Syracuse University Magazine

Three Halves


By Deborah J. Bennett

One day my 4-year-old was singing in the produce aisle of our local Stop and Shop supermarket. A fellow shopper asked her where she had learned such a lovely song, and she replied, “At church.”  The woman asked, “What are you?” as in, “What religion are you?” Charlotte did not blink before saying, “I’m half Catholic, half Jewish, and half Oregonian.”  

My daughter has heard these labels many times in her short life. I have always been tone deaf to my children’s complaints about playing in the rain. I never bore them with tales of how I walked six miles to school through a blizzard like other New England mothers, since I only walked three-quarters of a mile through drizzle. Instead, I shrug and say, “What’s a little mist to you? You’re half Oregonian.”    

Though I have lived in Boston for 20 years, I still feel like a stranger in this strange land of potholes and frappes. Moving East at age 19 made me question simple practices like saying hello to passersby on city streets and stopping at red lights. I am grateful to have a small window onto the experience of the millions of immigrants in the United States.  Amid all the discussion of immigration at the moment, there is little acknowledgment that most of us are not originally from this land. Americans claim their heritage in fractions—we are all a quarter this and half that. I am half English, a quarter Irish, and some percentage of “a branch off the Mohicans.” So what or who am I?  

Am I the geography that stamped me as a Northwesterner? Regional subcultures and stereotypes—the cold New Englander, the neighborly Midwesterner, the polite Southerner, the free-spirited Westerner—have given way to a new sense of geography, and we find ourselves painted as red-staters or blue-staters. Do voting practices cancel out the social mores that bind Westerners together from Oregon to South Dakota while uniting Georgia and Wyoming?

Or is religion the definition of self in America? Politicians have stirred up a fearful populace, applying the term “Muslim” as a synonym for terrorist.  If we label people in this way, am I synonymous with the worst episodes in the history of the Catholic Church, from the Crusades to the child abuse scandal?  

Or is race the definitive trait of each American? Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) asks the reader to reconsider the myth of race. Have I consciously or unconsciously subscribed to the belief that I am white? The humorous blog Stuff White People Like always struck me as unnervingly on target, but do all white people like TED talks and Downton Abbey? Do we all love roller derby in an ironic way? Does the fact that I grew up poor with a single mother, where nothing was ironic, make my membership in this group tenuous?  

My daughter’s suspect calculations resulted in her being one and a half people, and that seems right…the sum of our parts is more than a whole. We are layered and complicated people. We may be white or black, but not monolithically so. We are poor or wealthy or somewhere in between. But class does not equal a fixed set of behaviors and beliefs. And growing up in one faith tradition does not make us incapable of recognizing common beliefs.

Ethnic, religious, and class terms may be imposed on us, but we all seem to want to say something less singular, less binary. We want to say, I am from Detroit, but my family is Southern. I am African American, but my parents are from Trinidad. I am middle-class, but grew up poor. I am Catholic, Jewish, and Oregonian. I am one and a half halves.  

Deborah J. Bennett ’92, a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education, is an associate professor of language and literature at Berklee College of Music in Boston.