Shifting Boundaries: Embracing the Contradictions of Selving and Identity

Erin Kennedy

Writer’s comment: My education has allowed for development of a framework for reflexive analysis that takes into consideration the intersection of race, class, and gender as well as the specific cultural contexts that influence and perpetuate inequality within our society. Feminist theory in particular has provided me with the tools necessary for comprehending the world in which we live. Because I have been able to ruminate about the myriad ways in which our positionalities shape our lives, I am more readily able to assess the events of my own life. The people who surround us influence to a great extent our understandings of the world. This paper is an exploration of my own experiences with my family and the ways in which I have navigated the course of my life.
—Erin Kennedy

Instructor’s comment: This essay by Erin is the culminating assignment for Anthropology 128B, “Self, Identity, and Family.” The course is essentially an exploration of the ways that cultural ideologies and social structures shape our sense of selfhood, especially in relation to race, class, gender, and sexuality as they are learned and manifested through our families. Erin does an excellent job of integrating all of these aspects of selfhood into an insightful reflection on her own life. In her account she is able to relate her experiences in a way that is at once very personal, revealing the depth of the emotional impact, and analytical, revealing the degree to which she has been able to step back from those experiences and understand how they fit into the larger socio-cultural context of power and resistance within which she was raised. Her conclusion that our lives and destinies are not merely a matter of individual choice at the same time that they are not completely determined by society is nicely illustrated through her narrative.
—Sarah England, Department of Anthropology

Writing produces anxiety. Looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflict engenders anxiety in me

