Race, Gender, and Identity

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I have been thinking about recent discussions in the media surrounding Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. Though I don’t share either one of their experiences, in some ways I can relate to the questions these discussions have brought to the forefront. What is identity? What does it mean to reinvent ourselves? What are the implications of our reinvention? Who are we really, at the core of our being?

These questions are important to me, because like them, I have faced similar challenges. I have wrestled with the idea of identity. Until I was fifteen or sixteen, the foundations of my life were pretty clear. I knew who my parents were, I knew who my siblings were, I knew where I lived, what the world was supposed to be like, and who was different than me. There were many things I didn’t like about my life, and like most American teenagers, I was seeking to discover how I fit into the world, but the essential elements of my life were pretty clear to me.

Then it all began to unravel…

A decades old story began to be revealed, and I discovered that I wasn’t who I thought I was. So, I was forced in many ways to reconstruct my story. That’s the essence of identity. It’s our story, told through our eyes, but at the same time it is not simply a subjective tale; there are hard realities that our story will bump up against. There is a greater story built on solid truth that impacts all of us, and regardless of how many tales we weave, I believe there is a core part of this story that can never be changed. There is humanity as we were meant to be.

Rachel Dolezal’s story is crumbling around her. At some point, we run into hard truth, and are unable to live with the story we have weaved. Stories that are meant to express ourselves, become stories that entrap us, lies that deceive us, tales that are rejected by society at large, and we can crumble under their weight. Rachel’s story of race has disenfranchised many of the individuals she identified with, and sparked a discussion of race in our country that has overshadowed a much deeper discussion of racism that needs to be our focus.

Caitlyn Jenner’s story has, for the most part been well received. As a country, we’re seeking to expand our understanding of identity in light of gender and sexuality (among other issues). The American public has praised Caitlyn for being true to herself, as she is becoming what she was meant to be. However, there are many who disagree. They are warning that the hard truths are still in place, and that the human desire to reinvent itself has limitations.

The problem, I believe, is that humanity’s identity is broken. From birth to death, we struggle to pick up the shattered pieces, discover who we are meant to be, find our place in the cosmic order. I wrote about this experience in my poem Glass. In some ways it is about my continuing struggle with identity, as many of my poems are.

In reflecting on my story, I have come to understand that in many ways I am a typical postmodern American. The philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism fit well with the American story of self-determination. I can deconstruct my life, reach its core essence, than reconstruct it in any way that I please. The problem with this philosophical mindset however, ultimately leads to a massive loss of identity. I can deconstruct and reconstruct until I have nothing left but a corpse stitched together, and still no understanding of who I am, no comprehension of the inner essence that is my being. No matter how hard I try, as I put the pieces together, there is still something missing.

I am also a bridge, linked to the dying ideology of European modernism which seeks to tell the American story by clarifying who we are, and determining how we will respond to the “other” individual. This philosophical underpinning  by necessity requires classification, segregation, and condemnation of anyone who isn’t like me. This type of thinking impoverishes the soul, refuses to grant identity to others, and brutally oppresses the truth of their story. Sometimes, the story of the oppressor can seek to masquerade as the hero in the story of the oppressed. I’m not certain, but perhaps this is what has caused some of the strong reaction the the story of Rachel Dolezal. In seeking to reconstruct her story, she may have also caricaturized the story of other individuals, telling their stories in a way no less offensive than those who once told similar tales in the past.

This is part of my story as I seek to reflect on the continuing challenges these questions raise. In a future post, I will be sharing a framework that has helped me tell my story while continuing a journey of discovery. It is a framework that I firmly believe is solid, while at the same time challenging me to consider the philosophical waters of modernism and postmodernism that continue to influence my thinking.

Be watching for more thoughts, and please, take the opportunity to share yours. It is only by reaching beyond ourselves that we can discover ourselves, and I hope to provide some tools to equip our thinking and enhance our discussions.

In the meantime, may I suggest a wonderful TED Talk by Elif Shafak, a great storyteller, which will expand your thinking in a fresh way:

http://www.ted.com/talks/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction?language=en

 

 

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