My Name Is Iden | Select all that are applicable
- Published: May 16, 2023
“What are you?”
A patient asked me that early in my career. They weren’t the last. I was only four years into my life as a first responder when I watched a 757 crash into the World Trade Center. After 911 that question became commonplace, as patients and public alike noted my brown skin and dark hair.
“What are you?” “Where are you from?”
“Where are your parents from?”
I took a mischievous pleasure in answering truthfully. “I’m a paramedic.”
“My dad was born in DC.”
I, of course, knew what they were asking. They wanted to know my ethnicity and, by extension, my place in the hierarchy of things different. It is a tragic truth about the state of our world that we feel compelled to categorize and place limits on one another.
I believe this particular behavior, this anxiety-driven need to know “what” a person is, is the result of living in a culture that has set its default definition of a person to white, straight, cisgender, Christian, nondisabled, non-neurodivergent male. A culture born out of a post- enlightenment, Eurocentric paradigm that has been obsolete since its inception.
A human being is a beautiful and dynamic creation, and it is well past time that we shaped our culture to reflect that. We do not need to place limitations on ourselves or each other. Now is the time to make room for all of us in all our wonderful complexity. We all deserve the freedom to be our whole selves and, in my opinion, the best place from which to launch this revolution is the humble demographic form.
The facts of my heritage are far less exotic than most imagined. I am not Egyptian, Armenian, Brazilian, or even Italian — folks do love guessing. My mom is white. My dad was Black. Both the plain old American variety, which makes me … well, it’s complicated.
My driver’s license says that I’m Black. As far as the government is concerned, that’s me. But that official stamp of identity has had little effect on the opinions of my peers. I could never count up all of the times I have heard, “You don’t sound Black,” “You don’t look black,” “You don’t act Black.”
On the other hand, I have never once been labeled white, despite having every claim to that identity. My genetics break down to exactly 50/50. I checked. My spouse is white, my neighbors are white, my co-workers and nearly all of my friends are white. Physically and culturally, I am as white as I am Black. The whole question is pointless though, because neither category fits who I truly am. I don’t identify as either Black or white. I am bi-racial, not that anyone has ever asked that.
I was blessed to have grown up in a community that was home to several multiracial families. In high school my multiracial friends and I proudly referred to ourselves as “mixed.” It was important to us that we acknowledge all of our ancestry and be allowed to express our pride in it. There were enough of us that that became an acceptable and understood way for us to identify to others. That freedom was a luxury that I came to miss after graduation.
Out in the real world I was often a minority of one. In white company, I was very aware of my Blackness; in Black company, my whiteness. And if I wanted to assert my self-identified status as bi-racial I had to be ready and willing to allow that identity to be treated as a joke.
It is a stressful thing to not be able to be one’s self. Being forced into one category meant being forced out of another when both were equally valid and true, and equally important to who I am. It was a constant invalidation of self and an ever present reminder of otherness.
My 12th-grade proficiency test was the first time I remember being allowed to mark “more than one if applicable” in the race section of an official form. It has been 26 years since I sat down to take that test. Heaven knows how many of these forms I have filled out since then. We have made progress, but not nearly enough. I am confronted regularly by binary choices and expectations when completing my paperwork. “Select one” still seems to be the preferred method of dividing, classifying and categorizing our fellow humans. I am obligated to do it for each one of my patients. “Are you a male or a female?” “Are you Hispanic or aren’t you?”
There may be real utility in gathering this information, but is it a real reflection of us as a society if we are OK setting boolean limitations on something so complex and multifaceted as a person?
It may seem silly to target paperwork for social reform, but the standards enforced via this simplified categorization extends well beyond our bureaucratic existence. We are surrounded constantly with binary messaging. One need only walk through a Target to realize that there are “men’s” clothes and “women’s” clothes, “boy” toys and “girl” toys. A stroll past the magazine section of your nearest Barnes & Noble would reveal to you such things as “Black entertainment” and “men’s interest.” Am I less of a woman if I want boxer briefs? Am I less of a man if I like cotton panties? Is it OK for me as a white person to be interested in the work of Black musicians? Is it OK for me as a Black person to not be?
We have spent far too much time excluding one another from our cultural spaces. The dominance of a single default identity has driven those of us that fall outside of that identity into smaller and smaller slots, erasing more and more of our sense of self, while simultaneously alienating those that do fit the standard.
There is no standard human. Officially allowing people the freedom to fully self-identify in the ways that are most genuine and true to their lives and experience is the first step toward truly celebrating diversity. It is the first step toward real equality, and a culture where we are united in our uniqueness.
*Iden Crockett lives in Yellow Springs with her wife and three children. She is an artist, poet, writer and habitual over-sharer. If you would like to see more of her work you can visit her website, mynameisiden.com, or follow her on Instagram and Facebook.
One Response to “My Name Is Iden | Select all that are applicable”
Shouldn’t that be “who” are you? Dang! People are just so f’n rude these days. Maybe I’m strange, but I wouldn’t even ask an extraterrestrial “what are you” and I do believe they’re out there. Heaven’s to Betsy!