Mar 27, 2008

American Identity

Last night I attended a book festival presentation entitled Wayward Sons - it featured two authors whose latests books explore the parent/child relationship. One of them was a young Israeli with a head full of political commentary and a terrible reading voice. One was an older Irishman who, during the Q&A, mentioned to a suddenly-silent audience that he was gay. I was having a good time and laughing at inappropriate moments (as I do) when a bald man in last year's festival t-shirt stood up to say,

"We Americans come from nothing, we inherit nothing. What influence do your cultures have on your writing?"

The Israeli, the Irishman, and I were shocked into silence.

I'm sure the man thought he was being clever and complimentary. But the question itself was what sociologists call "otherizing." Inherent within it is the idea that America is the baseline, the norm, and all other cultures are different. It put both of these authors, brilliant men with important things to say, on a shelf labeled Ethnic Writers*... a shelf tucked into the back corner of the book shop, between Alternative Medicine and Self Help.

Ethnocentrism is not a uniquely American vice; if anything, we inherited it from the British. But nowadays we have a reputation for it all over the world. Among the Indian community I grew up in, 'American' is synonymous with 'ignorant.' I had to fight - I still have to fight - to be proud of being American (without sounding like a mindless sycophant of the current regime).

The answer to the problem of ethnocentrism is not to make tokens out of other cultures and wear them around our necks like badges of honor. Instead we must take a hard look at ourselves, recognize our own unique cultural perspective, and then see the world with new eyes. Not as anthropologists, dissecting and documenting, but as neighbors getting to know the people next door.

Needless to say I wanted to punch the bald man in the face. Luckily, the authors handled it well - their tactful answers covered much of what I just said, only kinder and with less violence. This is why when I am a famous author I can never do book signings. Somebody is liable to get hurt.


*I wonder if I'm putting myself on the same shelf with Desi Kids. Thoughts?


monica said...

it's always refreshing (mentally) for me to read your blog and be reminded that there are much bigger issues int the world than whether i pass my next practical.

i agree with your comments 100% in terms of both the ethnocentricism so commonly seen here and the whole desire to say "yes! i am American!" without feeling like an ignorant SOB. so much of that stems from our individual experiences with other groups, and it's a constant struggle in my house for me to help my parents realize that, just as they hate to be stereotyped, they really love to stereotype others.

i think i also see a lot of the whole "badge-wearing" mentality, especially at my school. most of the people here are from central or northern PA, so the handful of people from ethnic groups feel the need to cluster, now to the point that there is a running joke of "team africa" and "team asia" (no, i don't count as asian, apparently). they don't even want to really interact with the others except to have their one "token white boy." talk about role reversal--it's really strange to watch!

it makes me wonder how we will handle our patients if this is the approach we have while we are in training.

Monkey Sri said...

I noticed the same sort of racial cliques forming in the local med school (my graduate program, on the other hand, was too small for that sort of thing ... I would have been a clique of one). It's funny, we like to pretend we live in this race-blind society, but all we're really blind to is reality. Thanks for the great comment, Monica!