Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.
But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.
In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.
I was reading an old blog post the other day about the whole “it’s rude to ask what someone does for a living in Europe” thing, and I got to thinking about the difference between class/family background and income/occupation/career. It is true that what you do is a pretty common way to identify oneself right off the bat here in the US, but what’s the alternative? The most obvious one I could come up with is where you come from–hometown, family name, background. The difference between those two identities, of course, is that one is dealing with class and upbringing (which you can’t control) and the other is dealing with income and occupation (which you, supposedly, can).
Part of our American individual responsibility rhetoric is the idea that it’s only up to us whether we succeed or fail in our careers. Supposedly, occupation should be a more egalitarian way to define oneself, rather than speaking directly about class or family ties. But is that really the case? Personally, I feel a pressure around the occupation question, because I grew up in a middle to lower middle class family in the South, did very well in school, and was expected to far exceed my parents’ incomes. I am more educated than any of my family members, and live in a large urban area in a more affluent part of the country now. However, I make far less money than expected, and I find myself defining myself more by what I want to do than by what I am when someone asks about career. I often define myself as a blogger, writer, and activist, obscuring my full-time paying job. Sometimes I say that I work in the “non-profit” sector, but rarely mention my job title, because it’s more a means than an end.
I do wonder if the tendency to identify ourselves by our careers contributes far more to stress than some people realize. How many of us use an aspirational definition of what we are, or speak about our education rather than our job, or our sector rather than our occupation? How many feel ashamed by a job description? I do think that there is a tendency to see what we do as a direct reflection on our job skills and what we have to offer as professional people, rather than an accident of circumstance, what was available in this economy when we applied, or what we grew into as we went from job to job. I don’t necessarily think that defining ourselves by class is any better, but I do wonder what the attendant pressure of that definition would be.