—Gloria Anzaldua

         Gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability are taught to us through varied means, including, but not limited to, education, media, the family, and religion. Through our individual understandings of what we learn, we engage in processes of mental and physical praxis. In her book Mema’s House, Annick Prieur writes “learning is basically a learning of different social scripts.” (127). She believes that we are products of the society in which we are raised, but that we also maneuver the boundaries that surround us. Right now I am engaged in a project that has led me to question the role of my family in my life and the lives of others with whom I interact on a daily basis. Two of the questions I have asked of myself are: How are my actions and thoughts connected to my identity? How is what I do and say interpreted by other people? These questions directly and indirectly apply to the subject positions that I assume in my everyday life. What it means for me to be an abled, white, working-class, heterosexual woman in our society is the question that I will attempt to answer in this paper. In order to do so, I will discuss the ways in which my life experiences have helped shape my identity. I argue that cultural ideologies have had an impact on my sense of self, my actions in relation to other people, and ultimately my worldview.
         Because of the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability in my life, my experiences have been varied, complex, and often difficult. I did not follow the traditional route in my pursuit of an education—I dropped out of high school to work and support myself at the age of fifteen, then returned to school the year of my twenty-first birthday—in part because of the choices I made, but also because of the circumstances of my life and others’ lives around me. Through this and other experiences, I have come to recognize the power of ideology and intersubjectivity in my own life and in the lives of others around me. As Dorinne Kondo writes in her book Crafting Selves, “Identity is not a fixed ‘thing,’ it is negotiated, open, shifting, ambiguous, the result of culturally available meanings and the open-ended, power-laden enactments of those meanings in everyday situations” (24). Thus, each person’s identity changes throughout time, as that person maintains an active relationship with her surroundings. And, because of the complicated interactions between identity, self, and other, relationships are always about power.
         When growing up in a poor household you can sometimes forget that you do not have the advantages that others do. As soon as you leave that environment there is no escaping the fact that you are in a lower socio-economic class. At school there are pressures to conform and the desire to be accepted. Having to work to pay for your own education cuts into the time that allows participation in the activities that your peers are enjoying. More than anything else, I identify with my class status. I do not remember a time in my life that I was unaware of the significance of social stratification. Somehow I knew there was something wrong with the distribution of power in our society, even before I had the vocabulary to explain my views on inequality. Although my family did not talk about class in the ways that I do now, money was always discussed, mainly because we never had enough. All of my friends had new clothes, new toys, new bunk beds. I had hand-me-downs from my cousins, both toys and clothes, and did not get a new bed until I was on my own and paid for it myself. Other people took vacations and piano lessons while I babysat my brother and sisters because both of my parents had to work two jobs.
         The ideology of the American Dream has been a nightmare for me. This ideological construct has meant that I am not good enough, that my family is not good enough, that we have not measured up to society’s expectation of us. An integral aspect of the ideology of the American Dream is that everyone can accomplish their goals if they just work hard enough, marry the right person, and have the right kind of family. This ideology maintains the false belief that poverty, divorce, addiction, and numerous other social ills are individual problems rather than issues of the state, allowing corporations and the government to ignore the working poor. One author argues that in the United States increasing technology and competition for jobs created a need for educated workers (Fine, 234). The ability to pay less to non-whites and women made them more valuable to employers, allowing for higher profit margins. Poor whites generally did not fit into this class position; their low education levels and requirement of higher pay further lowered their status in the job market. This was certainly true for my family—my mother and father had barely finished high school before they chose to start a family. My mom was a waitress—in those days they were not food servers, particularly in the diners that she worked at—and was often the only one bringing any money home. My dad was a cook, a cocaine addict and an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time, coming back with presents to console my mom.
         Our class status was not acceptable in my neighborhood, or in the larger family network in which I had been raised. Becoming class conscious at an early age, I always dreamed that I would get out of the cycle that my parents had fallen into themselves. I did not realize then that the “cycle” was not an individual problem, but a social problem that has been both ignored and perpetuated. American notions of individualism and consumerism do not allow society to be blamed for the lives of people who grow up lacking both economic and cultural capital. All I knew was that I was somehow abnormal, unable to fulfill the needs of a capitalist society with the meager paychecks that supported our household.
         The class position of my family had several different impacts on my identity. In the family that I grew up with I was told that I needed to go to college, to work hard. I needed to somehow work harder than my parents, to accomplish goals that they had not. This kind of information was and is problematic for me, both because I followed in their path as a restaurant worker for almost ten years before going back to school and because after I started going to college I felt that I had become disconnected from my parents and my siblings. I am forced to maneuver between the disparate worlds of my parents and my siblings and the educational system. As I find myself learning new ways of being, new ways of identifying, I am forced to separate myself from the family that I grew up in and develop alliances with others who share similar experiences.
         Still, I must live in a society in which capitalist values reign. Among new people I encounter I am made aware of the pervasive disregard of social issues existing in our culture. Because consumer culture serves to blind the public from the realities of inequalities in the system, getting caught up in the latest fad or using alcohol and drugs is often enough to occupy the minds of many people who feel disenfranchised by society. The availability of alcohol and drugs in low-income areas is not a mistake; although it is documented more in studies of African-Americans in the United States, it occurs in most low-income communities. Elites maintain their status by creating addictions to items of consumption. For the poor white the inability to transcend oppression is often masked by the ability to consume material items as well as alcohol and drugs, diverting their attention from issues in society. I started working in restaurants full time at fifteen. It was also about that time that I started to use drugs to escape my feelings of inferiority. My mom had left my dad three years earlier and it was not too much later that I was kicked out of the new apartment by her new boyfriend. Finding myself alone, I moved from house to house relying on other families’ generosity. I soon moved in with Brady, an older man whom I had met at a party, because I found that we had much in common.
