You are too.
I have you as
Integral part of me,
You are the other in me,
I am the other within you.
Together we create each other.
We have a relationship, a shared resource
Called ‘each other’,
Our joint creation.
I will be two
To a different you,
A brother or a mother
I come to the subject of identity after a lifetime of delightful uncertainty about who I was, who I was to be and where I would find emotional security and comfort. Of course the delight in delightful has been realized only after a struggle to feel at home in the Caribbean and in a variety of places in Canada in the face of my own early discomfort in the Caribbean about my parentage, and in Canada with repeated periodic reminders that I should not feel too comfortable, since it was obvious in the judgements of others that I was a newcomer, that I stuck out like a sore thumb and that my roots were situated elsewhere. Without that uncertainty I am sure I would not have reached the conclusions about identity that I will now express. This late in my life, I consider my early discomfort in trying to find an identity to have been an opportunity to think beyond the easy, automatic and obvious answers to the difficult, sometimes confusing questions about belonging and affiliation that guide interactions between the individual and groups of other individuals and between groups and other groups.
I also have some concern about the need to establish some elementary base of understanding from which young people in our wonderfully ambiguous extended family can launch their own explorations of identity within the framework of our ethnically and religiously diverse extended family. My grandchildren all seem curious about my ethnic, cultural and national origins and seem also to wish to adopt some of my original identities as parts of their own developing identities. (Here I emphasize the plural form of identity because I find that we have many and that they are dynamic, evolving, being added to and subtracted from a base of identities which are accepted as defining criteria of an era: (WASP, Yuppie etc.) I have reservations about those who would define themselves in a unified kind of way over a lifetime with a single, simple identifier. I have the intuition that binary labels facilitate oppressive tendencies like ethnic or religious cleansing and mask the reality that the binary assigns privilege and power to some while conferring the message of their inferior destiny to those on the opposite side of the binary.
As well, recently questions about identity have surfaced in conversations among us. Richard and Leighton A. and Anita G. engaged in a spirited discussion about Canadian identity at a recent family gathering. Aaron H. has an abiding interest in this subject and is exploring it in drama and in theatre. Nichola and Naakita have recent experiences which can add to the resource base available for mentoring the next generation of young people with diverse heredity.
Some of us have had DNA testing done and may like to share the findings of this genetic testing and comment on the data by fleshing out the findings and adding their perspective to the numbers. Others have had experiences which could shed some light on particular parts of the human condition that relate to ethnicity and events in the news and/or in the political domain. I refer particularly to a couple of distinguished Akins who both work in the area of law enforcement and who have perspectives on both sides of the issue of racial profiling.
Why bring up this subject now?
- My advanced age and precarious stage
- My 63 year curiosity about identity
- National and international political and social events, processes and movements bringing these always present, simmering issues back to the mainstream consciousness.
- The politics of identity
In the 1950s, “Citizen of the World!” is the provisory status that occupied the space which might normally have been filled by national identity. Traveling as a British Subject, from Jamaica, a country with as yet no international status, I arrived in Canada without a recognized national label. The lack of national status did not seem particularly bothersome to me at 15 years of age. I identified myself as ‘landed immigrant’, the niche designated for people like me, without quite understanding what the term meant. For lack of national identity I was still identifiable. My colour and accent gave me a status which was sometimes to my advantage in some circles but which predominantly gave me the prospects of membership in an underclass. I was credited sometimes however, with resemblance to a variety of coloured performers: Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Nat ‘KIng’ Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and even to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong! I wondered sometimes at the inability of some people to distinguish differences among individuals of a different ethnicity. The single common attribute of colour was enough to remove the necessity for further attention.
It did not take long after immigration to Canada to discover that this idealized notion ‘Citizen of the World’ did not work very well in a place which had assigned for me a predetermined identity which would restrict and limit my options when I came to North America. North America, more specifically the U.S.A., imposed its history and its sociology on the fragments of identity which had begun in the Caribbean. Whereas in the Caribbean I was undefined ethnically, I was redefined, given an identity which, at that time would have placed many limitations on my freedom of access. I later realized that the notion of ‘Citizen of the World’ was a profoundly elitist proposition which suggested that defining oneself in those terms implied that one is somewhat superior to the masses who define themselves by narrow national labels. Nonetheless in my late teens, in a new country which could revoke my status of landed immigrant at any time and send me packing, it seemed a good enough defensive strategy to mitigate against potential rejection by Canadian authorities after the period of my probation as Landed Immigrant.
There are tendencies currently, both to reduce and simplify complex concepts to easy binaries, and to fragment already seemingly unified concepts, concepts which seem already to possess elements which lend themselves to cohesion and unity.
The pendulum now seems to be is swinging away from the ideal of oneness, the unity of mankind and the common destiny of humankind which saw the earth as a global village and advocated increasing global cooperation in economics with multi lateral, political alliances, coalitions and the like. Is the ideal of the oneness of humankind unattainable? Is the ideal unsustainable given the foibles of humankind?
After 70 years parochialism has returned; segregation has returned with a vengeance. This time separation goes beyond the narrow confines of institutions or geography, of space on the ground. In the old templates of racial segregation, as practiced in South Africa and the U.S.A., neighbourhoods were enclaves within a nation composed of people of different ethnicity. Now thanks to the internet, people can live their lives in the same physical space and interact minimally, living their spiritual, emotional and psychological lives in cyberspace. The modern citizen can and does occupy the same physical space while ignoring other citizens even in the same apartment block. The internet has created important communities online where one can satisfy every human physical and social need while being virtually autonomous. Described as ‘bubbles’ or ‘silos’ these communities can function as psychological support for some or as sites of radicalization and conspiracy for violence on idealogical/religious grounds.
Is fragmentation and segregation our inevitable future? Where does the nation-state go from here? Is the nation-state still relevant? Are we to return to full blown tribalism?
Post Scriptum: We are or may become experts only in matters which pertain to our identity. We can only speak with authority about our own states of being or states of our own mind.