In an earlier post, I had mentioned that if we reflect closely on our own every lives, we live multiple identities. A man may be a husband to his wife, a father to his children, a grandfather to his grandchildren, an employee or boss or manager at his place of work. He would be a ‘buddy’ to his best friend perhaps. It would be strange if he didn’t have multiple roles. If he acted like a boss with his wife…..I don’t think the wife would like that. But in some cases the wife would like it, depending. Or if he acted like a child with his manager instead of his father….that wouldn’t work. But usually, we don’t think of these as ‘multiple identities’ because we are taught that identity is based on race/ethnicty, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic class. For now, we won’t complexify too much about taboos and silences and cross-over identities.
The categories we think of identity with, are taught to us by our culture. She has this identity (a single identity) and you have your single identity, and that person over there is a…..(single thing). We are things through which our positions and how we relate and how are fears or dominances play out. But father, boss, son, gardener, grandfather? They are identities but usually not thought of. So, we can see how identities are political. And if we travel, we understand these categories to change according to where we are. A ‘black’ identity in Britain is different from what is ‘black’ in the US. They include or not include different people in that category.
If a person was the son of a British white father and a Moroccan mother, then we might say this person is British-Moroccan? But what if they live in Ghana and the British father had been raised since he was 10 years old, in Ghana? What if he had met the Moroccan mother in Switzerland and she spoke three languages fluently, one of which is Mandarin because she spent ten years of her childhood there? Of course Morocco was a colony of France, so she spoke a dialect of Berber and French as well.
In the United States, there has been a history, albeit tenuous, of a pride in US diversity. However, there has not been a acknowledgements of identitydifference and diversity that was not ‘official,’ it being limited to political position and the time in history. Also, we tend to think in the categories described and then add nationality.
When I came to the US in 1962, as a child, there wasn’t too much talk about being ‘Japanese-American.’ These hyphenated terms for our identities today, are fairly new in the US and elsewhere even more so. But I had trouble later when people would ask what ethnicity I was. I did not consider myself ‘not’ Japanese-American. I found that Japanese-Americans that I knew–almost all of them, relied on the experience of the US internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II, as a common identity factor. This, of course, has been changing over the course of years, as the Americans of Japanese-ancestry have begun reflecting on their own diversity in communities. In a globalizing world, it is even more complex. More and more people have lived in more than one locale. Even within one nation, there is diversity. A white male CEO raised in Jersey and went to high school there, and went to Harvard and had all white friends, is not the same as a white male who grew up in the Broncs and met a woman who lived in Montreal, and moved there, then moved to San Francisco in his 20s and became a millionaire CEO of a clothing company. White, male, and American identities have some parallel here and there, but other that………
At first, in the late 80s, I would respond to questions of my identity with the ‘Japanese-American’ label, then clarify that I wasn’t typical. This didn’t seem to matter. Professors, doctors, my neighbor, my teacher, a co-worker, would bring up the internment experience, asking if I knew about ‘Manzanar’ the popularized Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Of course I studied that history and wanted to know of it, and have felt its historical connection to my history. But not as an experience of internment but as an experience of being ‘non-American’ and ‘non-citizen’ in the US. If we’re citizens, as James Baldwin says in the video I posted earlier, then why is it that we have to fight for or ask for our rights? I began telling people that i was ‘American-Japanese’ in an attempt to create difference. However, now I feel labels can sometimes stifle.
I think that it is a good idea to have hyphenated identities for now, but it is not the definition of someone. Identities, as I said in an earlier post, are political tools, not words that describe us. However, I have met a few ‘new age’ spiritualists who expound that they are beyond identity. How very convenient. The ugly head of the universal human being comes up. I call it ugly because the universal human being is understood to be the dominant idea of the human being. Why can’t we just be human? is the cry of a person who wants to not accept diversity. Again, we have to learn to look at the development of our own ideas of things. They were born in history.
Defining our ideas as coming from our deepest self, comes from particular cultural and historical ways of looking at the individual and community. This has never just been ‘the way it is.’ That, is also historically constructed. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter. Everywhere we hear and see different ideas that we have to align with in order to be the ‘right kind’ of human. Further and further we go towards forgetting while we try to align ourselves with the culturally-mandated notion of good or cool. At the same time, the new is always being created. The new is not the problem or issue. It is how this is done.
For people who have and continue to strive for cultural survival, the memory of their ancestors and cultural heritage are strong. They may or wish not to assimilate to the dominant national identity–especially if that dominant nation has oppressed them. Why should someone want to become their enemy unless it was by force or for some sort of benefit? For others of that group, they may have assimilated in order to survive or were forced to. Assimilation is also a complicated issue. There has always been assimilation. It is the forced assimilation and forgetting, then the dominance–these are the issues I seek to understand in the world and communities and people. Some people ask things such as: “Why don’t the Kurds just become Turkish and stop creating a fuss? Because becoming the dominant means you lose yourself and your community, your ways of knowing and loving, creating meaning. You have to become foreign to yourself.
Especially in the United States, I find, the lack of will to understand cultural loss is strong. It is because we think of mobility as freedom. Moving identities is also a form of mobility. If a Berber person is being tormented in Algeria, then they should just go to another location–so many US Americans think. Even if that person does, it comes at a tremendous cost. Not only are they becoming foreign to themselves, it is a reminder of knowing that they are unwanted. It is double victimization. They have relations, ways of relating, thinking and acting that are understood in this community. They have ties to the ecology. In US American urban areas, people have no thought of ecology except as places to enjoy themselves camping or hiking or sailing. There is no ‘tie.’ For a person who has ties to their locality, it is painful indeed, to ‘move’ either by force or by necessity.
So in ways that are many many many–we have to begin to look at history, so that we can do it differently. Otherwise, we become accomplices in the game. I respond to people’s questions about identity by saying that I have heritages, ancestry, commitments, legacies, a birthplace, experiences and things I cherish.