In the past months, I’ve been immersed in thought concerning identity. From my racial, ethnic identity to the way I exploit the sensual nature of my sexual identity. Everything in between, of course, fuses together to make me who I am. My brown skin, my short stature and the width of my thighs and waist invoke some to mistaken me for someone who does not speak English, and others to racially fetishize my body. When I speak, I am soft, unclear, and nervous. I do not yet posses a command or articulation of the ideas and words so grand and powerful that exist mostly at the flow of my pen. Or at the strokes of my keyboard.
Being a “public servant “, a library assistant, I deal with two and often opposing sides of the public. I deal with very white, old and conservative people. On the other side, I deal with everyone opposite of white, old and conservative. Sometimes I feel like white, old and conservative should be an ethnicity on its own. These are the people we fear pissing off. They have power in our communities. They have influence. Most of all, they have time to complain and they will complain.
This past weekend I attended one of our own programs that involved a Pearl Harbor survivor. I wanted to be directly involved because I am a public history student, and to be blunt, I have an ego about it. I am not a master of public history, but I can be bold and proclaim that I know my shit. I don’t know all my shit, but I know more shit than others. I learn everyday. I find flaws in my own thoughts and ideas. Other days I wake up and think, damn I’m brilliant. One thing I know, is that I will never know ALL the shit, ever, but I am ok with that. I am conscious that I cannot grow into a public historian if I do not implement some of the things I’ve learned. I wanted to have some degree of influence in this program. I did not, so I stood on the sidelines as half spectator, half critic.
On a side note: I’ve learned how to control my ego. Although, sometimes I can come off as snobby or conceited, I am not so in person. I love what I do and what I study and it’s an integral part of my identity, but the thing I love the most is learning from others. I love learning from my friends, my parents, my professors, my co-workers, strangers and radically different people from myself. I am open to learning about everyone and everything. I do not always agree with opposing views, but I like to learn why people think differently than me. I love people<<< take note future employers.
With that note, however, two elements of my identity clashed over the weekend that kind of overshadowed my openness to differences and radical opinions.
Our Pearl Harbor survivor brought up the controversial topic of the atomic bomb. He reflected on the fact that over the years, no one had really asked him about what he thought about the decision to drop the bomb. I was surprised and part of me hoped for a less than conservative answer. Immediately, the audience murmured with a resounding, and very patriotic, “yes,” to which our speaker echoed the same.
One of our volunteers asked the rhetorical question to our speaker. The audience became uncomfortable. She furthered elaborated on her question.
“From what I’ve read and from what I know, the Japanese were ready to surrender…”
Me, thinking, “What are you doing. What are you doing. What are you doing.” Not a question, but a proclamation of fear in my head.
“…was there a reason, then, to drop the bomb, if we knew they were going to surrender?
One of the audience members became livid. He could not find a comfortable way of sitting in his chair as he writhed in anger saying, “What is she talking about? No they weren’t. NO, they were not ready to surrender. No. No. They weren’t. NO. We didn’t know. NO”
Afterward, I overheard a group of elderly white people commenting on our volunteer. They were so offended at her question. “I wanted to ask that lady, would you ask the same to a Jew?”
I brought it up to our volunteer, who teaches history at a community college. She was very defensive when I told her she brought up a very sensitive topic. “They need to know the truth. I don’t care. We all need to hear both sides. Whatever, I teach my students both sides. I don’t care I that I made them mad”
Well, I cared. I did not say anything back to the volunteer because I was frustrated at her. I don’t know how to be articulate when I am frustrated. What I wanted to tell her, and what I thought was right, was that she should care because she’s not a community member asking a question. She was a library volunteer; therefore she was a representative of the library. The last thing I want, that we all want, is pissing off the old, white, conservative people that we serve. I get it. I’m a liberal brown girl working in a city that is mostly conservative. I’ve driven by the nearby streets, passing a blown up picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache. I get it. Yes, they do need to hear the truth, but our talk was not a symposium to debate the politics and ethics of dropping the bomb. It was a stage to reflect on public memory, a public memory that is quickly relegated to books, films and documentaries. It’s a living history stage. Yes, history is politics, ethics and horrors, but our stage was a specific memory and experience. An experience of a person we invited and by extension, she was part of as well.
And so, I grappled with this question. I was so angry about our representation and reputation (which is shaky in our community) that I did not really reflect on my own private liberal ideals of change, progress and freedom.
I asked my public history professor on advice as to how to approach this issue at work, and within myself. My public history professor has been highly influential in my growth, but she also scares the shit out of me. I am terrified of letting her down, which I suppose is a good thing. She has a firm and intimidating presence. I know she likes me and has faith in my work and me. She has these beautiful icy blue piercing eyes, that as I speak, I become more vulnerable and second-guess myself. I made it a habit to look into people’s eyes whenever I speak to them, with her, I often find myself looking away because I become nervous. But I love her. I love her in the way people come into your life at the right time. I value her advice on my professional aspirations. I want to be as fierce, articulate and confident as her one day. I want to carry that not only do I know my shit, but also I look like I know my shit attitude. What I value the most, is that she is a fierce woman helping out a not so confident soft-spoken girl. Is it slightly sexist of me to value the approval of my female professors a degree higher than male professors? I’ve had, and continue to have, male professors that are encouraging and influential, but when it comes to female professors, I value them just one little degree more. Their success, along with my mother’s, is what influences me. They made it, so can I.
Anyway, once I finished telling her my dilemma, she told me she had conflicting views on it. She understood where I was coming from. Yet, she said, it’s good to encourage that kind of dialogue. That population of old, white and conservative people need to be shown different and often conflicting sides to all stories. As liberals, we often get complacent about our opinions and we try not to risk pissing people off, but if we continue to do that, then how do we expect change to happen?
God dammit. Who am I?
She did tell me to become more confident in my abilities and to show my work that they need to incorporate me into these programs. Perhaps, volunteers need to be oriented in some ethical issues, and that if they think they cannot keep those questions quiet, then they should not participate as a volunteer, they should be part of the audience instead. She told me to let go of the exchange that the volunteer and I had. I should move forward with all this in mind.
I took her advice and without getting sensitive, I spoke to our program coordinator and now I am part of this project, a project that wasn’t a project before. I made it a project since I noticed a theme in our upcoming events, memory and survival. She loved my idea. I hate to think what reputation I could have started if I went into our coordinator’s office and just had focused on my feelings. I did bring up the incident with our volunteer and I offered some of the insights that blended both my own views and my professor’s views on the topic. I did it in a way where the coordinator and I had a lively and productive conversation about it.
It made me ponder, however, that I am in this odd place. Do I subdue my own views to appease the people of our community? Sometimes I feel like that is part of most jobs. A library setting is different. The philosophy of a library is rooted in democracy and freedom. It’s a space where, theoretically, everyone that walks into the door is one in the same. Not in a socialist way, but we are all there because we love reading, we love learning and we love the limits of our imaginations. And we love free wi-fi, too. It’s a space where we should be able to speak our minds without getting reprimanded. I am no longer confined to city politics, as our library’s management is private. Which is a whole other philosophical issue. I don’t represent the city. I represent my library. I am at a cross-roads because I haven’t figured out what my library represents, or what my co-workers want our library to represent. Do we want to be safe and build up the trust of the old, white, conservative people? Do we want to be radical and build a new reputation, a young and liberal appeal that might attract a diverse community? Or can we work towards a reputation where we are open, free, trusting and sensitive to all sectors of our community? The latter is the ideal, but so often hard to implement successfully.