Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who, exactly, is a "minority"?

First, for my long time readers/followers, I know I don't need to apologize for nearly a month's blogging silence--as I noted in a June post, because of my cancer diagnosis and chemo treatments, I knew that I wouldn't be blogging on a regular basis. However, I had hoped to be blogging more, because it would be a sign that I was feeling OK. But the truth is, the first round of chemo I was on (a particularly hard drug combo known as "AC") really had me laid out, mostly due to nausea and fatigue, but it also left my brain feeling mushy and my concentration levels hit an all time low--I wasn't able to read fiction most days and resorted to watching movies and t.v. series streamed on Netflix (thank GOODNESS for Netflix!).

This second round of chemo, Taxol, is mercifully easier on my system--no nausea and less brain fog (I finally got to finish a novel I started a month ago, Edgar Sawtelle--and just to let you know, normally it would take me a week to read a 400 page novel while teaching full time--it would take 2 days to read a 400 page novel if I was on vacation). The Taxol hasn't been wonderful--there is some pretty severe joint and muscle pain I've had to weather, and the cumulative effects of the chemo means I'm pretty tired all the time and my brain, while better, is still somewhat foggy. Plus, I'm bald.

I'm sharing these personal details with you because I've been thinking a lot about what it means for me to have cancer and for me to be going through chemo (and I know I've written about some of that already). And I've been thinking a lot about how I've been marked by my cancer diagnosis--how others have reacted to me--and how I think about myself, now.

Because I'm different now. I'm part of a new minority of people (largely women) who have received a breast cancer diagnosis. And in a few months I will be part of a subset minority of women who will no longer have breasts (I'll be having a bi-lateral/double mastectomy sometime in October). And like other parts of my identity, this new category of breast cancer "survivor" (I put this in quotes because lets be honest, it remains to be seen whether I'll be in the 86% of people with stage 2 cancer who "survive" or part of the 14% who don't), is one that I will carry around with me, but unlike my race and gender, it won't always be so visibly marked on my body, unless someone sees me without my hair or, in the future, without my breasts.

When I've written about being a "minority" before (and for the record, I hate that term as it is often used as a synonym for people of color/non-white people) it has largely been in the context of race, since that's often how it is deployed in popular discourse--those who are "minorities" in the U.S. are non-white people. It suggests a statistical status (whites comprise a majority over non-whites) as well as a power status (whites are in positions of power, institutionally, over non-whites). It also suggests that there is a norm--to be a white American is to be "normal" (and we can add the rest of the hegemonic imperative here: straight, male, middle-class, Protestant/Christian). And I've periodically written about the ways in which it is problematic to establish whiteness and maleness as the "norm" in our society.

But now that I'm inhabiting a body that has cancer, I've been thinking about something more basic to my identity, to all of our identities: health. And I admit, I took my health for granted. I also admit that it isn't until I am no longer occupying a healthy body that I've started to think about the new minority group I belong to--those of us who occupy bodies that aren't healthy, that are somehow marred or scarred or impaired or non-normative.

And it strikes me that at some point, we will all become "minorities" in terms of our health--that occupying a body that is or will become non-normative is actually a majority situation not a minority situation. And yet, what we largely see in our culture is an emphasis on the healthy body--a narrative that ignores or overshadows or downplays those of us who occupy bodies that are not healthy.

And when we do get narratives of the non-healthy body, it usually emphasizes a kind of romanticism or stoicism or sentimentality that I really cannot identify with. I guess I'm thinking of movies like Love Story or Dying Young or My Sister's Keeper, where you have these characters who have a fatal illness (and cancer is a very popular potentially fatal and lingering illness to portray in sensational form) help other characters (and hence the audience) learn valuable life lessons through the wisdom that they've gleaned from their illness.

[Aside: Now, this wouldn't be a blog called Mixed Race America if I didn't point out that the above 3 films all feature white protagonists who are stoically dying--and that I honestly cannot recall a character in film or television who is a person of color who has cancer--so if anyone can help me out here, please chime in--and I mean a SIGNIFICANT character of color, not just "patient #2" or a patient of the week on House.]

