Do we ever feel like one person in our own bodies, but then see ourselves (in photos, videos) and think: “But…..that’s not who I thought I was?” Our body language, the way our personalities play across our faces. It’s no small baffle, really.
Maybe mine is a preoccupation of sorts, in more recent years. Say, since 911.
Prior to that tragedy, being the Mediterranean in a room full of standard white people was the norm for me. To some, I was the “exotic” one, meaning of course that, to them, I was different. One guy actually saw me performing from a distance and thought he was looking at a girl straight from the Old Country. He told the conductor he wanted to meet “the woman from Italy”. And, his parents were both Italian. Go figure.
Hah. Ah, well. It was a fun year and a half. Too bad my shabby apartment, grey suede fringed boots, and acute lack of scholarly gravitas put him over the top. I was teaching marching band, for God’s sake; give me a freaking break. Oh; both my brothers have since been to Italy, the elder three times. The younger went to Rome on his honeymoon. Sure enough; he said: “ALL the women in Rome look like you. ALL of them.” Okay, then.
After 911, I began to see something else in the mirror: the facial bones of a suspect. I profiled myself, and was found wanting. Invigorated by regular summer travel, I’d been across much of Europe (though, not Italy) most recently for a third round to Scotland in August of that same year. Now, it was clear; no wonder the little children in Selkirk had stared balefully at me with unblinking eyes. I did not board a plane thereafter until 2006.
But, as our American society becomes increasingly global in its representation, the Millenials seem completely immune to any effect from categorical differences. Whereas we from their parents’ generation notice Asians, Middle Easterners, and other nationalities as soon as they walk through a door, these kids never seem to look up. Or, if they do, it’s addressed and dispensed with in some fleeting informality. (“Are you, like, Thai? Okay. That’s cool.”) Probably because, among any group of six or more, there is likely to be a greater mix of types than ever before.
My problem, yes, so it is, might probably be related to having grown up surrounded by Anglo Saxons, never associating with my Dad’s side of the family. Being the brown one. Being the odd one. The boys took after mum. Being the only one.
In fact, I have a dear cousin I hadn’t seen in probably 15 years who, seated beside me at a family wake, kept repeating rather self-consciously: “You really look Italian.” Hmm.
For all of these reasons, postulates, theories…..I see images of myself, and the first thought that takes shape is: ” I look like the girl that most people don’t trust. I look like the criminal. I look hard, severe, and type-cast in my own body.”
For starters, people around this town see a dark toned Medi and think: “Roman Catholic, west side, multi-generational family, probably Sicilian or Calabrese. Somebody’s niece. Father worked for the city.”
[Former] Sectarian Fundamentalist, east side, second generation, mom’s side indoctrinated English, nobody’s niece anymore. Dad was a barber, from Boston, and his father was Napolitan. Didn’t know what gnocchi was until I bought my west side house.
Wrote a short poem years ago. It’s in my original poetry; you can find it. “Ode to the Ethnic Child.” That’s actually the second title. The first one was: “Ode to the Unwanted Child.” Yeah. Changed it when I thought such a moniker wouldn’t sell. I’m shrewd like that.
Oh, and just to deflect that percentage of the readership that is poised to find complimentary ways to respond, I’m really not addressing relative attractiveness. This is about what makes people feel warm, secure, safe, comfortable. For all their attributes, “exotic” and “ethnic” to those who are neither, well, they don’t make that cut, do they.
See, the term “ethnic” has undergone its own evolution. Some social factions think the term applies to black folks. Still others think it must include Latinos. Really, “ethnic” to these people applies to any nationality not already appearing in their own DNA.
[ insert winking smiley icon]
As for “exotic”, many shop at Pier I because they want to add a certain element to their decor. More drama, striking texture, the unexpected image. To them, that’s exotic. Imports. These bring it.
(No surprise to anyone, I love Pier I. Feels like home to me.)
The interesting thing about the exotic element is, were people to be brutally honest and open, they’d have to admit that decorating their entire home in exotic images, shapes, textures, and elements might just make them feel, well, a tad uncomfortable. Exotic elements are meant for accent pieces, or that one, relatively small room featured when they entertain. Touche. Like the court jester, trotted out to amuse the King.
Now, all this would be a benign yawn were we not talking about a real person with, allegedly, a soul and a mind, a heart, feelings and, that load, needs. But, we are, see? We’re talking about a girl. With a look that doesn’t match who she thinks she is when she enters a room. With a presence that leaves all kinds of misleading impressions in her wake.
In fact, this might be one of the reasons I started this blog. Beginning with those in closest proximity and reaching all the way across the planet, to dispel myths. Myths, first, about myself, and then well beyond merely me to reach all those baseless suppositions that push people apart instead of bringing them together.
We, perhaps instinctively, seek our own. And, we self-segregate. Yes, we do. It’s about familiarity, which is synonymous with comfort. We don’t call ourselves bigots, because we don’t feel like bigots, and we certainly aren’t prejudiced because we hate prejudice and self-loathing is not healthy.
To one extent, I might be the only formally Caucasian woman who understands how black folks feel in American society. Or, the newest of Middle Eastern immigrants. Not because I have a rich Mediterranean heritage, because I actually don’t; my father was displaced from his immediate family at birth, remotely connected to them thereafter, and absolutely none of the customs of the Italian American were ever a part of my life.
How I do relate with these people is as one who appears to be different. I know how it is to be superficially accepted, to be gently patronized, to be called “striking” (please stop), to be kept, ultimately, at arm’s length – just beyond the mainstream of power and influence. You know, like the “ethnics” in the perceived majority of American society.
Perhaps actors are the only group immune to all this agonizing self-examination. They probably take a frank look at their faces and body language in some Movement or Characterization class, acknowledge their “type”, and proceed to compile their qualifications into a series of head shots and demo tapes. They learn to believe Who They Can Be and, by some mercy, can forget who others might think they are.
Maybe this is why, for all my life, I have been so transfixed by thespians. You know, the ones who can put on a thousand masks and be whatever their role asks of them. Who can enter any room at any given moment and bring whatever they choose to be. I can’t imagine where they go for trust, or comfort, or any sense of reality. Perhaps they are as protective of their own as the rest of us, and place a premium on their families. But, beyond this, at least they have a community of distinctive and disparate individuals, all under the same tent – clowns, tragic heroes, buffoons, tyrants, ingenues, matrons, sages. Like the children of our generation, they look past type and see one another. Can we do this, too?
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
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