Cultural Autobiography, Part II

It would seem like an easy task, one writing about one’s life and educational history and the different elements which combined to shape them. However, since being asked to discuss my life as it is constructed by some of the concepts that we have discussed in class, I am actually finding it to be more and more of a challenge. I never even gave much thought to most of these notions; some of them I heard about for the first time during this class. One thing, however, remains as clear as day; I cannot ignore the fact that these concepts did and do play a key role in the development of my identity, as well as in how I am viewed by the world. Some effects may prove to be ongoing until the day that I die. First of all, my place on Allan Johnson’s “diversity wheel,” affects the way that I am treated by society in many ways. The most dominant factor, I believe, is my gender. As a female, I am in perhaps the largest “minority” in the world. It is notable that my “minority” group actually comprises a much larger population than that of the “majority” (men), yet am placed in the role of minority member due to the overall lack of power and influence granted to my gender. My being a woman has affected me in many ways, but especially in the way that I was treated in the home by my father, beginning at a young age. My father is Middle-Eastern, and that culture devalues women far more than the American culture does. In the Middle East, it is not uncommon to see women walking yards behind their husbands, solemn and head bowed. Women’s thoughts and opinions are far from respected, and many are treated as mere servants and baby-raisers. As the daughter of an Egyptian father, my opinionated and outspoken nature was often chided at

the dinner table, and the capabilities of my mind were often relegated to the ranks that my father believed no woman could or should ever rise above. I specifically recall him treating my temporary adolescent dream of being a doctor with a hearty laugh – “You’re a girl, Sarah. Girls are nurses,” he retorted. And really, why would I have any reason to debate him on the matter? I can’t recall ever having seen a female doctor portrayed on a medical drama or in a movie, and they were definitely not spoken about half as much as men. Come to think of it, I’m having a hard time recalling where I got the idea to become a doctor in the first place. I am also, in some ways, affected by my physical capabilities. People look at my body and see an athlete- I am tall, semi-muscular, long-limbed and seemingly agile. I have been asked day in and day out by strangers if I play basketball or volleyball, to which I respond with a chuckle and a “no,” for I have never been athletically inclined. Throughout junior high and high school, I never played on a single school sports team. In the towns that I grew up in, this was considered weird. School sports were an institution in New Milford and Somers, CT – even those students who weren’t all that talented participated. While most girls were shuffling field hockey balls (if they even are balls) down the field, I was reciting lines to the latest drama club musical on stage, or belting out a solo at the chorus recital. Yes, I was a “drama nerd,” the term given to students who were passionate about the Arts. However, I believe that I was thought to be the worst kind of drama nerd- long, lean, and seemingly able, I was the drama nerd who should have been an athlete, even though it would have comprised my happiness to be one. It is also worth mentioning that, as a 5’11 female high school senior, there were not too many 5’8

boys knocking down my door with dinner invitations. Oddly enough, you can call me a victim of the ideal body type! One of the other factors outlined on the diversity wheel that has affected me greatly is my religious affiliation. I am a Jewish girl to my marrow, both culturally and religiously, but mostly culturally. I did not become aware that my religion was a minority until I moved from New Milford, a town with a Jewish population so large that there was no school on the religious holidays, to Somers, where everyone knew the names of the two Jewish students in town because, well, there were only two of them. When Biblical references were made in classes such as English and Social Studies, I recall having to ask my teachers to clarify them, as I was Jewish and had a weak understanding of the Bible. Perhaps it was on one such occasion that I heard the rhetorical question “You’re Jewish?” for the first time. It wasn’t so much the question, but the tone that gave me that first sense of being the “odd man out.” Suddenly, I was a token- a “token” Jew. I don’t suppose it was often meant offensively, but even teachers would single me out when Jewish issues were discussed, asking questions to which I did not know the answers and demanding of me that I speak about my religion, which I have always considered to be deeply personal. I was a point of reference, and while I am sure that no one could tell you what religions the kids who sat next to me, behind me, on the other side of the room from me were, no one ever forgot that I was Jewish. I can’t recall ever being discriminated against for it, unless you count the occasional good-natured “jew” joke, which I took in stride because I told them myself all the time. However, the implication of being Jewish didn’t need a positive or negative connotation – it was simply that I knew that I wasn’t like most people

