Developing a gender identity: Asian skin in a white World

Abstract This paper is a report of my still-evolving gender identity – which has undergone some changes as I considered my ideas prior to writing. My thoughts have been guided by Maccoby’s theory (1998) of gender identity developing over the life span – beginning when biological differences result in the two sexes growing up in two different cultures and continuing after women and men then come together. My own gender identity has been entwined with my being the daughter of a white mother and an Asian father who died when I was a baby.

Being a person who appears totally Asian and living in an extremely white world has been an important part of developing a gender identity. Developing a Gender Identity: Asian Skin in a White World How do I currently view my own gender identity? I used the word “currently” because it reflects the general theory I have chosen to think about the development of gender identity (Maccoby, 1998). It would be easy to describe events in my life outside of the context of a theory. However, I can only interpret these events as related to my concept of “gender identity and its development” within a framework provided by a theory.

While it’s apparently acceptable for every man [“Dear APA Manual Writers: Please let me finish,” 2003], woman, and child on the street to claim they have a “theory,” theory development is a process involving knowledge of existing theories, empirical findings confirming or disconfirming aspects of these theories, modifications based on disconfirming data, until – sometimes – what emerges is a theory (though few have the ultimate impact of Freudian or Piagetian theories, for example).

Contrary to her influential previous research (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), Maccoby’s own research and the research of others resulted in a theory of gender development that included biological influences and also proposed continuous development over the lifespan. Most notably, based on studies of human and other primates, Maccoby attributes the early preference for “rough and tumble” play among boys and play involving social relationships among girls to biology, i.e. , to hormonal differences.

Thus, biologically based differences in interests result in children playing mainly in same-sex groups beginning at around the age of three, so that girls and boys have grown up in two different cultures before they come together again, beginning after the age of about eight. Along with early differences in experiences and cognitions between cultures, within-culture differences increase after the sexes begin to come together again (e.g. , within-group status).

Thus, biology, experience, and cognition influence and interact with each other in the development of gender identity over the lifespan. This theory is important to me both because I consider my gender identity as developing, rather than complete, and because what seems an unfashionable value, a nurturing relationship with my future children, is a central part of my current gender identity.

Fortunately (and perhaps sadly), Maccoby’s stature and obvious scientific integrity in questioning bias in her own former theory makes it difficult to ignore that most inconvenient term “biology. ” Indeed, whatever the source, there has been a history, beginning with Maccoby and Jacklin (1974), of researchers in women’s studies failing to find or finding few and small gender differences.

It’s perfectly reasonable to assess Hyde’s evidence for concluding there have been “inflated claims of gender differences” (2005, p.587) – but concern about the “serious costs” of such claims, perhaps ironically, raise questions about criticisms of “traditional research” by “feminists [who] believe values enter into all aspects of the research process” (Rider, 2004, p. 83).

Indeed, to present the problem of observer bias influencing the results of research – whether on gender identity or gender in general – whether in the hard or social sciences – as a previously neglected concern can only be described as an exercise in reinventing the wheel.

Less than half a century after the beginnings of experimental psychology in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Hunt & Ellis, 2004), contradictory results attributable to inadvertent bias led to the “behaviorist revolution” (Watson, 1919, cited in Hunt & Ellis, 2004), where research on the mind itself, let alone research on the minds of what we then were permitted to call the two sexes, came to a halt until the cognitive revolution of the 1960s (e. g. , Neisser, 1967). My Gender Identity Contrary to the rule that at the magic age of eighteen, like Cinderella’s coach turned into a pumpkin, girls become women (APA Manual, 2003, p.69), I’m not alone in feeling the term “woman” doesn’t yet fit.

(There is, however, an unfortunate need for guidelines, since without them, apparently, a 30-year-old man would say “his girl would bring coffee,” referring to his 50-year-old secretary, as his wife would say “the girl comes today,” referring to the 50-year-old woman, often of color, who cleans her house – and, of course, “the boy” working on a farm was likely to be a 50-year-old African-American man. ) So, I identify myself as an 18-year-old girl approaching womanhood.

