What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors.” - James Baldwin
Recently a new acquaintance in Boston told me I was “a white collar guy with a blue collar personality.” She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such. When people see me walking down the street in this city, I’m not sure what they think, but wearing my black leather motorcycle jacket, black t-shirt, jeans, and black boots, in my mind at least, I’m the Tony Manero character played by John Travolta in the film, Saturday Night Fever. And therein lies the rub – I may think of myself as a White working-class guy and enact as such through my apparel choices, body gestures, and the occasional linguistic indexicality in certain contexts; for example, “fuck you, buddy!”, but is it received as such in US society? Now one may ask, what’s the problem? So what if you are? If only it were this simple, but of course in any society, it rarely is, if ever.
And therein lies the rub – I may think of myself as a White working-class guy and enact as such, but is it received as such in US society?
I was born and raised in a White working-class neighborhood in the borough of Queens, New York City. My immediate neighbors were cops, teachers, garment salesmen, and Holocaust survivors. The kids I played with on my street were named Laura, Florence, Steve, Patrick, and Yves. I went to Public School 152 and since this was the era of busing – the state’s attempt to integrate public schools since many neighborhoods in New York were (and still are) mainly segregated along racial and social class lines – my classmates were from many backgrounds. I once asked a Black classmate where she lived, and she replied, “The Bronx” (another borough in the City). I replied, “Wow!”, not fully understanding why she had to commute to school from such a relatively long distance. I don’t ever remember hearing one racial slur on the school’s playground or hallways. It seemed then we just judged each other on how cool we were – if you liked the Stones or the Beatles, that was a start, but Sonny and Cher, forget it.
This all changed when my family moved to a small suburban town on Long Island, 80 km from Manhattan. This was in the late 1960s, but the town seemed to be about 20 years behind the City. Since I was accustomed to wearing a tie to school – this was the practice for many male students in NYC public schools back then – I wore one my first day of class in my new school. To my amazement, all my male classmates were wearing t-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers. And they were all White. During lunch recess that day, I received a welcome reception from about 15 boys on the playground. They approached me and formed a circle, and started singing in unison, “Chinese, Japanese, slanty eyes, dirty knees! Go back to China or Japan, you Chink!” I was stunned because it was the first time I had ever heard that word.
My maternal grandparents emigrated from the Canton province of southern China for New York City in the 1920s, and my father left a few years later from the same province to immigrate to New York as a young boy with his father. He grew up in East Harlem and one of his classmates was Harry Belafonte. During his final year in high school, after finally paying off his by-then deceased father’s gambling debts, he quit and joined the US Army at the tail end of World War Two, serving for two years as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division. When he passed away over four years ago, the US Army sent two soldiers to play “taps” at his burial – a bugle call to commemorate military veterans at their funerals. When they finished, they handed me the US flag, folded in the military’s traditional tri-corner style.
They approached me and formed a circle, and started singing in unison, “Chinese, Japanese, slanty eyes, dirty knees! Go back to China or Japan, you Chink!
My father was a proud American and proud of serving his country in the Army. He displayed the US flag on his car window, and when we went to sports events, he stood at attention with his hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem. Last summer, I went to a baseball game in Los Angeles with a good friend. This was about a month before Black athletes started taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustices. When the anthem at Dodger Stadium started, I immediately stood up. My friend continued to sit. I turned and told him to get up, and he reluctantly did but refused to put his hand over his heart. He asked me why I put mine over my heart, given my politics, which he shares. I told him that my whole life, I felt I had to do this to show others that I was as every bit as “American” as they are. He does not feel this need because he is White.
It had not occurred to him that I might feel this way. A few months ago, we got into one of those arguments that only long-time friends can have, and he remarked something along the lines of “why are you so macho sometimes?” I replied, “Maybe because I’ve always felt the need to ‘prove’ my ‘manhood’ (I gesturally put these in scare quotes as I was saying these words to him) in this society, only because of that damn model minority discourse of Asian-Americans as being docile and submissive!” This was also a revelation to him as he admitted that he never thought of it that way. And why would he? As an identified straight White male in America, he is almost always perceived as such. Even though he and I have had almost identical upbringings in White working-class neighborhoods and schools, a common love of certain music, films, and sports, our shared habitus is often rendered null and void in the US because of my ancestry. What does this say about my lived identifications and experiences, and the presentation of my-self in everyday life (Goffman, 1959) in my country if merely my face suggests otherwise?
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.