Growing up, I went to school with kids whose families originated in Iran, South Korea, India, China, Japan and many other countries. Unfortunately, I can't list all the countries because I didn't know where most of them came from. In fact, I don't recall having any awareness that they were from anywhere different. Later, as an adult, with a deep interest in Central Asia and the surrounding area, and having spent time in places like Iran, I regretted that I never took advantage of the opportunity to ask them questions about the places they were born or where their families came from, to satiate what would later become a burning curiosity about that part of the world. They were just the kids I went to school with, and their different skin tones were normal, because that's all I knew.
My childhood is fairly typical of many parts of Canada, and will even become more of a norm. Statistics Canada projects that by 2036 nearly half of Canadians will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. The majority of these are "visible minorities," a term that will eventually be inaccurate: we will not be a 'white country'. But nor have we ever been.
Yet identity - whether with reference to race or ethnicity, or to other characteristics like religion - is yet a persistently charged topic. And perhaps it was always so, as long as people have migrated, which is since the beginning, bumping up against neighbours who hailed from different places. And inevitably, maybe unfortunately, at some point, you become aware of your identity as linked to your physical self. Walt Whitman, in the sublime Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, wrote,
I too had receiv'd identity by my body
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew
I should be of my body.
But have we perhaps reached a point of narcissistic obsession with identity?
It's a ubiquitous theme, littered throughout conferences, panels, papers and theses, seemingly able to be inserted with ease into the discourse of any discipline. The problem is that often, instead of serious academic inquiry, the conversation hovers around an insular and repetitive narrative of injury, a non-analytical listing of traumas perpetrated by a nebulous "society" in which hatred is endemic. It inspires vitriolic (yet unfounded) accusations of grievances, as when a Black Lives Matter Toronto 'activist' recently called our prime minister, sometimes accommodating to the point of excess, a "white supremacist terrorist". It's the driving force behind confounding manifestos like this, where in declaring "I don't like white women because I'm not particularly fond of the construct of whiteness or what it represents. I also don't appreciate those who are complicit in my oppression and benefit from it," the writer spews the same kind of banal stereotyping she professes to oppose. Identity politics is acting as a lightning rod igniting the Left, and causing both elements of the Left and Right to recoil in response (while the alt-right similarly makes use of the same divisive tactics). The resulting rhetoric is fuelling a fire where everyone constantly seems to be asserting a bounded, wounded identity.
And in fact, it's almost becoming a requirement for membership in anti-discrimination discourse. To express solidarity with an aggrieved group, some creative interpretations of one's identity may be required. Perhaps this is part of the pathology behind the route that Rachel Dolezal opted to take, and recently, supposedly that Canadian writer Joseph Boyden is accused of having taken: painting oneself as part of a group in order to be able to speak 'legitimately' on the grievances faced by that group.
I'm a white woman who has spent my life advocating for women's rights in Afghanistan. Unapologetic for my lack of shared ethnicity with those I have strived to defend, I've heard an array of logic-bending criticisms, from subtle critiques veiled in the buzzwords of post-modernism, like the suggestion that all development workers inherently occupy a 'hegemonic' position, to less creative and cruder name calling.
But I'm opting to continue to leave my own identity out of the reasoning as to why or whether to engage in work that seeks to eradicate discrimination. Because the original reason I engaged in this work, forged in my childhood before I had any notions of ethnic and racial difference, I think stands up better as a position against the discriminatory and harmful treatment of others, then does identity politics.
When I heard that the Taliban had shuttered girls' schools, told women they couldn't work, couldn't leave their homes alone, or do a myriad of other things, I was a middle school student in western Canada. I wasn't Afghan, wasn't Muslim, had never been anywhere near Afghanistan, and probably couldn't find the country on a map. But I knew one thing. If someone told me I couldn't go to school, I would not accept it. So I couldn't accept it for girls in Afghanistan either. It was as simple as that. And I've hung my hat on this test ever since: if I can't accept it for myself, I can't accept it for others. The test is necessarily colour blind, ethnicity blind, religion blind, and gender blind.
And Whitman, while acknowledging appearances as a "necessary film" that envelops the soul, in his wisdom, ultimately invokes in the same poem the superiority of the shared human experience across people and across generations, noting how he was one of a "living crowd," and reaching out to us of the distant future to remind us: so are we. He writes of how, individuals across time and space, look out at a cityscape, a river, or to the sky, all with the same capacity for intensity and joy. We all feel, regardless of our envelopes:
These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same--others who look back on me because I look'd forward to them
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