Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Another Dog Chasing Its Tail


That heavy heavy word. A controversial issue. A widely misunderstood and misused word. A powerful word that is often the single source of conflicts: from devastating wars to self-destructive thoughts and deeds.

What is my identity? That’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years. Preposterous, one might say. Your identity is so intrinsic a part of you that you should not have to seek to find it! I have a hard time accepting that. And perhaps it is just that, stubbornness, which keeps the answers ever-elusive. There is the truth of who I am, and a reality that I would prefer. Theoretically, in accepting the truth, my present existence will be better informed and through this awareness I will be able to fashion how I will exist tomorrow. But this introduces the question: do we have a choice over who we are?

Is identity displayed in your physical characteristics? The colour of your skin, the length and breadth of your nose? Is it your religious affiliation, your caste or class?

Oftentimes people proudly proclaim their geographical origin as a signifier of who they are. However this becomes baseless, considering that, for example in Africa, nations were constructed by European colonialists with economic intentions. Something I found interesting when I first came to the United States was that, when asked where they came from, many people would name the State that they grew up in. Some who had lived in several States felt that they couldn’t really answer. It was unusual to me because, for many, the States that they ‘came from’ weren’t necessarily ones in which their parents and grandparents ‘came from’. Coming from a culture where “home” connotates the village that your progenitors were born raised and lived in. Nowadays, as a result of major rural to urban migration and intermarrying between tribes, the younger generations do not have as strong an identification with this notion of home. When asked, it seems that the answer should be to claim the place that their parents come from, however, most young people no longer have strong ties to or even any familiarity with the place. Thus it seems untrue to claim the place. It is easier to claim the people, that is, the tribe. Indeed, for example in East Africa, rather than ask somebody where they come from, it is more common to ask what tribe they belong to. But as I mentioned about intermarrying… This question too is becoming a more difficult one to answer. As cultures come into contact with eachother, they are transformed and it is ill-advised to uphold antiquated expectations of them. What does this mean for the individual striving to grasp an idea of identity that suits her- or himself? If she or he is a product of several points of origin, origin then becomes a more complex factor in the composition of identity.

Throw in a little displacement in the culture=identity equation. Displacement usually connotates a physical removal of something from one place and relocation in another. However, mental displacement pervades too. Again, I speak with East Africa in mind, and even more specifically, Kenya. Neocolonialism pervades and reminds us (not that we’ve been allowed to forget) of the supremacy of the West. It follows that we should emulate our generous colonial fathers in any and every way we can. From the way we dress (yes, parliament was in uproar over members who insisted on wearing traditional attire); to the way we speak (the Queen’s English is often spoken more fluently than one’s own mother tongue); to the way we raise our children (television has taken the place of interaction with our family and elders who in previous time imparted wisdom, our history and our culture to us through oral traditions. Them being oral, most are now, irreversibly lost). So though we may not have moved far from where we “originated”, our minds transport us to England and America and being able to eat a hamburger and watch another mindless Hollywood blockbuster in the cinema every week reminds us to thank our benevolent fathers for pulling us out of the darkness and propelling us toward the kind of civilization that our labour, land and resources enabled them to create for themselves.

Can I pick and choose what I want to say that I am?

Identity is often defined as the characteristics belonging uniquely to the person that inform the person’s personality. Some beliefs see personality as a self-construct and thus not one’s true self but merely the guise of the moment. The true Self is seen as never-changing. Characteristics however, one could argue, are transient and can be influenced to change by various internal and external factors. Is identity thus dynamic?

Another definition of identity boils it down to the name that a person is known by. ‘Known by’ implies perception by something outside of one self. How one is seen in other people’s eyes. This then cannot be a sensible definition as, when we allow ourselves to be defined by others, we exist only as players in their fantasies and not for ourselves. Unfortunately, this is the true condition that so many people live in, often without even knowing it. And even when we do know it, it is something hard to escape as there are a multitude of social economical and political constructs that exist to keep us in obliging captivity. The same system that upholds these imposed ‘favourable’ conditions, facilitated the annihilation of the systems of our ancestors. There are many who militantly call for a return to past ways. In reality, this cry falters for it asks for something that it doesn’t know and thus can never realize. How far back is the past? Before the white colonizers, before the arabic colonizers or before the black oppressors? Living in a fabricated past one appears suspect. Living in a present that has been fabricated for one, one is suspect.

We are constantly acting. Sometimes we put on masks to hide our true selves. Sometimes we put on the mask that we are putting on a mask and so manage to be true yet within the security of the audience’s ignorance. If these are identities, then identity is shifting, malleable and an illusion.

Sometimes I think that perhaps the answer is to define oneself by attributes that one has a control over yet it is impossible to completely extract yourself from your foundations and experiences. Is identity constructed or is it inherent? Is it a cumulative of both given and chosen elements? Maybe the better question to ask is: what is the purpose of identity?

At a social gathering recently, a group of people were introducing themselves to each other. Inevitably, ‘where are you from’ was asked and as people began to explain their countries of origin, one man stated, with firm finality that ensured no further questioning, ‘planet Earth.’ As long as people live among other people, they will always strive to differentiate from or align themselves with others. Their interests (borrowed or their own) will determine what and who they claim to be. And that the claiming itself should be important. People will form prejudiced and opinions based on these claims and the marginalizing perceptions that they accommodate rather than forming them directly from their experience with the individuals. The Center will continue its tenure.

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