The phrase “When I call her my husband” startles readers. Their eyes, which previously glanced flippantly over the sentence, now reread it carefully, staring suspiciously at each word to ensure that what they read was correct. “Her” and “husband?” Together? That must be an error! Yet, this provocation is the exact intention of Barrie Jean Borich, award-winning American author, whose essay detailing the intricacies of her lesbian relationship is titled just so. The power asserted by language over identity is similarly discussed in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” in which renowned Chicana author and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa illuminates the plight of Chicano communities in forming distinct individualities. Both texts are centered around the concept of otherness: the generalization of a person based upon a sole characteristic or group which they represent. Within two differing contexts, Borich and Anzaldúa criticize the problematic nature of binaries for how they deny a person’s humanity and force them to reside in psychological “borderlands” of alienation from themselves and others. In response, both authors illustrate the complexity of the “Others” so that they might be seen for the people who they are and transcend the labels which have been placed upon them.
In the first line of “When I Call Her My Husband,” Borich introduces readers to her relational dilemma: “Linnea [Borich’s partner] and I [Borich] have been lovers for all these years, and I wonder--are we married?” (1). The piece was authored prior to the national legalization of homosexual marriage, when the question of whether or not a committed homosexual couple should be considered a married one was hotly contested. Linnea endearingly replies, “‘I think you’re my wife,’” to which Borich responds, “‘You are my wife, too’” (2). Yet at this, Linnea stiffens. She pulls away from Borich. In detailing these gradations in Linnea's physicality, Borich expresses the distress Linnea’s newfound title causes her. “Wife,” a title which diminishes more than it celebrates, denies Linnea’s “masculine” attributes and compromises her character. Borich and Linnea’s interaction demonstrates the issues that heteronormative terminology poses to lesbian couples. Should one be called “Wife” if she is more masculine than feminine? Can one be called “husband” if she is a woman? Borich and Linnea are pressed to answer to these unsettling questions and are forced to question their personal identities and the status of their relationship. Here, Borich elucidates the immense power that language holds over identity -- an ill-fitting label can estrange us from ourselves and others, distorting our perception of self and making us “unknowable” to even those closest to us (Borich 2). Borich summarizes this struggle in describing the dual nature of relationship diction: “[it is a] language which we are at once completely a part of and completely excluded from” (2). While the title “Married Couple” reflects Borich and Linnea’s intimacy and commitment to one another, it simultaneously represents their exclusion from a binary society.
This alienating property of binary language is also interpreted in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” but within the context of the Chicano community. Anzaldúa explains how Chicanos struggle to find their place among Spanish purists, who chastise them for “[mutilating]” Spanish with the “oppressor’s” (English) influence and English purists, who disdain them for tainting English with the Latin tongue (467). Neither Spanish enough nor English enough, Chicanos “have internalized the belief that…[Chicano Spanish] is illegitimate, a bastard language” (475). Furthermore, Anzaldúa asserts, this belief causes Chicanos to feel “Pena,” or shame for their language, which consequently undermines their linguistic and ethnic identities (475). As Anzaldúa declares, “I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate […the] languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself” (476). Anzaldúa demonstrates her linguistic pride and legitimizes her language by sprinkling un-translated Spanish throughout her writing. Ultimately, Anzaldúa reminds readers that exclusive binaries and hierarchical language lead to the deterioration of cultures and loss of entire communities. This, Anzaldúa labels “the borderland conflict” (479). And when internalized, this conflict is dangerously demeaning and repressive.
So, how are we to reverse the damaging effects of the binary infrastructure which we have created? Both Borich and Anzaldúa point to acknowledging the incapacity of binaries to describe entire populations as the first step. In “When I Call Her My Husband,” Borich disputes whether “Wife” or “Husband” best fits Linnea. After surveying the two titles, Borich eventually discerns that neither is wholly accurate. She refuses to accept the limitations imposed by binary terminology. Borich further displays the terms’ insufficiencies with four vignettes --one set on the dance floor, one on Linnea’s motorcycle, a third at a nightclub, and the last at Home-- that illustrate Linnea’s complexities and her consequent affinities for both “Wife” and “Husband.” By painting Linnea as at once authentically female and undeniably masculine, Borich reveals the injustice of simplifying a person into a single term. She forces readers to empathize with Linnea and prevents them from othering her.
