Sunday, March 9, 2008

Passing and Not Passing

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Passing As Younger and As White

On the phone, my mom does not sound like an older person, and when people meet her, no one believes she is 82. She passes for someone in her mid-70s at most. My mother is relatively open about her true age; she does not take advantage of passing like she could. In my mom's case, it's simply flattering for her to see people's initial, surprised reactions.

Thank God, my mother's mind still fully functions and she has the same sort of memory as I do, for dialogue that happened years ago and for people she has known for any length of time. Yesterday, visiting her at the rehab center, where she's staying till she can return to the hospital for surgery, I learned about Jackie McDonald, a childhood playmate she had, who lived two doors down: "We were friends through high school, and I lost track of him once I went away to college and he went into the service -- it was that time [WWII]; we used to take long walks and tell each other about who we were dating, and his mother used to watch us like a hawk because certainly, we couldn't date each other, since I was Jewish."

Last night, after we got back from Stamford, Pat and I watched "The Human Stain," which was based on Philip Roth's novel. Spoiler alert: It was about a Classics professor, who passed as Jewish when he was actually black. He guarded his secret so closely that he didn't even tell it when he was fired for making what was interpreted as a racist remark. The way his story unfolded in flashbacks, I saw that he wanted to avoid feeling second-class, at all costs.

"The Human Stain" was fiction, but stories like it, I've been told, were relatively common among Jews, Italians and black people in America in the last century. Yesterday, my mother also told me about a great-uncle, who dodged the WWII draft, since he wasn't accepted as a conscientious objector, and moved to the Midwest, where he became George Graham, having been Harry Prensky.

It wasn't a case of trying to avoid being second-class, but I was reminded of it, as "George Graham" was a name that was so utterly not "Harry Prensky." It sounded like while hiding his former identity, he went ahead and chose a name that would let him pass as Christian. I never knew my grandfather or any of his siblings. All of them died prior to my birth.

Not Passing As Hearing Or As Heterosexual

Pat and I saw two other films this weekend, where the main characters could not pass as anyone other than who they were. In Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Alan Arkin played a deaf man, who signed with one, unfortunate friend and otherwise, who had to write to communicate. There was no way to hide his deafness.

"The Naked Civil Servant" was Quentin Crisp's autobiography, of having been openly gay in England from the '30s onward. Apparently, he came from an upper-class family, but still, it seemed amazingly courageous how boldly he wore what he felt most comfortable wearing, and did what made him feel most like himself.

From where did that boldness not to pass originate...because Alan Arkin's character didn't have a choice; he was openly deaf because, well, it was impossible to hide. It didn't seem that Quentin Crisp wanted to be brave for bravery's sake, but because it was the only natural way for him to be; he also made a statement about how intoxicating the exhibitionism that his appearance required was, and he sustained the intoxication by continuing to appear boldly.

Watching Quentin Crisp's story, I reflected on my classmates' recent reaction to my learning and leadership life history. Most said that they felt I was bold, and one was especially on target: "You talk about wanting to connect with people, particularly through your writing, but you also seem to set yourself apart from people." And another student said, "You seem to want to be seen as special."

Years ago, a friend of mine said, "You're like a Carson McCullers character: a fierce outsider with her nose pressed up against the window." And it was true. I wanted to be recognized for my difference and in parallel, wanted to fit in with society.

I did not wish for anyone to say, for example, at work, "Oh, your lesbianism doesn't matter to me. All I care about is your talent." My identity was at my core, and my talent and everything else about me flowed from it, and so while many chose to downplay their difference, I wanted to accentuate mine and then enjoy finding common ground with people all the more so.

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