Our question for today: How much of you belongs to you?
I'm moved to ask this by one of the students in my writing class. The assignment was to compose and read aloud an essay describing themselves and their lives. The piece this student wrote was about how confusing and painful it is to have people pigeonhole you just because you're black. It's difficult, wrote this 14-year-old, to have others always expect you to operate, be confined by, or bend your behavior to their expectations.
What was intriguing is that the people the child was complaining about were not white, but black.
It seems my student gets a lot of grief for speaking standard English, singing the songs of a white pop group and cultivating a rainbow coalition of friends. Some black folks in the kid's immediate circle have responded with the harshest epithet they can muster. They call the child . . . "white."
If this were a movie, this is the spot where you'd hear scary music and a shriek of unadulterated horror.
If you're a member of a minority -- racial, sexual, cultural, religious -- there's a good chance you already understand what's going on here. If not, I can only refer you to that opening question: How much of you belongs to you? You may think the answer is self-evident. Truth is, it's anything but.
The life of the American minority group is governed by a deceptively simple equation -- oppression from without creates cohesion from within. People who find themselves besieged because of their sexual orientation, skin color, culture or way of approaching God tend to draw together with similar others. They circle the wagons, raise the drawbridge, close the gates and make of themselves a community -- a people.
It can be a soul-saving thing, belonging to a people. You love them unreservedly for providing you an emotional home, for instilling in you a sense of worth, for giving voice to your aspirations. Most of all, you love them for standing up on your behalf when the world comes calling with reproach and accusation.
A soul-saving thing, yes. But you find, not infrequently, that you are expected to pay for this wonderful gift at the cost of bits and pieces of your own individuality. When you belong to a people, when you are born into this association that exists on a basis of mutual defense, of watching the world from a bunker and waiting for the next attack, it's easy to lose your very self to them. So easy to become the group.
Small wonder. The group enforces its cohesion strictly. Its members are discouraged from doing, saying or thinking that which does not reflect the consensus of the whole. Sometimes, one is discouraged from even associating with members of the "enemy" camp. And there's a heavy penalty for transgression: One is cast out, ostracized.
As in a colleague I once had who told me his people constantly criticized his work. Their complaint? He was "not Cuban enough."
It's a charge that finds its echo across the American demographic. Not lesbian enough. Not Jewish enough. Not black enough. The unstated irony is that all these peoples who plead for tolerance of difference sometimes have so little tolerance for the differences within their own ranks.
So sometimes, yes, a person wonders: How much of you belongs to you? Where's the point beyond which fealty to the group becomes a compromise of self?
I wish I'd had an easy answer for my student, but of course, I did not. I did tell the kid this: What you are should never be the sole determinant of who you are. You have the right to your own taste in music, your own choice of friends, your own self. These are your prerogatives, no one else's. Otherwise, what's the point?
Someday, I hope my student will learn. That you have to honor what you belong to, yes. But you must also protect the things that belong to you.