A recent identity issue for a 37-year-old woman in Washington, America, raises many complex ramifications about identity and what it means to all of us as individuals. The woman, born of white parents, has been calling herself ‘black’ since she was just five years old, saying blatantly, “I identify as black”. This ‘colour’ issue has catapulted her into the pages of prestigious newspapers around the world, as her parents have strongly contested her identification with black people. As a blue-eyed, blonde teenager, the woman explained in an interview she always felt a ‘spiritual, visceral, just very instinctual connection with black is beautiful- just the black experience, from a very young age’. So just how is our sense of identity shaped and moreover, what does it mean for us as particular individuals? Or is it something others acknowledge in a way that can be completely different to our own sense of who we are? Certainly, in an earlier blog, I wrote about needing to be understood as human, rather than as masculine or feminine, but this colour issue highlights an even greater complexity, not necessarily for ourselves, but peculiarly perhaps, in the ways others perceive us and the consequent expectations of those others about our beliefs and behaviours. Adolescence for most of us is a time of searching, questioning and wondering about who we are; a time when we look in the mirror trying to grapple with our sense of self, ensuring we know who we are and believing in that. Choosing a ‘colour’ that superficially contradicts the ‘real’ colour of our skin can confuse too many people around us, but is it relevant that others might be confused about who we are as long as we feel content about ‘who’ we are? Does colour matter more importantly than gender, family or religion or other artificial assignments about who we really are?
I recall looking into a mirror in my school uniform, one donned by all other girls at my high school wondering what identity was really all about when we all looked the same on the outside from an apparel perspective. And indeed, when both men and women too often adopt the fashionable trendiness of particular garb, what then informs us about their individual identity? Is a ‘uniform’ mentality manipulating our sense of self and others’ perceptions so that we are simply observed as following the flock? Indeed, just being a part of it, inseparable and indistinguishable from all others around us? Does striking out to be an individual cause too many problems for others, be it based on what we feel comfortable and content with? Abandoning the ‘uniform’ is like jettisoning conformity, often wreaking havoc for too many people who are satisfied, albeit ignorantly perhaps, with standard rules of conventionality.
But what is our sense of identity really based upon? The Oxford Dictionary refers to it confusingly for me as both ‘absolute sameness’ and ‘individuality’; sameness I think meaning believing in one’s identity as part of a group of which all members are the ‘same’ and individuality then as being different from these groups. Can these apparently contradictory definitions be subsumed within one self in acknowledging one’s identity? Certainly, the American woman’s colour identity highlights this conundrum; on the one hand, she is so-called white, but it seems more significant to her sense of self that she identifies as black with a group based on race that’s different to her biological heritage. Is it that the latter contradicts the truth of her feelings as black? What validity is there for her to choose and moreover, understand, her own identity? I can’t answer for her, but I only know that identity is more than mere groups as I feel a mixture of so many feelings, thoughts and beliefs about myself none of which contradict each other, though they may seem to for those wanting me to conform to an absolute sameness mentality. When I was younger, some of the realities about who I was certainly confused me as I’ve penned in previous blogs, but can you so easily define identity as anything less than how you feel as an individual with all the myriad of ideas and feelings about all manner of peoples you might at different times relate to and identify with? These ideas et al change too over time, so too, can our sense of self, but our inner core of what we value and believe in can remain permanent within ourselves. Indeed, there have been times I have identified with blacks, refugees, males, Christians, Muslims and even sportspeople et al; as many of them have experienced similar oppressive behaviours to those I’ve experienced and failure and success too; albeit for different reasons perhaps. We can all share some of our common feelings and experiences whatever supposed identity others might ascribe to us without that supposition getting in the way of how we innately feel about ourselves. I can’t describe my sense of identity other than sometimes I feel very Jewish, very female, very single and very Australian, but at other times I do criticise many Jewish people for the values and attitudes they try to impose on me, likewise many females who too often condemn me for their own personal inadequacies and married people who seem very unhappy in their marriage only to regard me as ‘problematic’ because I have always chosen to be single refusing to marry just for the sake of it and of course, I often lambast Australia for the frightening direction it seems to be heading in regard to government policy and practice. Indeed, I often turn away from some Jewish people because I have absolutely nothing in common with them as their sense of being ‘Jewish’ is so averse and so different to mine, likewise so many women too and often I feel more of an internationalist than a devout, patriotic Australian. It doesn’t befuddle me and I stopped caring a long time ago about whether it confuses others.
The issue of identity of the women in America is a no-brainer for me; who cares what others claim as her identity as long as it befits her and the people she has as friends and colleagues? It is the same for so many identity issues as I’ve tried to outline, where our sense of who we are can be so multi-dimensional that it defies any specific or singular definition. Being an individual seems to encompass it more succinctly than adhering to ‘absolute sameness’. The ‘uniform’ mentality is however, still alive and thriving it appears from a letter I read in a newspaper recently about the clothes worn at the Midwinter Ball of parliamentarians and their respective spouses in Canberra. It seems two women were singled out for wearing –committing ‘a fashion faux-pas’ – ‘similar black asymmetric one-shoulder constructions’ while most of the men were wearing almost identical dress of black suits, bow ties and white shirts. Methinks that sums it up only too well for too many people.