Un-defining Identity and the Mentality that Sows the Seeds of Division
We define who we are by establishing who we are not.
If I am rich, then there is a “they” who are poor. Am I liberal or conservative? Man or woman? Introvert or extrovert? Good or bad? This is a general rule of thumb for most of us. Even the edgiest among us have adopted an identity based on being “different” from the rest; this is still diametrically opposed to being “the same.” Even in attempting to shake our identity of boundaries, we tend to simply adopt new ones. We assume that by categorizing ourselves, and in turn others, it becomes easier to function within the paradigm of an evidently immutable society. I grew up in a uniquely international environment where such divisions and categorizations, although present, were not as conspicuous as they tend to be in other communities.
I was born in the UK to Indian parents. At the age of one, my family relocated to Malaysia where my brother was born and we lived there for four years. When I was five years old, we moved again to Manila, Philippines. My brother and I were enrolled in an American international school there. We would spend the summer holidays in India with my parents families’. We would eat authentic Indian food, speaking our mother tongue in slightly foreign accents much to the amusement of others, and watch all the Bollywood movies we could in that time.
In retrospect, I probably began to conceive of my own identity as a full plate at a buffet dinner: I could pick and choose what to take on my plate even though the contents of the plate didn’t necessarily “go together.”
My peers, like myself, might be considered cultural anomalies; living in a country different from the one their parents grew up in, knowing multiple languages, adopting cultural norms that were a hybrid between the local culture, American culture and that of their parents, and having no real concept of “home.” Most of my classmates looked very different from me and from each other, yet these “differences” were so familiar that we often didn’t register them as highly significant.
Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t some perfect utopia. I went through what most kids go through in school: bullying, popularity contests, and rejection. But we lived in our own little bubble, almost shielded from the much deeper divisions that existed outside of it. Of course, this shield wasn’t impenetrable. Sometimes subtly racist behaviors or ignorant views would seep through.
After spending eight years in the Philippines, we moved to Stockholm, Sweden. There, I observed the closest thing to an egalitarian society that I had seen until that point: one where people were by and large treated equally. Comparing and contrasting the countries I had lived in, I began to grow increasingly interested in political and social issues. I wanted to understand what made these countries so different and who was responsible. I spent most of my high school years in Stockholm with the exception of half of my junior year and senior year which I spent in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Throughout my adolescence, I was exposed to cultures, customs and norms from around the world. I am lucky to have had this exposure; it allowed me to develop a lens through which I came to understand that people fundamentally tend to experience and seek similar things out of life.
I went to university in the UK in a small town called Guildford. There, I studied politics and sociology. It was a close-knit diverse student community in a primarily white British town. This was my first real venture outside of my bubble. On my first day at university, I encountered a potential new friend. We got to talking and of course, as girls about to begin university, we talked about pressing political issues. Plot twist, we didn’t. We talked about boys. She asked me in a nonchalant manner, “What’s your type?” I didn’t understand what she meant so I asked for clarification.
She said, “What type of guys are you into? White, Black, Brown?”
I was a little taken aback. I’m not sure why it caught me so much by surprise but maybe it was by the way she asked it. She could have been asking me to pick out my favorite shoe color.
I responded honestly, “I don’t know. It depends on the guy I guess. I definitely want him to be funny and someone who appreciates good food like I do.”
I assume this answer didn’t satisfy her as she concluded that I must not have understood her question. We moved on but her question played on my mind. I wondered later what answer she was looking for and why it mattered. Would the “type” I selected have changed how she viewed me? Would people categorize me in the same way and what assumptions would they make about me? My mind registered that moment as the first time when I had explicitly been asked to distinguish and judge a hypothetical romantic candidate on the basis of their color.
As humans, we are more alike than we are different. We are connected by shared struggle for acceptance, love, and through our pain. So why do we continue to magnify differences? Politicians, and public figures are always preaching unity but does unity work in their favor? It is interesting to think about who would lose out if we progressed towards a less divided society. Not less diverse, but less divided. Have we become so comfortable in our division that imagining such a world seems intimidating or fantastical?
