Fixed Identities

You know, I like to think that I’m not the kind of person who sees every problem in the world as something rooted in race, sex, class, or gender. I also like to think that I’m not so ignorant as to think these things aren’t legitimate problems; along with money and power, they’re certainly the root of most conflicts. It bothers me when people say that people who identify problems as the result of racism, sexism, gender bias, etc., just “see what they want to see.” Aren’t such critics not seeing what they don’t want to see? To an extent, they’re part of the bigger problem.

A large portion of my friends from high school and college belong in a pretty homogenous group that can be characterized as white, heteronormative, and middle-class. While I’m sure many people assign to them many of the stereotypes that come along with these characteristics, a lot of them simply aren’t aware of the extent of the inherent difficulties that come with being a person of color, a non-heteronormative person, or a woman in the world we live in. This isn’t to say white heteronormative middle-class people are closed-minded; this is only to say that they haven’t had the experiences other people have had, and it’s quite likely that no one has taken the time to help them understand the nature of these experiences.

People tend to look at me, speak briefly with me, then make a lot of snap judgements summarized in words like “Asian” and “nerd,” and perhaps “feminist” or “hipster.” I really hate this, and I think people tend to think I’m being obnoxious when I say so. Some people roll their eyes when they realize that I don’t “subscribe to labels,” and some get irritated that I don’t “embrace” who I am. That absolutely is not what I am doing, though. One of the greatest revelations for me was when I realized that people are allowed to exist between fixed identities. I don’t have to attach myself to the word “nerd” and all the connotations that come with it. Not all of them even apply. Same with the other words. Even “Asian” – as an adopted child with white parents in a nearly entirely white town, I’ve always looked Korean without having the cultural tendencies of someone who grows up in Korea or among other Korean people. Am I person of color? In appearance, definitely. Do I feel like a person of color? Only when I’m treated differently because I look like a person of color.

I have the relatively unique experiences of a heteronormative middle-class Korean female who grew up in a white family in a white town, and so, when someone tries to put me in a box with their definitions of me, I never fit, and I don’t like to pretend to. Of course, this happens most often with strangers, which I understand. I also understand that assigning names and descriptions to things is something comforting to people, especially when it’s something they don’t know or understand. Based on my experiences, I feel like I have a pretty easy time of seeing both sides. I can see how alienated and degraded people who exist outside the white, heteronormative, middle-class box can feel, but I can also see how the people in that box might not understand the complexity of the causes of that alienation and degradation. I also think a lot of people aren’t always tolerant or patient with the people in that box.

On the whole, it’s pretty damn frustrating. Existing between fixed identities is difficult enough. Experiencing the alienation and degradation associated with being a female person of color is difficult and experiencing the feelings that come with being from the white middle-class is difficult too. Oftentimes, people don’t make any of this easier. There are people preaching universal equality but they express disdain for the people who don’t understand, and there are people who don’t understand and think that those who deviate from the majority in one or more ways are making mountains out of molehills. Furthermore, I try to remember that these metaphorical boxes are fluid and ever-changing, that no one fits quite entirely inside and to some extent, everyone is somewhere in between. Just, some people drift into the box more than others.

And so, this is where I am. To be honest, it’s an exhausting, uncomfortable, and difficult place to be. I frequently find myself growing weary and impatient, and I border intolerant at times because it’s so hard not to. I try to balance my views and be open to learning as much as I can about what each group experiences and says, and what else is there to do? All I can do is balance, learn, and hope to introduce and welcome people to where I am in all this, where they fit too — between identities, in this little space between.

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