Anzaldúa also observes the normalization of binaries: “Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still” (479). A member of the Chicano community herself, Anzaldúa is proof that categories like “English” and “Spanish” are not all-encompassing. Anzaldúa explores this theme linguistically by naming eight different languages spoken by Chicanos --“1. Standard English / 2. Working class and slang English / 3. Standard Spanish / 4. Standard Mexican Spanish / 5. North Mexican Spanish dialect / 6. Chicano Spanish [...] / 7. Tex-Mex / 8. Pachuco”-- in order to demonstrate how such diversity cannot be accurately described by a single term like “Hispanic.” (473). This dramatic contrast between the reality of multiplicity and terminology of singularity causes readers empathize with Chicanos and question the acceptance of such pervasive generalization.
Both Borich and Anzaldúa challenge existing binaries. Borich insists that Linnea is both woman and husband through repeating “when I call her my husband I mean that she’s a woman[...]” incessantly throughout her essay and Anzaldúa echoes this cry in her resounding refusal to assimilate: “Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we the mestizas and mestizos, will remain” (Borich 2, Anzaldúa 480). Both Borich and Anzaldúa challenge Others to boldly own the borderlands in which they reside, claim their distinct identities, and share their stories. And together, in the sweet Spanish of Gloria Anzaldúa, we are all challenged to “[tratar] de cerrar la fisura” between the binaries and strive for an integrated future in which every existence is recognized as legitimate (42).
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of
Nonfiction. 14th ed., edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al. W. W. Norton & Company,
Borich, Barrie Jean. “When I Call Her My Husband.” Student Reader, compiled by Frank
Koroshec, 2018. 1-3.
Public and private are antonyms, two terms that are considered opposite but are undeniably related. These two concepts often thought of to be separate, significantly impact one another as a result of societal influence. In her essay, “When I call her my Husband” Barie Jean Borich, award winning American writer, discusses the challenges of classifying her private relationship with her significant other. Similarly, Richard Rodriguez, American essayist and teacher, in his essay, “Aria”, describes how his relationships with his family members changed overtime as a result of public influence. In both works, the authors contemplate what is lost when we conform to social expectations; however, while Rodriguez speaks of loss of private language to gain public voice, Borich highlights a gap in public language that accurately represents her private reality. The authors emphasize how in society the concept of otherness, categorizing people based on difference thereby denying individuality, impacts our private lives.
In his piece, Rodriguez discusses the effects of public language on private home life. Rodriguez begins by describing his childhood, growing up as a Spanish speaking student in an English speaking school system. During this time, Rodriguez finds it difficult to balance his familiar Spanish language with the lessons he is learning at school. He recounts feeling “the clash of two worlds” (Rodriguez 275). The practice of being instructed to speak English in school and Spanish at home lead Rodriquez to believe “English was intrinsically a public language and Spanish was an intrinsically private one...” (Rodriguez 277). This statement demonstrates the conflicting worlds of public and private. Conflict Rodriguez explains, lead to a divide within the home. As Rodriguez and his siblings learned English, they began to separate from their parents. Although the children were able to assimilate successfully into the surrounding society, their private reality became distant and unfamiliar. For example, Rodriguez reflects, “At the moment they [his parents] saw me, I heard their voices change to speak English. Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me. Pushed me away”(Rodriguez 276). He remembers hearing his parents adapt to English, the language promoted by surrounding culture. However, this adaptation made him feel uncomfortable in his own home. Similarly, in school, the result of teachers emphasizing the importance of English made Rodriguez uncomfortable in the public setting. Rodriguez felt isolated leading to his decision to assimilate. Without this assimilation, Rodriguez would have struggled feeling like an outcast and as he writes, he would not have believed he was an “American citizen.” However, in avoidance of otherness, Rodriguez lost connection to his private relationships and cultural identity.
