Thursday, February 21, 2013

Growing up looking ethnically different, some recollections

With the ethnicity in question being Italian, along with some Eastern European. Going to have to compose something that goes into this in detail, because while it does not, and never will, compete with the discrimination that other groups experience growing up in America, it's still not chopped liver. My experience was that there definitely was a different standard that people who had darker skin and high cheekbones were measured by, by the greater white community, than others, along with exclusion and suspicion. When that is combined with poverty, it's amplified, and, ironically, when a person refuses to stay in an ethnic stereotype established for them but instead tries to participate in alternative culture like any other American, hostility increases. Growing up I was both poor and then well off growing up, and in the well off phase, because I was first a hippy then a sort of alternative culture weirdo, I was perceived by some as being arrogant and flaunting "it", whatever "it" was.

This was not eased any by the fact that for a long time the identity of one of my parents was hidden from me, so that as a kid I mostly grew up thinking that I was a normal American from the dominant, roughly "Anglo", ethnicity. I didn't understand why it was that some people had a different reaction to me, for seemingly no reason, than others. It wasn't apparent why I felt more at home at the Catechism class at my local Catholic Church than, say, at a Cub Scouts meeting. In fact, the Cub Scouts, who I applied to when I was poor, tried to keep me out on the basis that I joined part way through the year and hadn't completed a tomahawk project. The Den Mother's house was located in a much richer, whiter, section of town than where I lived. My mom, who I lived with, was working a job just above minimum wage at the time.

All of this was not helped during puberty when my appearance started to visibly change to be even more ethnic. I remember looking at a school photo from when I was twelve and thinking that the person there looked more Hispanic than they looked like me, and that they didn't fit my self concept at all.

It wasn't helped either when I moved from a largish small town to a small small town, further up in the country, where they reacted to me in a highly amplified way. There were other folks, not many, but some, who were rebels, but despite actually not doing many things that were really bad, I caught much more attention than they did. There was also an undercurrent of sexual insinuation to the hostility, that was ironic considering that before becoming a rebel I was a computer nerd, very shy, and raised by a feminist mother who taught me to be very respectful to women. That especially hurt, and it's not forgotten. Sexual stigmata, in this case of a lusty Italian, is something that our society has used as a weapon from the days of slavery on up.

All of this made me excessively self critical. I couldn't figure out why people were treating me different. Was I really messed up? Was there something that I was doing that really was worse, in terms of juvenile delinquency, than what my comrades were doing? It took a long time, and much introspection, to figure out that how I was behaving wasn't that outside of the norm, but that it was them, not me, that was the problem. 

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