Obviously, I have no memories of not knowing I was a girl and, with a child’s limited vocabulary, would always be a girl (barring some unexpected future urge for surgery). However, my mother has told me (and unfortunately likes to tell others) of a day when I was between two- and three years old when she found me standing in front of the toilet, naked, with my hands frustratingly trying to find something. When she asked what I was doing, she thought she was hallucinating when I said “I’m looking for my penis. Where is it? Did you cut it off? ” She said I looked puzzled when she accused me of reading Freud.

However, when I was older, we agreed I may have expressed the quintessential blindness in party-line feminism: How is it possible to ignore the most obvious of differences between the sexes? Is this the beginning of “fear of Freud” theory? I was at a pre-school that had a room with little toilets where toddlers and pre-school children emerged from their separate cultures to enjoy either success or failure in Peeing 101. It’s perfectly understandable that a child wants what another child has – whether it’s a penis or a teddy bear. Yes, if out popped a baby from me, Johnny probably would have wanted to do the same trick.

But it’s, well, silly to think that toddler boys are considering that in the far distant future, they may decide they’d like to have babies. I very much doubt that somewhere in the dark recesses of my unconscious lurks a deep yearning for my poor lost penis, but he had one and I didn’t, and at that time, yes, without apology, I think I must have “envied” him for having a penis – which very well may be a typical child’s first observation of a gender difference. I do doubt whether what followed my “discovery” was the typical way children learn about sex (whoops! “penile-vaginal intercourse,” APA Manual, p. 74).

When I asked what penises were for, my mom told me – everything a self-respecting baby needs to know about sex. I doubt too whether another adventure on the road to gender identity, parts of which I remember well, was typical. When I was about four years old, I became “engaged” to a young gentleman of three years. At least once, during the approximately two years we were engaged, after my mom and his parents were properly introduced to each other, I generously shared the information my mom provided me with about sex. From our separate table at a restaurant one night, all could hear as Will, my fiance, shouted, “I have to put it where?

” His parents nonetheless were as agreeable as my mom was to arranging frequent “play dates” and even “sleepovers” (he let me touch “it” exactly once, but I experienced lots of pleasure by myself! ). We not only actively played, but I remember we actually talked about the future. Oddly, Will was the one who was anxious to be a parent. Of eight children! Being a year older, I was the one who gave orders – and I ordered him to take care of our future urchins. Actually, he liked the idea – he’d stay home and play with the kids, I’d work wherever I chose, his mom would come to our house to cook and clean.

Alas, before the age of six, I was “dumped” for the first time – just because I had become a totally obnoxious boss. We were friends for a while, then he didn’t want to be seen with a girl and I didn’t want to be seen with a younger kid, and then we became friends and saw each other and still do from time-to-time. Otherwise, through my early years at elementary school, I played mostly with other girls, generally in groups of two or three. I remember that with one friend, Laura, we always played baby, taking turns at who would be mother and who would be baby or who would be mother and who would be father, with a doll playing baby.

For me, these experiences, along with the kinds of fantasies Maccoby described (1998), centered on me and Mr. Wonderful and caring for our babies, have remained an outline of my gender identity. At the same time, sports, especially soccer and basketball, became my passion – indulged through Recreation Department teams (which were coed and some of the girls I hung out with joined too, sometimes by choice, sometimes by their parents’ choice), summer camps, and sometimes by pleading my way into shooting hoops with the boys. I don’t remember ever wanting to be a boy, I just wanted to play ball.

As for my gender identity, I saw myself as a mother teaching my children and their friends how to shoot hoops. I don’t remember thinking much about future jobs, though at one time I wanted to be a carpenter, but I think I assumed I’d get married, have kids, and also some kind of job – most of my friends’ moms worked. I remember being a happy kid – but I also don’t even remember a time when I didn’t feel some sense of separation from my world by virtue of my race, which eventually became entwined with the development of gender identity.

My father, who died when I was a baby, was from Thailand, and my appearance is 100% Asian. I live in a small rural community, and, in addition to a girl a grade ahead of me at school, since a Chinese restaurant opened about five years ago, I also know a few Asian adults and small children. I know a Hispanic boy a year younger than I am who is the adopted son of the single white woman who owned the pre-school I attended, and he is the only one I know who has a mother of a different race.

Although, like my mother, I wish my father hadn’t died, I don’t know anyone in our community with parents who are different colors. I also know several African-Americans around my own age who live in a small section of the community, unless they’re the sons and daughters of a handful of faculty members from the University where my mother taught until she retired. In fairness, for some strange reason (! ), many minorities have refused offers of faculty positions at the University.

