We Do?


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.”

All wrong.

[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?

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

3/22/15

all rights those of the author. Thank you.

littlebarefeetblog.comMy beautiful picture

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14 thoughts on “We Do?

    1. “personally”…you mean, from personal experience, or personal opinion? I used to know a woman (whose daughter was one of my cello students) who grew up in New York as a child actress appearing in films, highly “connected” to some seriously powerful directors/actors, etc. She refused to expose her children to either television or movies, called the whole community by the most despicable names, and left our region to move her family to the most remote corner of Maine, where she operates an organic farm.

      However, right here in town, we have a large community of actors. We have several fully functioning, regularly producing theaters. These are people who rub elbows with those of us in the orchestra frequently. They seem like really fun people, to me! But, maybe I am of all people the most easily led.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s because you are deeply planted. I don’t see you as having any self-image issues with regard to others’ view of you. You are totally and utterly open, frank, direct, yet magnanimous and compassionate. You certainly aren’t guarded or wary, as far as I can see? Granted, we operate in two dimensions thus far, and maybe I should avoid attempting to address concerns in the “real world” of my actual life and concentrate on pontificating into the ether. The latter seems to be my forte!

          Time to sleep/big final polyurethane coat to the floor in the a.m. Hope your day was sheer comfort and bliss – but, you seem terse, so I hope it’s not the result of any miseries. Sleep, dear heart. You are my oracle. ❤

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hello Ruth Ann. Sorry. I had WiFi issues with my iPad (not at home) and wanted answer quickly before I got kicked off, which I did for what seems like an eternity. Endless frustration… I lost data, too. Anyway, I grew up around a lot of thespians and have met quite a few since then. I find supermodels and (award winning) singers to be very sweet. Rest well and happy curry dreams. I’m uploading a new painting so it’ll be ready for you when you wake up.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. I saved this to read later because at the time you posted it I was busy and after reading the first few lines knew I wanted to really read it. I never thought about all of this in regards to you which adds an interesting twist to this. Since we are/were cousins growing up together, I knew who you were and who you weren’t. And like I told you a few months ago, I was always jealous of your “tan” especially since I was so pale. So to me your “coloring”: was superficial and didn’t affect my perception of who you were. But after reading this I can see the “problems” your looks could cause, especially post 9/11. It is still HARD for me to see it because you are RA my cousin with the tan who is the daughter of my Mom’s sister. But yeah, I get it now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. RA,

    Like you I am half Italian. But perhaps you look more Italian than I. Now the only reason I say that is because here in the US we have a stereotype of what an Italian looks like. You have that dark coloring of hair and skin. But the stereotype is really of southern Italians. Now I don’t want to sound elitist, but our family is from the far northeast of Italy. We look different. We also act differently and speak differently from this stereotype. Although we’re just as Italian as the next, in this country there’s this feeling of not being quintessentially Italian. For example, as a boy I read that we were supposed to have olive skin. I never understood this. My skin’s not green! My hair is black (now grey) but my great grandfather’s was red.

    After blacks, Italians suffer the most from ethnic stereotyping. Everybody loves a fat Italian eating spaghetti. People lovingly imitate the accent. We’re supposedly oversexed. We think only of food and love (and song). We’re laid back but volatile on the other hand. And worst of all, this inescapable connection to the mafia. We’re tough and ruthless. Fuggeddaboudit! In fact, we’re pretty normal. We’re good and bad, smart and dumb, accomplished and downtrodden.

    Although my grandparents spoke quite broken English, as a boy I never felt particularly Italian or different from anybody else. I think the first time I ever felt different was when traveling in the South. Stopping at a restaurant, I noticed I was the only person with black hair in the entire place. In my twenties, a girl friend who was from Georgia made a big deal of my being Italian and I became more aware of it and began to identify more from that point out. Of course, I had heard stories of discrimination from the older generation (my uncle changed his name to advance in business) but felt that those times were long past. However, i once knew a fellow from a well to do family in Virginia. He told me that if we were to visit his home, I would not be allowed in their country club because of my “ethnicity”. I was astonished. In fact, I have never felt discriminated against or suspected like you because of my ethnicity. More often than not, it has been a positive.

    Of course, growing up in the fifties, everyone was ethnic – Italian, Polish, Irish, German, Russian. And we all insulted one another’s ethnicity freely. Today I think my father grew up probably like some Mexican or Colombian kid today. A bit of an outsider but open to the possibilities (and barriers) of his new country.

    We are no long the outsiders here. I think perhaps you are too sensitive about your looks. We are no longer the ones who stand out and are open to suspicion. Thank assimilation for that. And you’re absolutely right about this generation. It’s no longer such a big deal for black kids and white kids to be girlfriend and boyfriend. Asian kids just seem like normal American kids to us now. These are good things and give us hope for this country. It’s time to jettison our ethnic stereotypes. And perhaps soon the pretty young girl with a headscarf and that dark skinned mid-eastern or Pakistani boy will soon seem just as American as you and I.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Stephen, for the time you took to write this reply – and, for your friendship. I think that my sensitivity regarding my looks stems from the fact that I do, in fact, resemble in bone structure and color the kind of face that people in this country equate with mistrust and suspicion. In short, people in America who are neither Arabic (i.e., Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian, native to any of the other southern Mediterranean countries whose people share this bone structure and coloring) have been taught by the media to regard all those who do share these physical traits to view them with suspicion. My issue is far less about being Italian, and far more about sharing the physical characteristics of the “profiled”. To that end, I do not expect you to identify with me in this. But, I love you for your in depth commentary, and for sharing your stories with me. “The Selfish Giant” — let’s get you nominated!

      Like

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