Lately one of the family history websites has been running a series of ads about finding your “true” ethnicity by sending them a DNA sample. The one I remember best is a man in lederhosen talking about how he was raised believing he was German but DNA testing showed his heritage was more Scottish, so he traded in his lederhosen for a kilt.
Part of me says, both are non-pants ethnic costumes, not a big change. Part of me says, Celts settled in Germany and France as well as Ireland, so not such a leap considering that there has to be a common base culture underlying it all. At least the Romans thought so.
And part of me wonders, how did it turn out that he “thought” he was German but he’s “really” Scottish? Are we now supposed to worry that the culture we thought our family embodied is somehow wrong because it doesn’t match our genes? Doesn’t this sound a lot like the eugenics that are fundamental to Nazism? If someone moves to another country, are the children the ethnicity of their parents or of the adopted country?
But what interests me here is the idea that ethnicity can change. Just like that, you’re not Black Irish, you’re actually Spanish. Which is historically accurate, since the Black Irish are descended from the remnants of the Spanish Armada. So trade in your whiskey, shamrocks and St Patrick for sangria, bull fights and St Anthony. Because somehow you are wrong about who you are.
So for me, as I’m dealing with this new diagnosis, the question has been whether I am still me. Which is silly because of course I am the same me I have always been, or at least the same me I was before the diagnosis changed. My internal process isn’t any difference. My values have not changed. I love the same people, enjoy the same activities, face the same dilemmas. Nothing changed except a label, and those change all the time anyway.
Labels change. I am no longer anyone’s daughter, since both my parents are deceased. I am also no longer a wife, since I am a divorced person. Don’t call me Mrs. because I used my father’s last name not my ex-husband’s. Labels can tell us something about a person but therein lies the risk of stereotyping.
Stereotyping is a slippery thing. In some ways, it’s useful because it allows our lazy brains to categorize people in ways that can be surprisingly accurate. However, it is also limiting and it can be very wrong.
Story about that: I was at a party where there were people of various ethnicity present. Several black people were comparing notes on their childhoods: “Do you remember eating beans and rice for dinner and going to the food pantry? Did you ever go to school with your sneakers taped up because they were coming apart but you couldn’t afford new ones? And what about hand-me-downs?” Their point was that black Americans live in a very different country than white Americans do, and the larger context was white privilege. (Black experience is different from white experience, and I’m not saying white privilege is or isn’t real.)
The hostess, who passes for white but recently discovered she very much embodies her Native American heritage, overheard their conversation. “I remember those things,” she said, “but I thought that was because we were poor. I didn’t know I was black.” (And of course in American there is a huge wealth/class divide that breaks along lines of race, but that also isn’t my point here.)
So I have a new label now: bipolar. (Hey! Earth and I have something in common, we both have two opposing poles! *eye roll, cuz I know I’m a dork*)
It does tell you something about me. It says I can have big changes in my mood and ability to handle life. It tells you I can be obsessed today and listless tomorrow. It tells you I might be a good listener because I have nothing to say or a bad listener because I keep interrupting you. It tells you I can be changeable.
But it can also cause you to stereotype me. I am not suicidal, nor do I get that high euphoria and sense of invulnerability that they tell me mania can cause. I have times when I feel like I might be able to be successful if I just keep at it, and other times when I can’t find the energy to get out of bed let alone get dressed or eat something.
Labels give the illusion of understanding, but really we don’t understand as well as we like to believe.
So I have a new label and it makes me wonder if I’m any different. And it reminds me that a label doesn’t capture the full reality of something, just an aspect.
I am not just my label.
I am still me.