         Both of us had experienced being poor and white in a society that ignores our presence. Brady found it impossible to keep a job and took out his anger and aggression on me, meanwhile making sure that we had enough alcohol and drugs to ensure our mutual avoidance of the anger and hurt that we both felt. I found it impossible to leave because I felt that I did not have anywhere to go. It was at this point that I recognized the combined impact of gender in relation to class status. I was able to look back at my own childhood and see the ways that my mother was affected by being a lower class woman with a family of four children. There was two years’ difference between me and my sister, and four and six years between my other sister and my brother. My mother had been married twice by the time I turned six, and by the time I turned twelve she was divorcing the man that I still call “Dad.”
         The heteronormative nuclear family model that I had been socialized to accept as normal and natural had failed both my mother and myself. I began to doubt the hegemonic notion that all families conform to this ideal and soon came to the realization that cultural ideals of the family are problematic for most people in the United States. Those who do not conform to the white, middle-class, nuclear family model are often marked as deviant and immoral. Rebecca Walker discusses her experiences growing up as a biracial child of divorce in her book Black, White, and Jewish. She espouses the notion that people who do not fit the norm often find themselves turning to behaviors that are considered to be aberrant by the general public. As Walker tells the reader about her self-destructive behavior, she attempts to explain that the problems she faced were not limited to her own choices, but to the choices of those around her. She writes “It is true that in the ‘real’ world blood strikes back. For marrying a black woman, my father was disowned. For marrying a white man, my mother was called a traitor” (289). Walker is unable to separate herself from her parents because she is both a product of them and inextricably tied to them through ideologies of blood and family.
         Similarly, I cannot differentiate my own life from the lives of my parents. Their paths have had an insurmountable influence on my life and the lives of my brother and sisters. Just as Walker has had the experience of not knowing where she belonged in society, I had—and sometimes still have—the painful experience of being in an environment in which I feel I do not belong. As a child of divorce, I experienced rejection by my own family members because we were seen as inferior. The stigma of divorce was so pervasive that most of my family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—did not even try to understand the problems that my mother and father had to deal with. They believed that a woman should stay with her husband if she has children, that it was her fault if the relationship was not working. My mother was blamed for her inability to form lasting emotional attachments, a quality that is often viewed as an innate ability in women, and she was marked by our family as a social failure while my father was exempted from any kind of responsibility.
         Because our family saw my parents’ divorce as a disastrous move, my mother attempted to make up for her wrongs through her children. My mother internalized the idea that a woman should become a wife and mother first and an individual second. She also learned that a man does not have to follow the same rules. My immediate family expressed their disappointment in me for leaving Brady by remaining in touch with him. My mother got into the habit of visiting with him because she had decided that he was the one who was the victim. Her internalization of her family’s values was evident in the reaction that she had to my break-up, and my resistance to this was not taken well.
         I also internalized my family’s notion of what it means to be a woman and my first experience in a long-term relationship reflects the ways in which we are often blind to ideological constructs. At one point in the relationship, these values were brought to my attention. I had returned to school after having been out for longer than I care to remember. This choice was blamed for the already destructive relationship that I had with Brady, forcing me to acknowledge the problems in my relationship. He would not ever go to school, pay off his debts, or work towards upward mobility. Our fights became more frequent and by the time that a year of college had passed, I had resolved to get out of our relationship for good. I found an apartment with a friend from the restaurant that I still worked at and arranged to move in as soon as possible. I moved on a rainy day, one of the happiest and most liberating days of my life. I did not yet talk about the money that I had lost in our tumultuous relationship—not until he came to take the car that I had almost paid off because it was still in his name. I did not discuss the way that I felt when he forced me to buy him whatever he wanted, even though he made more money than me. I did not recall the fact that I had been paying our rent and bills, buying groceries, and cleaning the house all on my own. I did not want to become my mother, but I had come very close to repeating her experiences in my own life.
         By challenging not only my family’s wishes, but the ideologies which maintain that it is a woman’s responsibility to nurture a relationship and other people, I have proven that culture does not simply create subjects. The relationship that exists between culture and personality is a complex network of ideology, experience, power, and resistance. Our subjectivities depend not only on the ideologies that we are taught throughout our lives, but how we position ourselves in relation to those ideologies. To a certain extent we are able to be agents of our own destinies, either accepting or rejecting the teachings of our individual cultures, even though the influence that our society has on us is so extensive that it is almost impossible to differentiate where our cultures and selves are separate. My experiences have allowed me to see the ways in which I have conformed to and rebelled against the forces that surround me. For that reason I will always question what it means to be me and how I should act and react to every situation that I find myself in.

Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Fine, Michelle and Lois Weiss. The Unknown City: The Lives of Poor and Working-Class Young Adults. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Kondo, Dorinne K. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. U of Chicago, 1990.

Prieur, Annick. Mema’s House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos. U of Chicago, 1998.

Walker, Rebecca. Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. New York: Riverhead, 2001.