“I’m just American.”

Woman reading Between the World and Me

As an entrée to blogging here, I offer a series of reflections on reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I will not review or critique the book, but rather respond to Coates’ experiences with some of my own, in part because the mark of a great work is its ability to help the reader rethink her position in the world and how she got there. I also think this is one of the things that Coates wants his readers to do: wrestle with his words as a means of self-critique. I humbly and vulnerably take up that task.

My reading Between the World and Me was interrupted by an elderly man at a nearby table in a café. Knowing no limits or boundaries, he just started talking to me. He asked, “Are you Polish?” I looked up from the book and smiled and said, “No.” I had hoped that a terse, but polite answer would dissuade him from talking to me more, but that is in fact never how it works. In my experience, older men often feel entitled to talk to younger women; I eagerly await ageing into the next category of woman—the one who is doing something important enough not to be interrupted. He continued, “Well then, what are you?” He was more puzzled than hostile. I replied, “I’m just American.” His facial expression communicated the insufficiency of my answer, and he said, “Huh?” I shrugged my shoulders and repeated, “I’m an American.” He clearly didn’t understand, but pushed forward with our conversation anyway. “Oh, I’m Italian. I moved here in 1953.” Of course, he continued to talk more, but I’ll use my author’s prerogative to cut him off there.

After reading Coates, the different ways that my interlocutor and I were talking about identity come into high relief. Of course, he probably just wanted to tell me about himself, and being Italian, even as an ex-pat, was so central to his identity that he asked me about my own. And he did so on his own terms: nationality. Because he had just laid eyes on me, I took him to actually be using nationality as a proxy for ethnic identity. Presumably, I look like I might have Polish ancestry. My answer to him was to assert my own national identity as a way of dismissing what I perceived to be an emphasis on ethnic identity. I may look Polish, but I am American, and that designation for me is a unifying one rather than an exclusionary one. For me, to be American or at least assert that I am is to obscure my ancestry—intentionally or otherwise. Whether I know my ancestry or not doesn’t matter; I’m a very fair skinned person who was born here, and so to say that I am American is to distance myself from the historical particulars. Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t have that luxury of distance and intentional obfuscation. The materiality of his body communicates differently than mine and there is no silencing it or dismissing it. My lack of interest in my ancestry is its own kind of privilege, and it’s a privilege that allows me to reveal and conceal as much of myself to strangers in cafes as I choose.

The privilege of revealing myself to others is something I have taken for granted, and this is readily apparent in my attitude toward uniforms. In my current role as a hospital chaplain, I was given an eggplant colored jacket to wear at work, a uniform of sorts. In hospitals it seems that everyone has some kind of uniform: the doctors are in white jackets, some surgeons are in gray jackets, the social workers wear teal, administrative staff wears black…and the chaplains wear eggplant colored jackets. I have rejected the eggplant jacket, and I have spent some time thinking about my wholesale psychological rejection of it. In a hospital, it is helpful to be able to assess a person’s skills with a quick glance—white jackets know CPR, teal jackets can answer your insurance questions, and eggplant jackets—well, we do a lot of different tasks, but CPR is not in our job description. While this color-coded taxonomy is helpful in a crisis, I find it reductionistic and demeaning. I don’t want people to be able to glance at me and size up my qualifications for a given task or my defined scope of practice. I feel like the jacket both conceals who I really am by reducing me to a skill set and others’ assumptions about chaplaincy and religion, while also announcing or revealing me to others which I find disempowering. So, I leave the eggplant jacket on the back of my desk chair. And after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, I imagine that being black in America is like wearing that eggplant jacket all day, every day, and never being able to take it off. The power to reveal and conceal is taken away because the marked category must always be described; there’s no “just American,” but just “African-American.”