The solution to this problem, according to Rodriguez, is a necessary one. Although, it should not have to be. Rodriguez finds that to be successful as an American citizen one must fully assimilate to the surrounding society. For Rodriguez that meant learning to speak English, and leaving behind the language and characteristics of Spanish speaking culture. He discusses his struggle with this loss by stating, “After English became my primary language, I no longer knew what words to use in addressing my parents. The old Spanish words...I couldn’t use anymore...On the other hand, the words I heard neighborhood kids use to call their parents seemed equally unsatisfactory” (Rodriguez 277). A struggle with representative language surrounded Rodriguez. He was included in and excluded from both languages at the same time. Meaning, Spanish no longer felt like an option and English was not fitting either. The need to decide upon one language forced Rodriguez to change. He writes, “What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language” (Rodriguez 274). This belief did not come out thin air. It was fostered by his environment, the society around him. His decision to change, prompted by this coerced belief, brought about loss: loss of language, loss of comfortability, and loss of family unity. As an illustration, Rodriguez states, “Once I learned public language it would never again be easy for me to hear intimate family voices” (Rodriguez 279). This statement summarizes Rodriguez’s internal struggle between the conflicting worlds of public and private. His adaptation to expectations yielded loss, but the acquisition of common language also positively impacted his life by giving him a public voice.
Borich, on the other hand, is a lesbian woman who struggled finding public language to represent her private relationship with her long time significant other, Linnea. Borich Describes her struggle with language by stating, “...in that queer way we learn to roll with a language we are at once completely apart of and completely excluded from.” Similar to Rodriguez, Borich feels both apart of and excluded from a language. For Borich, it is not an entire language but a representative one. When Borich asks Linnea “Do you think we’re married?” (Borich 2) she responds stating “I think you’re my wife” (Borich 2). Borich replies , “‘You are my wife too.’ But this is not the right word for it. I can feel the vague tensing in her [Linnea] limbs” (Borich 2). Borich struggles with the fact that there is not language that accurately describes her personal relationship. She finds that the word wife does not fit Linnea and even makes her feel uncomfortable, pushing her away. This lack of public language complicates their private relationship by forcing Borich to consider, “In all those places, public and private, I ask her ‘Are we married?’” (Borich 5). Borich feels the need to label their relationship because as a society, we have created a need for this categorization. The public world casts us into binaries based on larger concepts like race, gender, language, and sexual orientation in an attempt to understand us. We even do it to ourselves. We search for something to belong to so that we are not considered to be different. However, this process only forces us to highlight our own otherness. In Borich’s case, she finds herself attempting to conform to the terms of marriage, like husband and wife, although they do not apply. She seeks labels to describe her private relationship in terms that the public can understand.
The themes addressed in Borich’s work raise a series of questions many have yet to consider. This is exemplified in the conclusion of her testimonial when she asks her significant other if they are married, even after establishing that they are “husband and wife.” Borich leaves this powerful question unanswered forcing the reader to consider why does it matter if they are married or not? The question reflects otherness in society. If they are not married then how can we understand them or categorize them? How can they understand themselves? Furthermore, in describing her struggles conforming to the concept of marriage and the terms husband and wife Borich asks, “Can I call her husband without meaning man? Without meaning woman who wants to be a man”(Borich 2). These articulations hold significant meaning and clearly display how there is a lack of representative language. In addition, Borich also asks, “Who does the word fit?”(Borich 2). The words we use, like husband and wife, have their own connotations that have developed over time, generalizing them and making it difficult to accurately describe their intended subjects: human beings and the unique relationships we share. Labels are made important by the public world and the significance they hold enables them to impact into our personal lives.
The impact of public categorization on our private lives is inescapable. This influence has been made clear through the testimonies of Richard Rodriguez and Barrie Jean Borich who both experienced public impact on their private worlds. As a result of the fear of otherness, both authors searched for public language in an effort to conform to societal expectation. However, otherness too, is inescapable. The categorization of human beings based on difference is a common, undeniable practice. However, instead of demonizing the differences between one another, we must learn to celebrate them. We must stop in our attempts to classify each other because if we continue we minimize the power of language.
Borich, Barrie Jean. “When I Call Her My Husband.” My Lesbian Husband:
Landscapes of a Marriage, Graywolf, 2000, pp. 1-5.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited
by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., shorter 14th ed., W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 274-79.
