I was at Chipotle this weekend, waiting to order my favorite fast food (crunchy chicken tacos with veggies, heavy on the corn salsa). The man behind me in line spoke fluent English to a child with him, but when it was his turn at the counter, he looked at the young female employee and began ordering in Spanish. The glitch in the plan was that while he was talking to a woman with brown skin (who, according to popular identifiers, might have a better chance of being a Spanish-speaker than others), she was not a Spanish speaker at all; in fact, as she pointed out to him, she was Asian. After a few embarrassing laughs the burrito bowls and extra guac were ordered, and everyone scooted out the door.
What I witnessed there in the checkout line was another stunning example of the fluidity of identity’s construction, or more fundamentally, the forces that create the differences that we call “identity.” Like most of the examples that we discuss in this blog, there are many levels on which this particular example might be analyzed; in this case, for instance, we could talk about the power of white privilege to homogenize “others,” or the commercialization (and preceding construction) of certain ethnic personas.
But I suppose what really caught my attention here was how the man likely entered the restaurant expecting to speak Spanish because he already had a preconceived notion of Chipotle as a place with Spanish-speakers. Because he anticipated a certain sort of difference — and thus identity — he found it. This, of course, doesn’t mean that an Asian woman wouldn’t necessarily speak Spanish, but I think it’s fair to say that because he saw at least some of what he expected (brown skin on a Chipotle employee), his perceptions of difference were provided enough data to align with his expectations, even when those perceptions were inaccurate.
Rather than being a rare event, it seems to me that this is the way that so many of the distinctions that we craft into identifiers work. It’s incredibly easy to label something in a particular way when we are lacking the context to see it as anything else. I hang my head in a bit of embarrassment when I report that I have, on more than one occasion, mined my local thrift store for treasure, only to figure out that what I’m hauling up to the register is stuff that I donated to that same store just a couple of weeks before. Why do I not see my own cast-offs as the junk they once were? The answer is that, in this new context, I’ve mentally remarketed the thrift store as the place where exciting, affordable goodies are found, so that those ill-fitting pants don’t strike me as “things I’ve already owned and didn’t like enough to keep” but become transformed into “fun, cheap stuff!” In this sense, it’s interesting to consider how our anticipation of a certain identity is perhaps more fundamental to the labeling process than concern over the “accuracy” of the identity we’re crafting.
Photo credit: Chipotle