Monday, November 05, 2007

A Lifetime of Personal Diversity

Alice's post at In Practice was a good read this morning. Addressing how to handle diversity in schools, neighborhoods, and society IS a tough issue, and not just for Caucasian folks. Many people simply want to know how and IF (and when and where) to acknowledge ethnic/cultural diversity. The acts of asking someone about his or her background, of learning something new, of trying to be considerate, making sure no one feels looked over, left out, or unwelcome can actually be awkward for people thanks to humankind's history, no matter how enlightened, unbiased, worldly, just plain kind and inquisitive, or politically correct they may be. But more than some people do feel threatened by anything outside of their own comfort zone, allowing assumptions and stereotyping to influence what I feel are their fear-based behaviors. For some personal history:

I'm a half Eskimo, half Caucasian female born in Kentucky, raised for the first ten years of my life in a bordertown in TX. I lived the next twenty five years of my life in an Eskimo village, a small farming town, and a college town in Alaska. Being a woman who has often been incorrectly stereotyped throughout her life, I grew up wondering who and what I was "supposed" to be with each new hometown locale we moved to. In many cases I was too "brown" for predominantly white communities, and too "white" for predominantly brown communities. A half-Caucasian half-Inupiaq Eskimo girl raised in Texas, eating pâté de foie gras, enchiladas, and hamburgers, while interested in learning French, how to make parkas, and playing the clarinet and violin was apparently an interesting addition to many schools and neighborhoods. I am brunette with dark brown eyes and I tan like nobody's business. Many people assume I am Hispanic. Others admit they assume I am "something," but they're not quite sure *what*. As an adult, I've moved as a military dependent and have been stationed in New Mexico, Kansas and Texas, driving through the states each time a new move is required. Teaching in culturally diverse schools has been the norm for me even in places like Kansas thanks to the high military population.

As a young child, my mother was regularly asked if I was a "Vietnamese war orphan." When I was in the third grade (here in the bordertown), I got in trouble with my Spanish teacher and school principal for "not speaking my language," which according to them was my mother's fault, as she is white. I told the teacher and principal I was Eskimo and was then accused of lying. My mother brought my Bureau of Indian Affairs card in to the principal and told her that yes, while the accusations of my mother not making sure I spoke SPANISH were accurate, it was in fact because in addition to English, I should have been speaking Inupiaq, a language NOT taught in Texas. The harassment from the Hispanic teacher and Hispanic principal stopped. The irony? I did speak Spanish with my Spanish-speaking-only friends on the playground or outside of school.

As a junior in high school, my family lived in Fairbanks, Alaska. The school I attended was the largest I'd ever seen at that time, most students either already sorted or in the process of sorting themselves into social cliques. As the weather cooled, I chose to wear a parka to school that I had made. Standing inside in the commons area waiting for the first bell to ring, still wearing "outdoor gear," students visited with their friends. The punks, the jocks, the band kids, the geeks, the gearheads, etc. were all separated and socializing in their staked-out territories as were the students who sorted themselves by cultural heritage or grade (only the seniors seemed to have license to roam free, socializing or harassing students from any group). I stood with a friend from the bus, talking and laughing, wondering what our French teacher had in store for us that day, when I noticed two students from what appeared to be the "African American Group" pointing, smiling, nodding, laughing, and pointing some more at me from across the room. After some quizzical looks on my part, one of the boys came over, laughing, and told me "we're getting a good laugh, 'cause here you are, wearing that coat, that Eskimo coat, pretending you're a native, when everyone here knows you're half Black." I was floored, not because I perceived what he was saying was an insult, but because somehow I had become a joke based on what people who didn't know me at all thought about me- what they had decided about me all on their own, without asking.

In Alaska, I attended WEIO (World Eskimo Indian Olympics) each year with my Inupiaq grandparents, mother and sister, and I learned how prejudiced my "minority" grandparents really were. When my grandparents encountered girls from families they knew from the village at the sporting events and in the artisans' gallery, I was quickly introduced. But if those girls had African American friends or boyfriends with them, the girls themselves were blatantly shunned by my grandparents by not being offered the traditional outstretched hand or even eye contact. After the girls left the area, my grandmother would scoff, shake her head, and gossip while returning to her beadwork. Interestingly enough, several years later, girls my grandparents had originally shunned who had gone on to have children with African American males were warmly welcomed back into the fold because "taqsipak" (mixed skin color/heritage) babies were considered the most beautiful. I have never spoken fluent Inupiaq. My grandmother has often told me she was glad all of her children "listened to" her when she told them in their youth that they needed to "marry white people to get ahead." My father, and all of my aunts and uncles did just that after graduating from high schools outside of Alaska (Bureau of Indian Affairs "boarding" schools where Inupiaq language and culture were not allowed).

