Thursday, May 22, 2008


I keep coming back to this issue of self definition. In an earlier post of my own I questioned the label of disability and wondered if I qualified and what that would mean. Elizabeth at Screw Bronze contemplates the same issue and wonders where she fits into the "disability world". In my last post I ruminated about names and what they mean to us and how much of our self-definition is tied up in the oldest label we, as individuals, have. In her blog, Wheelchair Dancer writes about fitness and our views of what being fit is both for able bodied and disabled people; read the comments left to her post, I found them very interesting.

Here in Toronto they are going ahead with the creation of the province's (and I think the country's) first "Afrocentric" school. This is a complex issue and I have no desire to really delve into the details of whether this concept is going to be effective in addressing the issue of the high drop-out rate of black students in the city. Still, Collette works for this board, she has worked with kids for over twenty years, so obviously this is an issue that floats around this house quite often. What interests me is the viewpoint expressed by some of the people behind this endeavour, that too many black youth do not have a strong sense of their identity, of their heritage, that they are lost in a society that does not reflect them. I can't speak personally to this issue; I have never really been a part of a racial minority (though I remember when living in Quebec, before my language skills improved of often feeling "left out" even when I knew it was not intentional, the people around me did not share my language and I did not share theirs, it was a linguistic impasse) so I can't really say if these feelings are legitimate.

I have, however, felt like a minority in my life, like an outsider. I grew up in a large single parent family and we were poor. I mean, at some points, really poor. When we lived in Odessa Ontario I remember going with my mother to some neighbour's water pump, filling a bucket up, and carrying it back to our house. I remember, later, in Kingston, living in a house when we could not afford heat. Ma and I once again were fetching back a pail (this time filled with furnace oil) and also huddling under blankets with my sibs because we had no oil at all. As a kid in school I wore hand me downs or clothes donated by the Children's Aid Society. I vividly recall getting a coat for Christmas from some charity that was a girl's coat; wearing that to school was like a badge of my poverty and it left no doubt that I belonged to a different social strata from other kids, that I was an outsider.

As time went on, the financial lode lessened a little (other sibs got older and moved out so it meant there was a bit more money to spread around) but the division that money created between myself and others never went away. School trips, school supplies, clothing ... I always lagged behind everyone else; as I got older I could rationalize this, I knew my mother was doing all she could and I could feel good about it but my badge was often recognized by others and pointed out to me, so there was no escaping it. So that was my label: The Poor Kid. I could see everyone else's label as well: The Gay Kid, The Fat Kid, The Black Kid, The Weak Kid, The Stupid Kid ... Where do these labels come from? Who is handing out the badges?

In school, there is no doubt that kids labels to other kids. Kids crave acceptance and it seems the easiest way to achieve that, is to apply categories .. I'm a jock, you're a nerd, she's a Barbie, he's a Goth, she's black, he's Muslim .... Some of these labels are ones we carry from day one, from our birth, from our families and backgrounds. You are black (or Jewish, or Muslim, or Native or Italian, or Irish ...) that's it, its what you are but that only seems to become important when you are among others who are not. In reading about the Afrocentric school I came across a story by a now mature black woman who, as a recently immigrated child, went to her new Toronto school and found herself surrounded by white faces; she wrote about being "frightened" in this situation. Where did this fear come from? From the white kids? From herself? From the uniqueness of the situation; coming from a place where everyone was the same, where everyone is like you, to a world where you are now different from those around you.

These labels of race and religion and culture, these badges we are born with, are given to us by our history, our geographical location, by our parents and our ancestry. And they are often reinforced by the same. Toronto has a Catholic school board and it has private schools for Jews and Muslims and now a public school for Afro Canadians ... so people learn about their labels, they are clearly encouraged to wear their badge for all the world to see. You could call this cultural pride, you could also call this self imposed segregation. In designing an Afrocentric school, are you reinforcing a culture, or are you just separating yourself?

Honestly, these issues of culture and race and religion, though important, do not hold a personal interest for me. What I think more about is the issue of self-labelling, of self actualization I guess. Who are we? How do we view ourselves? When I questioned whether I was disabled it was because I don't see myself that way but do others. And if so, does this exterior viewpoint alter my own personal reality. The woman who came here as a child from the West Indies may never have thought of herself as black until she was surrounded by white people, then it became an issue.

The TD Bank are running a couple of TV spots that have me thinking. The ads feature a couple of old timers, sitting outside the bank, bemoaning the fact that everything has become too convenient and how banks never catered to our needs before; whatever. What interests me about these ads is the background. There are a couple versions of the spot and in each of them, as the old dudes are bitching, we see a woman in a wheelchair whizzing by. Different woman in each ad. What I found interesting was, when we see a close up of the bank, there is no ramp ... there is clearly a steep concrete step. So now we know why the women are zipping past the bank .. they can't get inside it.

