I had a conversation today with a Native American friend of mine which illuminated the idea that oppressive constraints of identity are not limited to gender or sexuality. This wasn’t news by any means, but the parallels between our experiences was incredible and definitely worth sharing.
He told me how he had wanted to buy me a Batman ribbon for my birthday but that the ribbons were divided up between those for boys and those for girls. He didn’t want to get me the boys’ ribbon because he didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want to get me the girls’ ribbon because he knows I “hate pink”. I explained that I didn’t hate pink, but it ticks me off when marketing companies gender products. A thing does not need to be gendered. A boy should be able to wear the pink ribbon just as easily as the girl should be able to wear the blue. Items of clothing don’t have gender, so why do we assign the labels of “boys’ clothes” and “girls’ clothes”? I continued that it’s all just a way to enforce heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.
He began to talk about how frustrating being put into a box is. He made the point that if he listens to country music, for instance, people will come up to him and say “What are you listening to that for? That music’s not for you.” It’s as if his dark skin and traditional choices in dress and appearance are rigid markers of identity. Native Americans don’t listen to country music, what he is trying to do? He said that when he used to wear his long hair pulled back in a pony tail (instead of the double braids he wears now) people would ask him “why are you trying to look like a Chinese man?” And I know these were not the only stories, though these were the ones he decided to tell.
It reminds me of standardized tests: you check a nice little box next to your gender, your race and your religion. You are then wrapped, and shipped off to belong to someone else’s perception of your gender, your race and your religion. You suddenly represent what your identity markers say you should act like, talk like, or enjoy. You either fit the mold and perpetuate stereotypes or become an outlier to critique.
It can seem like there is no way to win when the world holds up a checklist and controls the pencil saying “yes, you’re a woman so you must be…” and “no, you’re not black, so you can’t be…” or “you’re transgender that means…”
Boxes are more than the over used figure of speech. They’re a real concept that damages people of every identity and are always oppressing with preconceived notions of who you should be by someone else’s definition. Gender and sexuality are not the only means of oppression.