May 16, 2008


For a while now, I've been struggling with people thinking that they decide what to call other people. For example,

1. Who gets to decide who is an "ally?"
2. Who gets to decide what people should be called when referring to ethnicity?
3. Who gets to decide when one has moved from a stage of identity to another?

I find that people like to refer to themselves as "allies." In my circle of work, I've heard people call themselves "allies to the gay community" or "allies to people of color" or "allies to women", etc. Yet, when called to task, do these "allies" engage in the political dialogue and empowerment of the community, or do they just like posting the rainbow sticker?

In the ally development circle, one must actually be deemed an ally by the target group. I'm not talking about some formal ceremony nor a sword on the shoulder nor a crowning opportunity. Rather, I'm talking about the members of that target group actually identifying the person as someone who is "down for the cause!" Someone who not only speaks the same political language but who also walks the political journey.

"Oriental." "Black." "African American." "Hispanic." "Latino." "I don't know what to call them!!" I hear this all the time. Frustrated individuals who want to be politically correct but who are annoyed by the effort they need to make to realize that not everyone wants to be referred in the same way. When I encounter people who are so frustrated by this, I always bring up the 'common name' example. I say, take the name "Elizabeth." I have friends who want to be called "Elizabeth." I have friends who want to be called "Beth. Eliza. Liz. Betsy. and, gasp, Elizabeth." Then, there is me. Liza. I am not an Elizabeth, yet everyone tries to sound formal with me and will say, "Elizabeth Talusan!" I never answer. "Elizabeth" isn't my name. I've never answered to it. Yet, when we meet an "Elizabeth," we are quick to make the adjustment to what she wants to be called. And, we would never think to say, "This is too difficult. I'm just going to call everyone 'Elizabeth.'"

That's the same issue for me with the identity piece. There are some Caribbean Americans who do not want to be called African Americans. There are some African Americans would be offended if you called them Black. Similarly with Hispanic and Latino. While there are political reasons (and geographic ones) for calling one Hispanic vs Latino, the point is that it's NOT UP TO ME. It's up to the person to deem what he/she would like to be called.

Tied to this complexity is the the piece of race vs ethnicity. I have a student who has dark, dark brown skin (and hence, often identified by others as an African American woman) but who is Latina. And, while most will likely refer to her as Black - she corrects them with, "I'm Latina." You go, girl!

Back in 2005, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She went through her fair share of cancer treatment and an enucleation of her right eye. Depending on the situation and conversation, I sometimes refer to my daughter as a "cancer survivor" and sometimes I refer to her as "having cancer." Here's what gets me.... when I choose to use the words "having cancer", people are extremely quick to correct me and say, "No, she HAD cancer." The conversation ends there. I glare and change the subject - too furious to continue.

If I'm her mom, and I'm chosing to use the words, "she has cancer", then no one should correct me -- especially when people haven't had to go through what our family went through. And, especially because we are still completely bogged down with doctors appointments 2 years post treatment. With the loss of her eye, we are reminded, physically, every day, of her battle that still has not ended, in many ways.

I've found that these conversations have happened frequently in the past few weeks. I go back to teachings of power and privilege and ways in which we often do not recognize ways in which we impose our power and privilege (and, I'm likely using it now as I have the "power and privilege of blogging").

Food for thought.....