that mattered. After all, Christians have Christmas songs aplenty, and all Jews have for Hanukkah are three joke-filled tunes by Jewish actor and musician Adam Sandler. Remarkably, none of the factors which I have discussed seem to have affected my social capital, and I can think of one reason which I believe is solely responsible for this. Although I do have a heritage which is, in part, regarded negatively, to most people, I don’t look different. While many people can detect that there is something decidedly ethnic about my appearance, I am often believed to be of Italian or Greek descent – thus, Caucasian. I do not have very dark skin, I don’t cover my head (for I am not Muslim), I do not speak with an accent, and my dress and mannerisms are considered to be normal. While I am a female who is a member of both a religious and ethnic minority, I don’t feel as if I suffer at the hands of any sort of discrimination because, aside from my gender, no one can see these things by looking at me. If anything, I have benefited from these characteristics through programs such as affirmative action. While I cannot be sure that my acceptance in to MSU had anything to do with my religion or my ethnicity – which is reflected in my Arabic last name – I know that, in a school that practices affirmative action, they could not have hurt me. I have even been told not to change my last name to my stepfather’s because my last name gives me an added “edge.” I should note, however, that while I am sure of where I stand in terms of religion and ethnicity, the issue of my race has always left me a bit puzzled. I am, after all, the child of a man born in Africa; therefore, I am, in theory, African-American. However, the term “African-American” has for ages has been used to describe people of color, regardless of how far back they can link their ancestry to Africa. If I were to tell someone that I was African-American, they would laugh in my face, because the image of a “normal” African American commonly

conjures up that of a black person, and I am far from black. Therefore, I have always identified myself as Caucasian on things like standardized tests and surveys. Looking back, I now realize that I am a part of that tiny percentage which fits neatly in to the category of “other.” Now I arrive upon the construction of “normality” and how it defines me. By all outward appearances, I am a normal person. I am not the victim of any birth defects, mental, emotional, or physical illnesses, or any other afflictions or misfortunes which would lead one to be labeled “abnormal.” However, there are many definitions of “normal” that are relative to particular societies. In New Milford, for example, it was “normal” to be Jewish, because it was common and accepted and not viewed as something that debilitated a person or a society. In Somers, however, it was not normal because practice of the religion was rare and often misunderstood. I understood right away when I moved to Somers and became the third Jew in school that I was “abnormal,” and this evoked in me for the first time a feeling of being the “odd man out” because I wasn’t Christian. If we choose to look at normality in this way, then we can say that there are a lot of things about me that are not normal. For example, I am the child of a broken home, as well as a 24 year old attending college among a community of 18-20 year olds. Neither of my parents even went to college. These factors all combine, in the society that I am a part of, to define me as “not normal” because I do not fit in to the majority in any of these categories. It may be automatically assumed that I am at a disadvantage, or worse, that my abnormalities need to be “fixed,” so I can be assimilated in to the “normal” society, however, I don’t find this to be the case. I have always looked at my differences as elements to my uniqueness, as well as decent conversation starters.

Therefore, these factors do not at all affect how I look at myself, only possibly how others look at me, and I have never been subjected to any evidence which would support that fact. If I found that others thought lowly of me, or even pitied me for any reason, I would feel sorry not for myself, but for them. I wouldn’t change a single one of my abnormalities. Well, maybe one. I would love to know what it feels like, even for a day, to be a man. To know that I can speak without constraint, live without limit, and have boundless opportunity. As a woman, even in a day and age when woman can finally vote and are active members of the workforce, there are still abundant examples of gender bias in society, and I have been affected by some of them at some point in my life. Just last week, for example, my boyfriend advised me to let him take my car in to the shop to be worked on. When I asked why, he smirked at me and replied that he would be taken more seriously as a guy, even though I have a larger background of information on my car than he does. He warned me that if I were to take the car in, the likelihood of my getting ripped off would increase. The sad thing to me was that I knew he was right. Women are considered to be clueless about cars, and are therefore often charged a lot more money for auto repair simply because male mechanics know that they can get away with it. This is only a small example of the gender bias I have experienced in my life. I have experienced it a lot more in school, especially coming from male teachers. I recall one of my junior high school social studies teachers beginning every class period with a short discussion on the scores of whatever major sporting event had taken place the night before. Without fail, the teacher launched in to passionate, macho “sports talk” with the guys while the girls, who did not share the teacher’s passion for sports, stared blankly ahead. When the

chat was finally over, boys still dominated the classroom discussion, often times doing so without even raising their hands. Similarly, in one particular science class of mine, the male teacher almost always chose a male student to come to the front of the class to assist him with an experiment demonstration. In the rare case that he selected a female, he would complete virtually the entire experiment himself, with the girl looking on anxiously, serving as more of a “lovely assistant” than an active participant. I suppose it was always assumed that men are better with science than women, and this is exactly the kind of gender bias that I and many other girls have encountered in school. While it may be that no one is telling me outright that my opinion matters any less, or that I am worse at science than my male classmates, I am subconsciously being fed these ideas by the way that I am treated. This is where the notion of a hidden curriculum comes into play. Hidden curriculum refers to lessons that we, males and females, are taught that are implicated by the non-hidden curriculum. The social studies and science class examples reflect a hidden curriculum which is teaching women that their contributions to classroom discussion are not as valuable as those of their male peers, and that they are not expected to be as strong in scientific subjects as the boys. The notion of hidden curriculum, it seems, begins so early in the educational system. As early as kindergarten, young girls are shown picture books which identify women as nurses, teachers, and stay-at-home mommies, while Dad is always pictured walking through the door in a suit carrying a briefcase. Even though the typical nuclear family does not fit this rigid mold any longer, these images are still abundant in the picture books used in most elementary schools. These ideas are further compounded when the school’s curriculum gets a bit more in depth. Simply put, female

