, I saw the couple loading their baby into the car as well. They were driving a Prius and had a sticker of the Greek flag on the back window and a bumper sticker reading Ask me about vegetarianism... on the back bumper (people after my own heart). Our eyes met again.
Are you Greek? I asked her, pointing to the sticker.
Yes! She replied. Are you?
Yes, I am! I answered immediately, although technically I'm half-Greek. We talked briefly while her husband loaded up the stroller, then waved again and parted ways. I left feeling a glow of compatriotism, of mutual identification and recognition as the Greek half of me surged to the forefront.
A few weeks ago I assigned Nell Bernstein's Goin' Gangsta, Choosin' Cholita to my English Fundamentals I class. Bernstein examines a phenomenon she terms "claiming" in which white middle-class suburban teenagers "claim" the identities of other races/ethnicities because, she points out, they perceive their own identitites to be "boring" or, worse yet, have trouble pinpointing exactly what/who they are; they are dissatisfied with their own identities, and yearn for something “cooler” and more colorful. As a result, completely white girls adopt the styles and mannerisms of Cholitas--Mexican gangsta girls, and white male teenagers might adopt the baggy pants, speech, du-rags and mannerisms of black hip-hop-listening gang members. Their friends might be black, or Mexican, so these young white teenagers scramble to claim their identities as their own--race and/or ethnicity-by-proxy, if you will, even claiming neighborhoods they don’t belong to as their home turf.
The essay was a bit of flop in my class, however. Looking back I think the problem mainly lay in the fact that the class was not diversified. My black students found the antics of the white teenager portrayed in the essay ridiculous and pathetic and shrugged off her search for a real ethnic identity. Towards the end of the class one student, a young woman from Sierra Leone spoke up and confessed that she found it extremely annoying when other black women (and men) attempted to "act African" or claim an African identity as their own, when in fact they had no immediate African roots. But then she conceded that they had more right to do this then the young white woman in the essay. Claiming a sub-identity within your own racial group didn't seem as ridiculous as attempting to claim an identity you had absolutely no connections with at all.
I think this notion of "claiming" identity is something many Americans struggle with. It's a big enough challenge to pin characteristics to an American identity, let alone attempt to establish a sub-identity within that elusive one. My students are invariably unable to articulate what comprises their American sense of identity, but they are always able to talk about the rich cultural, historical, religious, and family traditions which they ascribe to their own race.
I claimed my Greekness in the museum parking lot--and I had the right to even if that half of me sometimes lies buried under all the other identities I assume--mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, writer, teacher, American--no, half-Greek American, vegetarian, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law--the list could go on. I can understand the need of young people to attach themselves to identities they have claimed as their own; but the essay has made me think too about the problematic idea that cultural/racial/ethnic identities are merely labels that can be donned like the latest fashionwear, and that the turning away from family roots has prompted so many teenagers to look for themselves in other people. I wonder about my own children’s identities, and who they will see themselves as in those difficult teenage years to come. I like to think we have worked hard to give our kids a rich sense of who they are, and where they came from, but will they be content? Restless? Disillusioned?