So maybe this is a sign that I still have chemo brain because I'm not sure, exactly, where I'm going with this post, other than to suggest that I've been recently re-thinking what it means to be a "minority," for me personally but also for our culture more generally. I think it's less about statistics than about power--after all, we need only look to South Africa to realize this. But I also wonder if this can also be a chance for those of us who occupy more "minoritized" identities to reappropriate the word or at least the discussion around being a minority--being non-normative. Because really, how many of us are part of the "norm" nowadays?


Anonymous said...

I think that's part of the reason why TAB (temporarily able-bodied) has become a popular identifier in online discourses - it recognizes that all of us who live long enough will eventually find ourselves in some category of disability, and that many of us will experience disability in our lives at some other point (i.e., broken limbs, pregnancy - which is problematic, but there you have it - depression). And yes, dis/ability has some really shit issues going on in our society that places people with disabilities in the same kind of minority category subject to oppression as others. You might want to read FWD (Feminists with Disabilities), if you don't already, or bloggers like cripchick. They sometimes run afoul of race issues, but then again, almost everyone does at some point :P

This is why an understanding of kyriarchy is so important to my own understanding of social justice, because we all have these overlapping circles of privilege and oppression, and those circles shift and change to give us more or less power in different situations. Sometimes my race is more important than my gender, sometimes my sexuality trumps everything, and then there's class and ability and all of it, the way it all works together to reinforce or dismantle the hegemony of straight-white-maleness ... it's a kind of morbid fascination.

Glad to see you up and blogging here again :)

david said...

To point out, there is a movie with a significant person of color who's sick; it's called the bucket list. It's a pretty good movie to watch.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer. I don't think I've ever commented on your blog before, but I've been reading for awhile. I too have the big C and I know how horrible you feel right now. I think the brain fog is the worst part -- it's one thing to be sick in bed with a pile of books to go through, and another to be sick and not even able to read. And my "books to read before i die" list suddenly has a time limit. :)

By the way, the novel version of "My Sister's Keeper" is not so much "people with cancer[/other disability] are so inspiring!!!11!!! and can teach us stuff!!!!" The focus is much more on the healthy sister trying to maintain her bodily autonomy, and the sister with leukemia is portrayed as much more of a real person instead of some kind of tragic saint. (I'm not necessarily suggesting you read it, because I really, really hated Picoult's most recent novel and I'm no longer sure I can trust my perceptions of the ones I read years ago -- maybe I was just too stupid to see how terrible they were.) But yeah, I hate this trope that has people expecting me to transform into some wise martyr the moment they find out I have cancer. Cancer has probably made me more of an asshole.

I've blabbed too much now. I really just intended to stop by and say that you are in my thoughts and I wish you the best, whatever that means in your situation.

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for your comments--I'm sorry it has taken me so long to respond. My energy levels really fluctuate, and the brain fog of chemo doesn't help either.

David, thanks for reminding me of The Bucket List--I haven't seen it, but I will now. I guess one reason I didn't see it in the theaters was that I just couldn't face another movie with Morgan Freeman as the "wise black man" figure. I mean, maybe I'm wrong and he's not that, but I think I read a review that suggested this is the role he plays, which just seems to be a variation on the "Magic Negro" stereotype, but maybe I should watch the film first before critiquing it.

lovepeaceohana, thanks for pointing me to FWD and for the TAB designation--I LOVE that--and I've been thinking how much my own identity has changed and my regard for my body/relative health and others has changed now that I have cancer. I feel sheepish that it has taken my own personal investment/recognition to get me to this place, but I suppose such is the way of most of our lives--we don't get political until we feel personally invested.

Finally, perfectfigure, thank you for de-lurking and for your commissertation/identification with chemo brain and having "the big C" (speaking of which, have you seen the Showtime series yet? I don't get Showtime, but I'm curious, if a bit skeptical). Thanks also for the 411 on the Piccoult book vs. film--it does not surprise me that Hollywood took the movie in a different direction.

And here's to all of us with cancer getting to be assholes rather than saints with words of wisdom! I'll be thinking of you and wishing you well in whatever form that takes/means for you.