As part of the University’s mission both to increase the number of minority students (who, again for some strange reason, were able to resist offers to attend the University) and to “raise the bar,” a favorite expression of the Chancellor – who actually appears to be accomplishing both goals simultaneously by offering very large scholarships to excellent minority students (several of whom have told my mother that being accustomed to racism makes it easier to live with more racism). In our cozy little town, there also are different kinds of “white folks.

” Those who are the first choices for teaching and administrative positions with the Board of Education are certainly not those who are considered “newcomers” – most of the doctors, lawyers, storekeepers, and University faculty and administrators (at times, with considerable division among the latter two categories) who do not have great-great grandparents buried in one of the many church graveyards in the community (there seem to be almost as many churches as there are people in our community).

According to many “newcomers,” most definitely including my mom, this tradition might mean that in our community children learn even less than they do in schools located in other parts of the country. Even worse, according to these “newcomers,” the tradition probably is why children from areas in the mountains and from trailer parks begin learning the meaning of the word “trash” on their first day of kindergarten. Before many of these children drop out of high school, they take to wearing KKK tee-shirts, proving, of course, that they are as worthless as they learned they were in school.

Many more than I would have predicted do graduate from high school, some going on to the local community college or the University. A handful of bright and/or talented kids develop skin thick enough so that they beat the system. Then, of course, there are people, mainly white and African American, who work atthe kinds of jobs any community needs (maintenance workers, construction jobs, secretaries, teacher’s aides, etc. ) but are typically considered low in prestige.

While I began developing a feeling of difference before entering elementary school, it didn’t take long before I and other minority children realized that we were the first people who weren’t white that the mountain/trailer park children had ever seen. During my first few years of school, I often was asked, “Why is your mother white? ” My mom was tempted to suggest I respond that “she f….. an Asian man,” but as a Jewish woman from Brooklyn, born slightly to the right of Karl Marx, she began her efforts to teach me about social injustice.

She also began trying to make me see that we were similar in ways other than blood, explaining that in the “real” world, Asian immigrants took some of the heat off of Jews, as they began to take over the stereotype of being smart and motivated enough to succeed regardless of starting out with nothing. What’s wrong with this stereotype? By ignoring differences other than money, e. g. , tradition, the stereotype is a great way to foster animosity between different minorities, not to mention creating problems, for example, for Asians and Jews who do not fit the stereotype.

For me at least, there also was a certain contradiction because for reasons I don’t understand, more than a few boys who had never seen a girl who didn’t have white skin found me attractive. I remember that in first grade the teacher immediately called the mother of a boy who had kissed me – on the cheek. Of course, I was angry at the boy and told him so – but wasn’t calling his mother overkill? I also began to wonder whether there was something about me that provoked boys to behave badly. Generally, though, I happily continued socializing with girls in my class and enjoying sports until sometime early in fifth grade.

Of course, I had no idea that pre-adolescence was a time characterized by different kinds of girl-groups than those I had experienced and a time when the sexes were “coming together” (Maccoby, 1998). I had never given even a thought to “popularity” or, at least since I had been “engaged,” to what was referred to as “going out with boys” (no-one went anywhere, but boys and girls became boyfriends and girlfriends). Along with a few friends from fourth grade, I found myself at least tentatively in a group “earning” the title “popular.

” But the group was not yet “molded in marble,” so to speak, and I realized I was totally convinced that I had to be accepted into the group. Thus began the years I describe as “trying too hard” – turning friendship into work and trying to turn myself into the kind of girl my wicked mom refers to as a “cupcake with claws. ” Yes, for too many years I managed to be a member of the right group – a group that always had a leader who often had a best friend who may have become a permanent non-best-friend or else be temporarily demoted so another group member could be honored as the leader’s best friend.

Girls both were victims and victimizers, where some were more often victims and others more often victimizers. It was the leader’s job to choose a girl to exclude from a party or to single out in some other hurtful way. Recently, I read an excellent “qualitative” study conducted by a researcher who interviewed small groups of girls in a school for a year (Simmons, 2002). I was reading about myself and the other girls I knew and fully understood what “indirect aggression” meant, a term that has been used by a number of researchers including Maccoby (1998).

