Many of us once believed (and some still believe) that identity was a simple thing.
Certainly I did.
My name is Scott Paine. I am the middle son of Louis and the late Gwen Paine. My maternal grandmother was the first elected woman postmaster in her community (maybe in all of upstate New York). My paternal great-grandfather was a prominent legislator in Ohio.
And, a few more generations back, my ancestors include Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, mythical (and actual) frontier legend Johnny Appleseed, and maybe, just maybe, Stephen Austin, the father of Texas.
I’m white or Caucasian (whichever), of English, Scottish, Irish and German ancestry.
That was identity as I understood it growing up.
Still, even I have seen my identity change. I was raised nominally Protestant. Today, I’m devoutly Roman Catholic. I’m . . . well, different than I was, by virtue of being Catholic.
And I’m married. Another choice that changed my identity.
And I’m a dad . . . 10 times over (plus two foster sons who spent some time with us on their journey). My wife and I chose to be parents of many children, including adopted and foster children, including children with African-American, Blackfoot Indian and Latina ancestry.
And now, I’m a grandpa . . . five times over (and counting).
Trust me . . . all of that has changed who I am . . . sometimes by force, but also by choice.
So which of the various identities I have had is the real me?
Of course, my simple answer is “this one, the one I am living now; the one I recognize now as ‘me.’”
The others were true in their time. Now I’m this one.
Just how far can we take that idea?
Rachel Dolezal, about whom I wrote earlier this week, seems to have built the last many years of her life around being, or at least seeming to be, African-American. She has at times spoken of the question of her race/ethnicity as “complex” (though the man and woman who reportedly are her biological father and mother say it’s really simple). At another time, she observed glibly (and, based on current anthropology, correctly) that we all came from Africa.
But I doubt that either of those responses satisfy men and women who grew up dealing with Jim Crow laws and whites-only facilities, or who have experienced the stress of being pulled over for “driving while black,” or who have been judged (and harshly) by the color of their skin long before anyone knew the content of their character. Even my own children of color, though raised in an otherwise white and middle-class household, have experienced some forms of prejudice because people assume they are black.
Which, of course, they are.
Except . . . well, except that race is much more complicated than skin color, and much less substantial than our genetic code. The DNA of an African-American and a Caucasian are not different because of the racial difference; there are certain physical traits, genetically driven, that we associate with one race or another, but they are not unique to those races. Race, in this sense, literally is only skin-deep.
The experience of race is, in a sense, imposed from outside, by the norms and roles assigned to people with certain visible traits. Anyone who ever has been judged because of their skin or their hair knows the experience of race.
Beneath the skin, however, on the inside of our ways of living, what we call race (and perhaps better describe as ethnicity) would seem to be about other things. How we grew up. Who we hung out with. What our parents did (or didn’t do). How (and if) we worshipped with others. What the priorities were in our household. How others looked upon us, treated us, judged us (for good or ill). What others noticed about us. What we noticed about ourselves.
Perhaps most importantly, what we believed about ourselves, about each other, and about others. About our worth, and theirs. About what we ought to give, and what they ought to give, for the privilege of life and this particular life. About what they are owed, and what we are owed, and about how we ensure that each receives what is his or her due.
So what is identity? Is it just whatever I decide it is?
I can decide I am the 4’8” skinny kid I was long ago . . . but that dapper gray belt-back suit I wore when I was a state champion debater won’t fit me anymore. I can decide that I have phenomenal eyesight, chuck my glasses, and strive to be an Olympic archer . . . but I probably won’t succeed.
The tangle that is identity, in all of its parts, cannot ignore physical reality, but neither can it be said to be fully determined by it. Perhaps as with most things in life, it is about what “is,” but also about what is possible, in our minds and in our sociocultural environment.
Certainly it is about what we see in the mirror, and in family portraits. But it also is, very much, about how we come to understand and interpret those images. They, and many other elements of our external experience and internal universe, form the materials from which we construct our identity.