Since last week, talk of condemning root beer-disdaining sorority girls and minority-only student groups has awakened some latent questions I have regarding identity. Not to reminisce of the olden days of Intro Philosophy, but who is anyone? And more importantly, what does society view you as?
I will step up as the first sacrificial lamb. To the average seeing human, I am black, tall, and I am male. Look at my name and you may infer that I am Muslim, at least by birth. Synapses fire, schemas and stereotypes load and perceptions form.
So you go to the University? Basketball or football?
Those were the two choices I was given. It didn’t matter whether I was in Ann Arbor or New York, ignorance is a uniting thread. And of course, the answer depends on the mood. “Football, I’m number one, check for me, but not last week.” Or, “I just got the ping-pong scholarship this year.”
The hoopla over the Muslim name was a 9/11 thing. “Yo Hussain, you heard what happened? Oh shit, your name is Hussain, you’re Muslim and all that shit right, what do you think?” Dirty looks ensue and retardation multiplies. Share the name, share the brain. No room for individuation. I think whatever you want.
The basest manner in which I have heard this question phrased is, “What are you?” As some sort of alien inquisition, you are then expected to identify yourself in way that best placates fears of invasion. Just tell us what you are, so we can label you and feel at ease. I am a middle-class, heterosexual American, but more specifically, I am form New York and better yet, Brooklyn, if that tells you anything more about me. People of ambiguous ethnicity know this the best. Life is simpler (for others) when you simply pick a team and stay on it. And this most clearly applies here at the mighty University. From the first week, you are asked to pick your brand of indoctrination, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with student organizations, they can be outlets for interests (I am obviously a willing part of the Daily) the problem arises when your mentality and beliefs become nothing more than the brochure for your student group or your race. If I ask several questions and break down your entire thought process, things are not good. While I am not na�ve enough to believe that the group itself is what causes this brand in exclusivity, as you don’t need a named group with school funding to alienate people, but having a cool acronym like Kool Kids Kollective and lots of pride doesn’t hurt the idea of isolating others much either.
With people here, specifically at the University and in the world at large, the dissent from group thought that is the heart of progress is extremely precious and rare. What you do hear is the common cry by any categorized group is that “By Gosh, we are all not like that! Some of us hug kittens, help old people cross the street and give sandwiches to homeless people.” And while said activities are nice and make an individual feel good, they do little to allay the group’s reputation. Reputations come from actual places, observations, occurrences and events and are not purely malevolent stereotypes.
I belong to two of the currently most maligned and negatively perceived groups in this country. My name and my skin attach me irreversibly to both regardless of my degree of affiliation. But there comes a point when you cannot wonder why people hold certain beliefs. Self-accountability, and even better group accountability, are imperative for honest reflexive evaluations. You can’t join a group with a certain character to it and be surprised when you are perceived as such. “Just because I’m on the track team doesn’t mean I’m fast”… etc.
The ease at which people are herded into groupthink and ideological thinking is perhaps, why I am so averse to aligning myself to close to any one thing. And the even greater ease at which people fight to deem themselves individuals in spite of facts and surroundings displays the power of these groups.
What are you? Why don’t you really want a root beer?
Rahim can be reached at email@example.com.