students are inundated with the male perspective. Male historians, male authors, and male politicians are constantly studied, leaving the female perspective in the wind. I recall having to do a brief biography in third grade of a famous female chosen from a list of possibilities that the teacher (a woman) had previously selected. I read off names like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B, Anthony, Sally Ride, and Corretta Scott King, utterly clueless as to whom these women were until I stumbled on the first – and only – familiar name. It was Princess Diana, a woman who was famous more for her celebrity status than for any societal contributions, although she made many. I ended up selecting Sally Ride, the first woman in space, for my project, and not seeing many of those other “famous” names again in school for quite some time. This is exactly how the hidden curriculum operates; it doesn’t single women out as inferior, it merely pushes many women’s issues and studies off to the side, giving both male and female students the impression that women are inferior. While I have never thought of myself as inferior to any man for any reason, I understand that it will always be that much harder for to me to be taken seriously when countering a man, and this has affected how I express myself for the better. I am always sure to choose precisely the best words and points when making an argument, especially to or with a man, so as not to be easily shot down or shrugged off. Even with all of this mention of social disadvantages and my many minority statuses, I cannot claim to be completely at a disadvantage. I still consider myself lucky for many reasons, some of which affected the strength of my education. One of these factors was the parental involvement I had in my schooling, namely from my mother. My mother, you see, can only be described as the quintessential “PTA Mom.” While she was not actually a member of the PTA until my younger sister went to school, my Mom was a

frequent volunteer in all of my classrooms. Whether it was bringing in cupcakes or reading stories, my mother has always loved to be a part of the educational process. I can recall learning to read at the age of 4, and promptly beginning the tradition of “MommySarah reading nights.” While the actual nights always varied, the tradition stayed the same- we’d sit together, or maybe lie in bed, and just read silently. If I wasn’t reading, then I was completing some other homework assignment while my mother read next to me. Either way, she believed that in order for me to value both the gift of reading and education, she must serve as my partner in the educational process, “learning” with me through her reading as I learned. Needless to say, she always kept up with my homework assignments and what I was studying in school, and we’d often discuss the issues at the dinner table. This brought a whole new perspective to my school studies, and made me that much more passionate about the subjects. For these reasons, I give my mother a lot of the credit for my history as a strong student. I realize that I am extremely lucky in this regard, as many students’ parents either cannot or choose not to take such an active part in their children’s schooling. My mother’s love for learning, as well as her passion for my education, has raised me to a much greater advantage than a lot of students. In addition to being the child of a wonderful mother and a caring stepfather, I am fortunate enough to be privileged in many other ways. These privileges never seemed like privileges to me until we studied them in class, and I realized that some of the behaviors I practice every day are simply not available for some other people. This includes being able to walk freely down the street, hand in hand with my boyfriend, and to walk in to an expensive clothing store and be treated by the associates as a guest, not a potential thief. After all, I am a white, heterosexual woman, with no outward appearances that would

cause me to be labeled as “different.” I never really considered it, but members of other minority groups, such as homosexuals and African Americans, cannot live their lives as freely as I live mine. For example, gay people are often forced to keep their relationships private, not to “flaunt” them. Also, many times, members of ethnic minorities who clearly look ethnic (unlike myself) are often distrusted and given a much lower level of service by many industries, especially retail. The fact that these people do not benefit from such privileges forces them to live day in and day out with the knowledge that they are different, and that they may never be treated equally. I suppose that perhaps the greatest privilege than I can claim is that I don’t have to live with this kind of knowledge. The fact that I can live my life, for the most part, freely, grants me a sort of power which is intangible, but highly influential. I have an unspoken power to do the kind of things that many minorities only dream of, due simply to the way that society looks at me. While I cannot relate these experiences to the school environment due to the overwhelming lack of racial, ethnic, and sexuality-based minorities in my schools, it has greatly affected my life in ways that I never even considered until I took this class. I can vote, I can drive, I can get sufficient service in a restaurant or store, I am never looked at strangely, I am never the victim of slurs, and I am never offended by jokes or connotations made about “my” people at my own expense. All of these things give me power, advantage, authority, which are not in any way contingent upon my mind or accomplishments. Do I think this is fair? Absolutely not. It makes me feel a tinge of guilt to know that I did nothing to earn these privileges, or this power, but I suppose it’s that very fact that makes the concept of privilege, in this sense, so unjust.

Overall, I consider myself to be an extremely fortunate, well-rounded person. I am shaped almost equally by my life experiences and by the factors which we discussed in class. I can’t even believe how much my perspective broadened once I was forced to examine myself through the lens that concepts such as social capital and gender bias create. While I am grateful for my new base of knowledge, I still continue to regard myself more as the subject of my own decisions and destiny. While my past and the world that I live in may attempt to define and restrict me, I know that I hold the power to break through those restrictions and leave trails for other members of the minorities of which I am a member. These are the events which I believe will ultimately write my final autobiography.

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