Identity is something that, for most people, seems a no-brainer.
“I’m Jewish and grew up in New York.”
“I’m Italian and grew up in North Carolina.”
“I’m black and I’m from Georgia.”
If you have a culture you were raised with, a town you grew up in, or a race to identify with, you fall into a category by merely existing. You have a common bond with a group of people and easily fit into a community. It’s not something that most people have to think about, as it just naturally occurs. There’s memes of things like “you know your mom’s filipino if…” or “growing up black…”
I believe culture is important. I believe tradition is important. Having a sense of belonging is important. Though there’s many amazing things that come out of identity, there’s also been some pretty terrible things.
The inclination to fit into a group is natural. It’s a survival mechanism. “These people are like me. They are relatable and I feel safe.” It’s a way that people have co-existed since the beginning of time, but it also serves as divisive. If you cling to your identity, anything different can seem scary.
Growing up, I didn’t realize how strongly people felt attached to a single certain self-identifier. My mother is Micronesian. More specifically, Kosraean. I’m sure you haven’t heard of this place. It’s a 42 square mile island with approximately 6600 people, nestled in the middle of the ocean. She grew up in a place where you can see a six year old child rocking a baby to sleep, children effortlessly climbing to the tops of coconut trees, and A.C. is a luxury few can afford. It was easier to just say I was half Hawaiian.
My father is German and Jewish. His mother is from war torn Germany (Munich) and his father from Brooklyn, New York (my great grandma came to the U.S. from Poland.) EDIT: Possibly from Ukraine which used to be a part of Russia, the history is a little fuzzy.) My father grew up in the military, moving every few years and eventually joining the military himself after completing his degree at West Point.
I myself grew up a military brat. I moved every couple of years, going to nearly 10 different schools. I wouldn’t have it any other way because I feel it shaped me into the person I am today.
The point of this brief family history is to show you how mixed my background is. When I was younger, I used to ask my dad recite to me everything I am. I felt a sense of pride in being mixed; in being able to identify with so many people. My feelings of pride from coming from such a diverse background changed as I got a little older. In middle school, I remember feeling a sense of shame for being different. “Why is your mom asian looking?” “Roth? Are you like Jewish or something?” “Why do you and your sister look so different?” Often times, these questions seemed to be asked out of innocent curiosity and I was happy to explain. But there were a few times when I could tell they weren’t being asked out of genuine curiosity for an answer. They were being asked as a sort of way to knock me down a notch and make me feel uncomfortable. They were silent attacks.
I wasn’t dark enough to be Micronesian. I wasn’t Jewish enough because I wasn’t Mitzvahd. I wasn’t German enough. I didn’t know what I was and I felt a strange urge to pick one and stick with it. Fortunately, I grew up and was wise enough to see how fortunate I am to be who I am; a little bit of a lot of people. And this brings me back to identity and why I ultimately find it to be more hurtful than helpful.
I think clinging on so strongly to a sense of identity makes it easier to segregate “us” from “them.” I don’t believe tradition or race or culture should be ignored. It’s an important part of our history and something innumerable amounts of people have died defending. I do believe it would ultimately be better for people if we didn’t keep it so segregated though and had more intermingling. If we continue to cling so strongly to one identity, it gives people an excuse to dehumanize others and forget that in the end, were all just the human animal.