So, the woman in the wheelchair may want to label herself as "just a woman" but every time she hits that stair or that tiny bathroom, she is given back the label of "woman in a wheelchair" or "disabled". The black kid in school may want to be "the kid in school" but then he is given the label of "Afro Canadian" or "student of the black school" and he becomes something else.

I am a guy, into my fifth decade, married for 25 years, owner of my own tiny business, never in any serious trouble with the law ... but I have long hair, a beard, ear ring and a tattoo. I really don't think much about these attributes. I've had the hair most of my life (think about the name of the blog, let the light bulb come on [I have a hairy dog too]) and the ear ring and tatt have been around for a while too. And it surprises me when they get a reaction, both from individuals and institutions. I had a problem with my bank card a few years back, it got eaten by the machine or something so I went to a local branch of the Royal Bank up in Vaughn where I was working at the time. It was summer, edit suites are hot, so I was wearing shorts and a tank top and the people at that branch were treating me as if they had just seen me on America's Most Wanted. I have been a customer of the Royal Bank for over 30 years, I've paid off two student loans with them but because of my physical appearance I was given a label: Scruffy Dude Not To Be Trusted. Now, I often describe myself as an old hippie, but I never associated that label with something negative; my label conflicted with their badge.

To be human is to have an identity. As we go on, that identity morphs, evolves, changes. Very often there is a conflict between our own sense of identity, and the labels that others places upon us. It gets tricky when you are trying to figure out who you are, you may want a label, to sort of fix it in your own mind; but our inner monologues may be written in a language that others cannot easily read. So our label is misinterpreted and when we look down and see all the various labels we wear we often see a bunch we never put there ourselves. That is our challenge, identifying the labels, no matter from whence they came, polishing them, changing them, positioning them so the "right" ones are more prominently displayed.

For me, what I coming to see, is that what we really need is some readily available blank labels, placed high, for all to see. Have your pen handy, to scribble in the definition that suits you at the moment but understand that others have access to your labels as well; so carry a spare Sharpie and don't be afraid to lend it out. Let them scribble, read their label, try to understand what it means.

Just make sure yours is written in a bolder hand.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Oops, I think I put part of the "hairy" comment on the one below. I think having an "identity" is important - I just lost a very good night care giver because she was tired of being the only black woman on the buses, the only black woman walking the streets in the neighborhood (Victoria is the least ethnically diverse major city in Canada). She got tired of being alone.

I remember a documentary about the plight of black Canadian males who were at US colleges recruited for basketball and who felt even MORE alone becuase it was "assumed" they were the same 'type of black' as the other students who would be from detroit or Boston. They were saying, "I miss my music, I miss my food, I miss my culture and I miss that no one can see who I am; I go visit my grandparents in Trinidad and here people are flashing gangster hand signals at me, that is not who I am!"

There is a documentary called, I am a dream about a US city which tried to deal with the drop out rate of black students and might be interesting viewing. Considering that a) bias DOES exist in this world and b) the LGBT school in Toronto turned dropouts into happy pupils, I think is sort of makes sense that in a society in which you do not see yourself on TV, do not see yourself in politics or in much of what is considered important in society, then yes.

I found for myself that as a writer, or part of cultural story, to find myself IN art, in social storytelling like TV was important - and there were female swordfighters (no Xena jokes please!), but when I went to a wheelchair it was like I disappeared, where is the Wheelchair Bones? Where is someone like me? Part of the feeling of disappearing wasn't just becoming housebound, being seen as unemployable, but being unable to see myself or aspects of myself reflected in popular culture. When I know all the females in a 150 mile radius who use manual chairs, that's kind of odd, yeah. I mean, in the Ultimate guide to Victoria I AM the "wheelchair girl" who is also the "goth girl" - I am the reflection in society of females in wheelchairs - so who do I look to?

Yeah, I thought we were poor growing up, becuase I remember finally BUYING my own shoes after saving my money. Our entertainment was to go as a family and watch the laundry go around in the dryer once a week (I'm not kidding) or get a cone and then "family share it" with everyone getting a lick in turn, including parents. But I never thought I was poor until later when I realized as a teen I had never had clothes not from like Goodwill where my mother volunteered to get them for free.

As for what I was labelled at school - well, they used to say "Some people follow a beat of a different drum, she seems to be following an entirely different BAND!"

Victor Kellar said...

Elizabeth, I'm glad you brought up the LGBT school here (well, you would, wouldn't you?) Collette holds that program in very high regard and placed students there. One of the students she placed was identified as "straight" but because of her tempermant could not find find acceptance anywhere else; he thrived there. If the Afrocentric schoold is as successfu, then I am all for it; it is a wait and see issue. I just recall one of the proponents of that school saying "If the faggots can have a school, then black kids can have a school" Let's hope that is not the pevailing attitude.

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