Voting is both a right and a privilege here in the United States. However, though this is true, not nearly enough citizens are letting their voice be heard in terms of sparking change or starting conversations, making it harder to call the U.S. the “Land of the Free.” But, we can’t merely blame American citizens. Due to the government making voting laws incomprehensible, along with public schools not preparing students to participate, uneducated voters walk the streets of the U.S. every day, missing out on their opportunity to participate fully in their democracy. However, with the help of local government leaders and the amelioration of public school’s curriculum, this crisis is fixable.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed many factors for Southern Black communities. Ronald J. Terchek, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, in his article, “Political Participation and Political Structures: The Voting Rights Act of 1965,” explains that, “In 1964, the year before the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress, 24.6 percent of the blacks were registered in the Deep South compared to 56.5 percent in 1967” (28). This shows that the main factor preventing blacks from voting was the literacy tests and poll taxes, and once they were eliminated, we saw more than double the voter turnout. However, Terchek also argues that though many see the poll tax as a law that held back black voters, when the poll tax was taken away, there was less of an increase in instant voter registration than the states that had no poll tax to begin with (26). Change isn’t expected to have immediate effect on the society, thus voter registration increased and progressed over time. Though the literacy test was one that disenfranchised black voters and made it nearly impossible for them to become eligible to vote, the idea that minority voters should be educated was fair. Therefore, as a society, we must continue to make sure that not only minorities are being educated, but that all Americans are educated for the future of our democracy. Though suppressive, the simple idea of education could have helped citizens make better choices in their democracy.
According to the United States Census Bureau, which displays data from the government to the public, in the 2016 presidential election, 64.2% of Americans (both male and female) 18 years or older were registered to vote; however, only 56% of them actually voted (“Data”). This disparity is frightening, and makes me think that citizens either didn’t have time to vote, or rather, they didn’t care. In fact, in an excerpt from Does Your Vote Matter? (Special Report) by Business Week, the authors claim that, “‘[A]mong 172 countries with democratic elections, the US ranks 139th in participation’” (qtd. in “Government” 18). Citizens may have their excuses, and we’ve heard them all, but nothing can excuse an American for not acting upon their civic duty, or supporting their free country, government, and democracy. Why call the United States a democracy if not everyone is politically active? The Virginia Journal of Education, which provides current information on trends and issues, explains the correlation between education and voting, sharing that, “The higher level of education, the higher voting rate”, and indeed proved that “29.9% of high school dropouts voted, while 49.1% of high school graduates did, along with 72.6% of college graduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau” (“Public Schools Help” 7). Though perhaps outdated, as the research was conducted in 1996, the main idea that educated citizens are more likely to vote remains constant. Furthermore, if educated civilians are more likely to vote, the government should ensure that the public school curricula doing its job correctly, efficiently, and substantially.
The government supposedly runs everything, yet they can’t seem to help us vote. In fact, they make it harder for us by making the laws and propositions too complex for the common person to understand. According to Ronald J. Terchek, the historic increase of registered, black voters from 1964-1967 was accomplished through local communicative leaders that explained, in a much simpler way, the necessary steps for registration (33). This was able to draw in many voters, as these leaders also provided child care and other services during the times of voting. For future advancements, we should look back at history to see what was successful, and appoint local leaders to help with not only voting registration, but providing services on election day to ensure the highest possible number of voters. If the government wants us to vote and be politically active, then why are they making it so hard for us to do it while they could find ways to be more supportive?
Some of the problem involving voting disparities, Ted Selker, MIT Director argues, derives from technology and the various ways of modern voting. He explains that over 2% of the 150 million registered voters in the United States were unable to vote in the year 2000 due to database errors, equipment glitches, and the difficulties of polling places, such as the seemingly endless lines (qt’d in “Government” 18). Two percent of 150 million, to look at in a bigger lens, is 3 million; thus, that’s 3 million votes lost due to the government’s inability to provide equally productive polling places to all areas across the United States. Not only is it the responsibility of the Americans to vote, but more importantly, it’s the duty of the government to guarantee that everyone has equal voting opportunities. Lisa Schur, professor and Chair of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, in her article, “Disability, Voter Turnout, and Polling Place Accessibility”, finds that inaccessible polling places reduce the number of votes from the disabled, and may make them feel unwelcome to exercise their rights of being an American citizen (1375). An American is an American, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, or background, and just because they may be different, it doesn’t mean they can be suppressed of a freedom given to everyone else. Disabled bodies are proven to have more difficulty voting, as shown in a poll taken from the United States Census Bureau. They claimed that “almost one-third (30.1 percent) of voters with disabilities reported one or more difficulties in voting, compared to about one-twelfth (8.4 percent) of voters without disabilities” (Schur 1380). The disparity here is over 20%, and to put this into perspective, about 3.4 million disabled voters reported a complication in the voting process. Schur also explains that out of the various types of dilemmas (which included seeing the ballot, understanding how to work the technology, finding the polling place, and writing on the ballot), comprehending modern technology was one of the majorities (1382). Technology is one thing that is always updating, but the government must take control of this, and realize that not everyone has the same abilities to toil with these modern, confusing electronics. Overall, these flaws are fixable, especially when it comes to making aspects simpler. They can be corrected with the help of national leaders, and therefore, the government must update, improve, and reform its technology and the voting process in order to ensure full participation.
