Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Did You Just Call Me?!?

By Karriann Farrell Hinds, NWPC LA Westside Board Member

A couple of years ago, I attended a fundraiser and, at the registration table, I filled out the requisite form to accompany my contribution.  It requested common information, name, address, etc., but at the bottom it contained this statement,
“To comply with California law, contributors are required to provide their employment information. If you are retired, please enter N/A under Employer and Retired under Occupation; if a homemaker, please enter N/A - Homemaker; if self-employed, please enter "Self-Employed" under Employer and describe your line of work under Occupation.”
I paused for a moment to consider the request. How should I label myself for the elections commission?  What was a seemingly innocuous request for information to aid the elections commission in tracking illicit contributions became an interesting conversation about labels and, eventually, empowerment.

At the time of the event, I was considering how to present myself in the professional world.  Several years before, I decided to stop earning a paycheck after I gave birth to my second child.  Since then, I had taken to presenting myself as a “stay-at-home-mom” when asked my occupation, which never really sat well with me.  My son was in elementary school, my daughter attended preschool full-time, and I was rarely at home, so I was neither staying in any one place nor was I “mom-ming” my children full-time.  The moniker failed to capture all the aspects of my life – the volunteer work that I did with a civil liberties organization, the time that I spent managing our household and its finances, my responsibilities as the spouse of a partner in a law firm, my position on the school’s parent organization board, and on and on and on.  Also, the label “stay-at-home-mom” is incredibly contentious in both professional and non-professional circles.  Everyone has an opinion about what it means to be a mother and every time I referred to myself as a “stay-at-home-mom” it seemed to invoke judgment from women and men, stay at home and working alike, about mothering, parenting, working, status, privilege, race and all sorts of other uncomfortable, messy social issues that cannot be reconciled in a 10 minute conversation over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

Now, on the contribution form, “stay-at-home mom” was not even an option, which raised socio-political issues in and of itself.  I had to move on to considering the other options available.  I could just as easily have listed my occupation as “attorney” and my employer as “unemployed,” but that did not feel very good either, or accurate for that matter.  To me, unemployed suggested that I did not have a job, but would accept one if presented with an opportunity and that was not my circumstance.  More accurately, I was not earning a paycheck, by choice, which is a much harder state of being to explain than it sounds.  I began to think that “umeployed,” also not really an option, but a possibility, did not fit well, either.

In actuality, my best bet on the form was “homemaker,” but there was no explanation of the term “homemaker.”  According to the preeminent arbiter of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, a homemaker is defined as, “a person, especially a woman, who manages a household.”  I am a woman and I manage a household.  Done, end of story, right?  Not so fast.  The term homemaker, just like stay at home mom, is fraught with it’s own socio-political baggage.  On television, homemakers were presented as women like June Cleaver characters, who did not work outside the home and cooked, baked and cleaned all day (in pearls), to serve a hot meal to their children afterschool and a martini to their husbands when they returned home from a hard day at work.  In reality, my own mom presented a more representative picture of a homemaker – a woman who focused her efforts on raising children and taking care of the house to the exclusion of pursuing her own personal growth and ambitions.  While today we have the luxury of discussing and dissecting why women like my mother chose, or were forced to choose, between self and family, rather than being encouraged and supported in finding a way to pursue both, the reality is that, traditionally, homemakers did not focus their attentions outside their home.  That label did not seem to fit either because, while I did manage my household, again, it was not large enough to describe me.

The contribution form had all the makings of a mid-life identity crisis – who am I?  What am I?  What is my place in the world?  Fortunately, I avoided the potential crisis presented by the form because I had resolved these issues many years before.  As a woman of color, I have spent a significant amount of my life reconciling labels.  In college, I navigated the experience of exploring my cultural identity at a time when African Americans struggled with the appropriateness of racial monikers (Which one:  Black American?  American of African Descent?  Negro?  Black?).   My personal aspirations (a lawyer) forced me to struggle with many other aspects of my developing professional identity, including the political (Liberal?  Democrat?  Progressive?  Radical?), gender (Feminist?  Womanist?), and professional realms (Civil rights activist?  Environmentalist?  Social Justice activist?), among others.  Just when I would figure out what to call myself, I would have some experience that would show how the label just did not work.

The process was incredibly frustrating, but extremely important because eventually I learned to stop stressing over the labels and to focus on defining myself through my works.  Over time, I have become less affected by what I am called and more focused on fulfilling my goals to effectuate change in the world, a habit gained through a combination of maturity and experience.  I try to seek out opportunities to align myself with others with whom I share intrinsic values, i.e., a commitment to justice, humanity, fairness, support, and honor, rather than just people that fit into my categorical labels.  An added benefit of this process of self-empowerment is that I have found myself developing experientially rich relationships with people who on the outside may not appear to share anything in common with me, but in fact share community with me and one another by choice, rather than due to outside influences.  The resulting bonds are fiercely strong and incredibly effective at accomplishing goals.  They make me richer and help define me in ways that mere labels and categories could never achieve.

I cannot remember what I put on the form that day and I switch up depending on my mood.  What I most take away from these experiences is a confidence in being able to define who I am and what I stand for as opposed for succumbing to pressures to be a certain thing.  When people ask me what I do, often I decide what to call myself depending upon the environment and the cues I receive talking with others.  Not everyone needs to know that I am an attorney, just as not everyone deserves to know just how wonderful my kids are.  And sometimes, just for fun, I try on the least descriptive label available just to see what kind of reception I get from the other person.  I do not feel pressure to be something that I am not, even during those times when I don’t know exactly what to label myself.  Ultimately, I know who I am, even when I don’t know exactly where I am going, and I am comfortable with owning that label.

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