The machines that run our society perpetuate these fictitious dichotomies: the media, partisan politics, our legal frameworks, our favorite movies and songs (unfortunately). In every story, there is a hero and a villain; the victories of the hero are intensified against the backdrop of the villain’s malevolence. It is necessary to ask, who is being depicted as “the bad guy” and what narrative is that depiction feeding into? At best, these fictitious dichotomies may feed into our sense of superiority or inferiority and at worst, they can literally determine the course of our lives.
Behind every injustice is a false narrative. Prejudice against women often stems from narratives that deem women less capable than men. Discrimination against people of color is often rooted in narratives that portray people of color as less deserving of opportunity than white people. Often those who face these injustices, to some degree, begin to internalize the narratives that serve to oppress them. Emphasizing a certain aspect of your identity to convey the shared prejudice inflicted against your community or group is helpful in deconstructing these narratives. However, this same safeguard can limit us from moving past the fixed identities that confine us.
My dad once said to me, “you could find something in common with every single person you meet and if you can’t, you’re probably not trying hard enough.” So far, he’s been right. Maybe we would achieve less division if we tried to vocalize our experiences in terms that those who encounter different struggles, rooted in the same basic emotions, would understand. No one can be completely morally sound. Our identities are constantly in motion; day to day experiences mold us and change who we are over time. Reject simplistic and divisive narratives. We often villainize those who we don’t agree with or identify with on a surface level.
How can we expect them to recognize our humanity if we choose to neglect theirs? Exposure and cultural awareness are privileges that some people could not afford; in the globalized world we inhabit, such awareness is a highly valuable currency. We need to understand that people can be limited by their life experiences.
I often wonder if we might be the first species on Earth to deliberately destroy ourselves. We have designed weapons that could quite literally wipe out the entire human race. 2020 might have seemed to head in that direction but I hope we take a step back and recognize the double-edged sword that is our power as humans. We need to reorient ourselves towards greater unity in order to combat issues external to ourselves: climate change, global health crises, and the potential comeback of low-rise jeans.
It’s as if we are so distracted fighting amongst ourselves that we fail to see the larger imminent conflicts. We can begin to strive towards this unity by recognizing the most powerful emotion that we are all bound by: pain.
Pain is everywhere. It is woven into the lyrics of our favorite songs. It fuels the fires of a heated argument. It festers in the hearts of grown men and women who never fully healed. Pain is truly omnipresent. While pain in small doses is necessary, untamed pain can express itself in monstrous ways. When tamed and nurtured, pain can evolve into empathy. I would argue it is primarily pain, not love, that makes the world go round.
Today is January 6th, 2021. As I write this, I’m in New York. I’m witnessing through my television screen, hoards of men and women storming Capitol Hill in Washington DC as a retaliation to the results of the 2020 U.S election. On the surface, a tyrannical leader has encouraged his crazy, racist, heartless supporters to overtake a symbolic monument in the country. Perhaps on a deeper level, a young boy who never received much attention from his mother and constantly strived for the approval of his father grew into a disgruntled man with severe psychological impairments. He adopted a personality driven by an untrained ego and extreme narcissism.
This man, within whom that unloved boy still resides, goes to great lengths to feel accepted in a desperate attempt to compensate for the love he did not receive as a child. This man tapped into the pain of people who exist on the peripheries of a modern society in which they have failed to adapt, perhaps due to lack of exposure or fear of change. Their pain has evolved into hatred and manifested into a destructive force of its own, leaving more pain in its path. We cannot fight pain with more feral pain but maybe we can approach the pain in others with a more evolved form of itself: empathy. This is not in any way to excuse, condone or justify such erratic behavior but to put forth the notion that such acts are often an expression of deep-seated pain.
While it is easy to dismiss people as stupid or evil, it is far too simple. If you want to understand an issue, empathize with the people at the heart of that issue. Find yourself in them. It is easier to create distance between yourself and those who don’t look like you, speak your language or share your beliefs than to approach their grievances as a fellow human. As someone who has spent her life hopping from country to country, the one thing that has become clear is that we are far more alike than we are different. If you want to understand a country, have empathy for the struggles of people who make up that country. If you want to influence change within a community, recognize the humanity of those within it. We cannot criticize a divided community without taking responsibility for our role in perpetuating that division.
We define who we are by establishing who we are not. Maybe we should begin to establish who we are by embracing our shared experiences of being human.