I had already started sharing my feelings with friends, but at the time I was training to be a “cupcake with claws,” I didn’t know that most of us were careful to wear our “happy masks” regardless of how we really were feeling. At the time, the only times that mask matched my face were when I was playing sports. Unfortunately, when it didn’t fit, my mask fell off too often and I was guilty: As Rizzo sang, “to cry in front of you, that’s the worst thing I could do” (Grease, 1978).

I’m not at all sure whether the study by Simmons really is the kind of qualitative research that Rider (2004) had in mind in noting “Feminist researchers have been very receptive to alternative methodologies, especially those that are qualitative” (p. 42). Pre-adolescent and adolescent girls can be big-time mean. Knowing about an early theory that the Nazis were “just following orders” (e. g. , Ahrent, 1963/1992), I will not even explain why I sometimes caused another girl pain.

As for the state of my gender identity at the time, I temporarily included the task of being a mother who trained her daughters early in ways to become successful in fighting for her place in “the popular group” – e. g. , unlike some mothers who left it up to their children to choose the guests at their birthday parties, all of the girls in my class were among those invited to my parties – and by the time I was in charge, my guest list consisted of anyone who wanted to come to my party.

As for boys, when the sexes were coming together in fifth grade, I knew which boy I wanted as a boyfriend – a boy who had been in my third-grade class. His mother was a teacher’s aide and he already was “going out” with the daughter of another aide who was a friend of hers and both families were members of the same church. During “track,” by the end of our walk, I was wearing his jacket. Bingo! That was an easy accomplishment that not only rewarded me with the company of a nice guy, but also brought me some prestige in the “group.

” When I told my mother I was waiting for a call from Nathan, she asked why I didn’t call him. “Oh,” I casually explained, “he hasn’t yet told his mother about me. ” She told me how she sadly waited for what she already guessed would happen: I was dumped for the second time. Nathan told me what began with words all girls and women and boys and men probably have heard at least once: “I want to be your friend, but I decided to go out with Camille again.

” (On a field trip, when I pointed out Camille to my mom, she wickedly noted – because, as she later said, she was too angry to be kind – “her ass is bigger than mine. ”) My mom and I soon discussed what she had known caused Nathan to want to be my friend when I told her that a girl in the group told me that some boys wouldn’t go out with me because of my color. One thing she asked me was whether I wanted to go out with “an idiot” who cares about the color of a girl’s skin is.

I liked that – we concluded my skin was my own personal “idiot detector. ” As the middle- and high-school years passed, I did have some boyfriends, and, along with some other girls from “the group” who remained my friends, I started to care more about whether a friendship brought me pleasure than whether I could be pleasing enough to be in a group that brought me pain. Predicting Future Experiences What do I at least think I know? I will have children – I think I’d like to have a couple by giving birth and a couple by adoption.

Four sounds like a fine number, but, assuming what I hope will be true, that I’ll meet a man I love and who loves me, and who may want a couple more or less, the number isn’t molded in marble. I also want to find work I enjoy. My mom had always enjoyed being a professor of psychology, both teaching and doing research. It isn’t easy to admit that I’m beginning to think about doing what my own mother did, but she’s a cognitive psychologist, while I’m interested in developmental psychology (and, unlike my mother, it’s beyond my imagination that I’d ever enjoy teaching statistics!).

My mother would like me to choose work that brings me pleasure – though she’s threatened to drown me if I decide to become a clinical psychologist or a social worker (she says my dad also was a bit strange). We both consider ourselves feminists – and we agree that the world would be a better place if men became more like women than the reverse (well articulated by the late anthropologist, Ashley Montagu, 1952/1999).

References Arendt, H. (1963/1992). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.New York: The Penguin Group. Grease, 1978. The worst thing I could do. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures. Hunt, R. R. , & Ellis, H. C. (2004). Fundaments of cognitive psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592. Maccoby, E. E. (1998). The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. Maccoby, E. E. , & Jacklin, C. N. (1974).

The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press. Montagu, A. (1952/1999). The natural superiority of women. Oxford, England: Altamira Press. Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Croft. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2003). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Rider, E. A. (2004). Our voices: Psychology of women. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls. New York: Harcourt.

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