Public school curriculum across the United States isn’t implementing American history nearly as much as necessary. In fact, “Almost a decade ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute[...] found that three-fifths of the states had weak or inefficient U.S. history standards” (Kaufer-Busch 64). Though this number may sound surprising, it fits into the fact that there is an absence of substantial content in core standards throughout the country. Not only is the curriculum failing, but in specific, the textbooks are “light on subject matter, watered down on content, peppered with partisan perspectives, and written in a boring tone” (Kaufer-Busch 65). Textbooks are a main part of the school’s curriculum, and Kaufer-Busch proves that the students aren’t getting any valuable information out of them. Thus, we can conclude that students in U.S. history courses are being robbed of a true, content-rich class. If the government wants us to be so politically active, they should shape the school curriculum to teach us about becoming those people, and if they do that, we can expect the individual to take responsibility, voice their thoughts freely through voting, and most importantly take advantage of our free democracy.
Education is clearly the key to a successful career path. No matter what career or field is chosen, an individual will benefit from education, and little do they know that it may influence their economic status, along with their well being. The Virginia Journal of Education explicitly claims that “Public schools remain the backbone of American democracy. [...] They offer a way for diverse groups to learn to survive and thrive together” (“Public Schools Help” 10). Not only do educational standards provide essential skills for becoming socially and economically successful, but they make a productive future a possibility for anyone willing to learn. In the book, Civic Education and the Future of American Citizenship, Elizabeth Kaufer Busch, professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University, claims that “Knowledge of our history is central to the character of our citizens and our nation[...]” (61). If character really counts, as learned in elementary school, then we should start paying more attention to the history of our country because not only does it affect our personalities, but it affects the way we live and our how we make our day-to-day decisions. As a society in whole, we could highly benefit from more knowledge of how our country came to be, and right now is when Americans need it the most. If we aren’t informed, we make unsound decisions about politics, practically creating our own monster for the future. Kaufer-Busch also explains a study in 2007 that conducted reports from college freshmen, and saw that they scored close to a 51% on a basic politics and U.S. history exam, while seniors only performed 3% higher (62). If college students don’t understand the government, what makes public education curriculum creators think that they will learn it all on their own?
John Dewey, American philosopher and educator, made the strong correlation between education and democracy known to society, thinking that in order to be successful, the public school curriculum needed to be relevant to the students’ lives, which meant developing and practicing crucial life skills for the bigger society to come (qt’d in Neiman). This doesn’t imply reforming the curriculum, rather it suggests additives that may make students more aware and understanding of the democratic society they live in. However, Andreas Mårdh and Ásgeir Tryggvason, professors of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences at Örebro University in Sweden, argue that a democratic education is one that “revolves around the living with others” (603). Their interpretation of a true democratic education is one that, “[is] an associative life with others that is characterized by the interplay between belonging together on the one hand, and differing from each other on the other” (603). To a certain extent, this argument is reasonable, and it does define how a society works. However, it’s missing the most important feature of a democratic society, which is what this country has established in the Constitution: a society that favors equal rights, freedom of speech, a fair trial, and tolerates the views of minorities.
The education system and curricula is something that should always be modernizing and upgrading. John Quay, professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, asserts that “Education itself should be similarly reformed, reconstructed, reorganized, such that it could be part of, and contribute positively to, the ongoing changes being experienced [in the world]” (1014). The best way to prepare a student for their future is to teach them lessons that will apply to their future, and if we never leave the traditional textbook education system, we won’t be preparing them for a modern, civilized world. Quay also describes John Dewey’s viewpoint, adding that, “‘Democracy can not endure, much less develop, without education[...]’” (1016). Because education is fundamental to a working democracy, when one thing changes or updates, the other should as well. Unfortunately, however, we see a lot more democratic change than we see educational change.