Visiting family in Oklahoma for the baptism of my daughter, I was put into social situations where neighbors, church patrons, and most locals would ask "what ARE you?" After one inquiry led to a tense half-hour-long question/answer session explaining my ethnic backgroud in a greasy spoon diner, the owner of the establishment with whom I was speaking finally offered his hand to shake, pulled me in close and said "well at least it WORKS FOR YOU." Yes, he was referring to what he assumed was my heritage. Yes, I was offended, because I couldn't understand why he felt there was an actual NEED to determine whether or not I was deserving of polite interaction (and frankly service in his diner) in the first place. I didn't care about his skin color, but he certainly felt he needed to make a few decisions based on MINE.

Thankfully throughout my life I have had family members, friends, and teachers who have encouraged me to "keep the best and toss the crap" of my life's experiences. I prefer duck soup (made on the beach in Barrow during Naluqatak) over muktuk, "real" enchiladas over Mrs. Stouffer's, and pâté over okra any day! While a fluent English speaker, I enjoy expanding my vocabulary with conversational phrases, expressions and vocabulary from other languages. Perhaps someday I'll be fluent in either French or Spanish, though I have little hope of speaking Inupiaq as long as I'm away from Alaska. Sign language also comes in handy, pardon the pun. I have an eclectic taste when it comes to my preferences for home decor, fashion, literature, music and hobbies. I can make a parka, mouton mittens, and sew a fur ruff to finish it all off, and enjoy counted cross stitch and crocheting. A wonderful teacher in high school taught me how to make wonton- she was Chinese, while my German friends have vowed to teach me how to make sauerkraut one of these days.

I am aware that I am more likely to have problems with alcohol abuse and diabetes because of BOTH my native and non-native heritages, but my crooked teeth come from my father's side of the family, and my penchant for sparkely jewelry from my mother's. I don't care to go fishing, but certainly love my Aaka's smoked salmon and her deep-fried halibut bites with salmonberry jam. I'm no hunter, but can make a mean moose pot pie thanks to my mother. I like theater but not opera, and the rhythm of the Barrow Dance Team's drums is a sound (and feeling) I've missed for the last five years. Mariachi music makes Mexican food taste better, if that's possible.

I will admit that my mother's family would probably feel more comfortable in my home than my father's. We live different lifestyles. We have different tastes. We have different philosophies and beliefs. And it's okay. To me. And there's the problem. Diversity is okay to people who aren't threatened by it, to those people who are selective in their preferences without having fear or cruelty dictate their tastes, whose intentions are kind, inquisitive, or at the very least, polite. I haven't met too many people who fit that description. Not in neighborhoods, not in churches, not in restaurants, and unfortunately, not even in schools.


  1. Anonymous5:32 PM

    Hi Michaele,

    I was so struck while reading your post, because I have so many paralelle experiences growing up. My father is Inupiaq, and lives in Anchorage. My mother is 'Cacasian' - and that really means that her family is Eastern European Jewish in origin. My parents divorced when I was four, and my father stayed in Alaska, and my mother returned to her home town of Kansas City, Mo. I have grown up in four different ares of the mid-west, and now live in a suburb outside of Chicago. I've ALSO experienced that 'What are you?' question my entire life. When I tell people, many expect me to be a historical and cultural expert on the Inuit. I have little to offer them as I grew up primarily with my mom and identify mainly as being 'culturally Jewish'. I came across your post online because I was searching for ideas on Inuit based preschool crafts, as I have been asked to organize a craft for our preschool's 'Family Day' at the end of this month, a day where everyone is supposed to celebrate their culture. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I have experienced MANY of the same things that you stated - my mom was always asked if she adopted me, if I was from Vietnam, etc. Later on while at an Alaskan Summer Day Camp I was made fun of by other kids for being have 'Gussak' or something, for not being 'pure-blooded'. I've NEVER felt like I fit into anyone's expectations of me, on so many levels, and alot of that feeling stems from this issue, I think. I always refer to it as feeling like the displaced Eskimo.
    Thanks for your post!
    Take Care,
    Jenny S.

  2. You're very welcome Jenny, and thanks for reading! The easiest answer I've created over the years when I'm faced with meeting a person, or group of people, who believe they can capture who I am or what I'm like simply by plugging me into one of their cultural stereotypes is this: "While I'm flattered by your interest, the easiest way to sum up my background, heritage, and belief system is this: I am the round peg that no matter how hard you try, will never fit into your square hole. Ever." Followed quickly by a smile! :) Feel free to borrow the line if you ever need to make someone stop and think for a moment.


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!