What’s up with the word “real”, anyway?

I want to talk about the word “real” and how it applies to professions/hobbies, etc. Let’s start with this – it bugs the shit out of me.

I am, shockingly, something of an aspiring writer. I’m a “real” writer in that I’ve written things. Long things. Short things. I’m not a “real” writer in that I’ve never been, nor have I attempted to be, published. I don’t think of myself as a “real” writer per-se, but I also resent the value judgment of others in deciding for me whether I am or not.

This is an issue in almost everything.

You’re not a “real” Star Trek fan unless you’ve seen and loved the entire original series.

You’re not a “real” doctor unless you graduated from an Ivey League school.

You’re not a “real” comedian unless you’re embraced by the professional community.

You’re not a “real” musician unless you play in an unsigned band.

You’re not a “real” reading enthusiast unless your house is made entirely of books you’ve read.

I could go on forever.

This is stupid for so many reasons it almost seems silly to write a blog post about something so obvious. It’s this obviousness though, that I’d really like to talk about, because I think there is something inherently insidious about these attitudes that we don’t even realize.

I’d like to illustrate my point with an exercise:

Let’s reword some of the statements we used above, but this time, let’s swap out the job or hobby, and replace it with something a bit more touchy.

You’re not a “real” black person unless you don’t relax your hair.

You’re not a “real” Jew unless you live in Israel.

You’re not a “real” man unless you can catch a football.

You’re not a “real” American unless you carry a gun.

You’re not a “real” South Asian unless you can handle spice.

You’re not a “real” native unless you live on a reserve.

Those sting a bit more, don’t they? Hit a bit closer to home. Are they really much different from the examples above, though? It this not, at the end of the day, the same exercise of Othering people to make yourself feel superior?

My theory is that this practice, and all derivations of it, stem from 2 sources:

  1. It is just not possible to care about 7 billion people. We have to cull people somehow.
  2. We fear things that are different will threaten the things we love.

I don’t think saying the things above makes someone a bad person, but I do think it’s a practice that needs to end. I think we need to learn to better manage our emotions, so that they don’t reflect in how we treat people who have not done anything wrong.

The worst problem with this for me is that it is a simple and quick way of bailing yourself out of a possibly enlightening discussion. Why does the woman who relaxes her hair feel that she can both do this, and stay connected to her black heritage? What other characteristics does an American have other than gun ownership? What other things can a musician do that enriches them as a performer?

 Most importantly: what do we lose by narrowing our view to the exclusion of the views of others? I’d argue, we lose the whole world.


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