Voting has come a long way since the start of democratic government in 1796. Historically, the voting process and who it applies to has been one of the most changed aspects of government and law in the United States. The disparities, though, in current elections are concerning, and there will always be room for improvement in our free democracy. The national government makes it harder for us to understand what could be simple laws, they make it difficult for the citizens to raise their voice on election day, and public school curriculum isn’t emphasizing nearly enough on U.S. history or government. For future successes, we must prepare our youth at early ages in education for the democratic action to come, and improve current voting conditions. After all, “memory is an essential part of human life because, regardless of our awareness or recognition of its influence, it informs our daily decisions” (Kaufer-Busch 61). This memory, this sense of understanding and awareness, can come a lot easier than we think.
“Data.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 11 Oct. 2018, www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
“Government/Voting.” Future Survey, vol. 26, no. 9, Sept. 2004, p. 18. EBSCOhost, libproxy.sbcc.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=14825177&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.
Kaufer-Busch, Elizabeth, et al. “Civic Education and the Future of American Citizenship.” Lexington Books, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sbcc-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1127703. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
Mårdh, Andreas, and Ásgeir Tryggvason. “Democratic Education in the Mode of Populism.” Studies in Philosophy & Education, vol. 36, no. 6, Nov. 2017, pp. 601–613. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11217-017-9564-5. Accessed 11 Dec. 2018.
Neiman, David. “John Dewey (1859-1952).” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/john.html. Accessed 11 Dec. 2018.
“Public Schools Help Us Meet Vital Needs of Students.” Education Digest, vol. 65, no. 2, Oct. 1999, p. 6. EBSCOhost, libproxy.sbcc.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=2302231&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
Quay, John. “Not ‘Democratic Education’ but ‘Democracy and Education’: Reconsidering Dewey’s Oft Misunderstood Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.” Educational Philosophy & Theory, vol. 48, no. 10, Sept. 2016, pp. 1013–1028. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00131857.2016.1174098. Accessed 11 Dec. 2018.
Schur, Lisa, et al. “Disability, Voter Turnout, and Polling Place Accessibility.” Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), vol. 98, no. 5, Nov. 2017, pp. 1374–1390. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/ssqu.12373. Accessed 18 Dec. 2018.
Terchek, Ronald J. “Political Participation and Political Structures: The Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 41, no. 1, 1980, pp. 25–35. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/274665. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
American authors Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, and Gwendolyn Ann Smith, journalist and activist, approach the subject of otherness similarly. Otherness is the societal separation produced by marginalization and the judgment that someone is outside of the norm. An “other” is categorized and put into a box based on non-specific differences. This is problematic because otherness creates a disconnect. In other words, otherness alienates. Both Nancy Mairs in “On Being a Cripple” and self-described transgender woman Gwendolyn Ann Smith in “We’re All Someone’s Freak” work to overcome otherness and their perceived deficiency through analyzing definitions of self and offering personal experience in order to bring specificity and understanding to their situations.
Mairs proudly highlights the word “cripple” in her essay, using this term to refer specifically to herself: “I use this word to name me” (64). This unusual introduction shocks the reader into paying close attention to her rationale. She then thoroughly explains why she calls herself a cripple, and not “disabled” or “handicapped.” In Mairs’ words, cripple is “a clean word, straightforward and precise… I have lost the full use of my limbs” (65). The accuracy of cripple allows Mairs to emphasize the reality of her condition. She rejects broad terms, such as disabled and “differently abled” because they are both inaccurate and create a sense of otherness that turns her into a condition rather than a person. Mairs spends time identifying and defining the labels used to describe her condition because she wants others to realize that she is different. She lives with Multiple Sclerosis. She is and always will be a cripple, and to pretend otherwise would be dishonest and a self-betrayal.
Smith also educates the reader about the distinctions between terms used to define the transgender community. Specifically, Smith focuses on her identity as a transgender woman. Not transsexual, transgender. This difference is critical, for the former is to reject one’s identity and the latter is to embrace identity fully. According to Smith, transgender people “choose to inhabit a third gender space rather than ‘pick a side’” (184). Smith introduces this distinction initially to prevent the reader from categorizing Smith and to instead understand who she really is: one who does not conform to one gender. She explicitly states that transgender is a blanket term for both non-conformists and transsexuals as a way to to inform and prevent misconceptions about identity that result in misclassification. Mairs and Smith are marginalized as cripple and transgender respectively, and they provide meticulous definitions of self as a way to climb out of societal mislabeling, presenting the reader with a more complex self. They show us that, while it might be easier to label someone, it is more rewarding to struggle to recognize and accept real people with real differences.
In each of their essays, Mairs and Smith share the experiences and struggles which come with their identities. Mairs faces adversity because of her disease, encountering intense ups and downs throughout her experience as a cripple. Though she strives to be accepting and optimistic about her disease, Mairs is continuously reminded of how her life is not ordinary and how this negatively affects her and the people in her life. For example, Mairs feels the burden of society’s expectations for her as a cripple, pressuring her to play a part: “anyone who deviates from the norm had better find someway to compensate… expected to be jolly” (69). Mairs admits how she surrenders to stereotypical views of her identity and how she experiences the strain of following the “rules” created for her as an other; she must pretend to be “jolly” in order to fit society’s definition of a cripple, and this causes her to feel like she has to “prove” her worth. Despite her rejection of this expectation, Mairs still struggles to find as much joy as she can in her day-to-day life without dwelling on the downsides of her disease. Mairs does everything she enjoys that is not restricted by MS, like teaching “writing courses… raised a foster son… play a fiendish game of Scrabble” (67). However, her disease does inhibit ordinary tasks such as getting dressed or camping with her family. As a result, Mairs reveals her experience with severe depression hand-in-hand with her fight for impossible normalcy. By admitting her frustrations while still living with and accepting her struggle, Mairs fights otherness valiantly. She embraces that she is different, and this difference defines her.
As a transgender women, Smith also faces adversity in her life. She experienced otherness first-hand when a friend approached her and asked “not to mention that I was a friend of hers” (184). Her own friend was fearful of being categorized as a transgender person simply by spending time with Smith. Smith responds that “It was a difficult thing to hear that my very existence was perceived as being enough to harm a person I called a friend” (184). Yet, shame and the urge to hide and avoid her identity was not the route Smith chose after this incident. Instead, Smith proudly waves her freak flag high as a person who is “professionally transgender” and “happy with where I am in this world” (184, 186). Though she has proudly claimed her identity, Smith observes the unfortunate otherness within the transgender community. She maintains that any group (such as cross-dressers, Trekkies, or transsexuals) may feel superior and judgmental to “someone they view as a freak” (185). This sense of superiority is used to create a false reassurance that it is not they who are the other. Smith urges her audience to be honest and embrace that “We are all freaks to someone” (186). Rather than alienating others for being unlike oneself, Smith wants everyone to admit to their own freakishness and put an end to otherness!
Mairs and Smith face marginalization with the conclusion that to embrace is better than to hide, and that although their identities bring hardships, they also generate purpose. Mairs educates by sharing her perspective through writing, and helping readers understand the complexity and realness of her condition. Though she does hate her disease (“My life holds realities-- harsh ones…”), she accepts that it is an unchangeable. She must make the most out of it: “I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one” (66, 73). Mairs takes being a cripple with “swagger,” and appreciates how it has enhanced her life by giving her the ability to assist and empathize with people struggling similarly, in addition to educating those ignorant to the meaning of being a cripple. She considers taking a stance and educating others her purpose. Moreover, by sharing her story, Mairs invites us all to embrace our differences in order to abolish the “self-alienating” feeling of otherness.
Smith fights for every person’s right to be comfortable with being a freak by calling attention to the fact that everybody is a freak; being “normal” is irrational, unnatural, and a “very limiting way to live” (186). If everyone were to embrace their messy, fallible selves, marginalization and meaningless classification could be abolished and “basic human dignity” could be obtained by all (187). In her essay, Smith’s purpose, like Mairs’, is to educate her audience about the limitations otherness creates, and demonstrate how one can break these limitations by acknowledging that no one is normal, and being a freak allows for exciting possibilities.
Smith and Mairs encourage readers to accept their own and others’ differences. Both writers defy adversity that comes with being marginalized through explaining definitions of self as a way to work to overcome otherness. They inspire their audiences to escape the human construct of normalcy and otherness. In comparing these two essays, it becomes clear that to eliminate otherness, people must begin by embracing themselves and then go on to embrace others, for “we’re all someone’s freak”!
Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., 14th ed., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 64-73
Smith, Gwendolyn Ann. “We’re All Someone’s Freak.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., 14th ed., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 184-87