November 22, 2008

The Pearl - Thoughts on Identity

Last weekend, Milady and I spent a nice afternoon with Gabriele Marranci and his lovely wife. Gabriele, if you don't know, writes the blog Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist. The Marrancis recently moved to S'pore, where he's working at one of our local universities. Milady and I asked them to go out for lunch with us, and we took them to a restaurant we like in the Arab Street area before walking over to Masjid Sultan to do salat (Asr).

Now I bring this up because one of the topics we discussed at lunch was Gabriele's definition of identity, this being one of his research subjects. I've been thinking over this idea for the past few weeks, but wanted to meet with Gabriele and discuss the topic personally before writing about it. Identity is not something I've given a lot of thought to in the past but, with the birth of my daughter, who is of mixed race, and various comments that have been made to me by people over the past few years, I've started to think more seriously about this issue. Identity is a topic Gabriele has focused on professionally, but I didn't agree with his definition of identity as he wrote in a recent post on artist Sarah Maple. So, having heard Gabriele speak on this subject, I thought I would write about how I view identity.

If I could give a metaphor for my definition of identity, it would be that of the pearl. A pearl is created when some sort of irritant gets within the shell of a mollusk, which then begins coating the irritant in concentric layers to protect the organism. The calcium carbonate, which coats the irritant and creates the pearl, is made up of different materials that, together, make up "mother of pearl." In my view, an individual's identity is similar to that of a pearl. Like a pearl, we have a nascent identity that acts like the irritant (although I wouldn't actually call this nascent identity an "irritant"). As we go through life, our identity is built up of multiple identities in layers that, in time, become both deep and complex. Like mother of pearl, these multiple identities are made from different components; in my definition, there are four: genetic, rational, cognitive, and emotional.

The first component, genetic, is the most basic; I don't know that I'd say the genetic component is the nascent identity, but it is, without question, the most fundamental component we all have. The genetic component defines us primarily by gender, and race or ethnic group. The first question on a parent's mind is, "Is my baby a boy or a girl?" Finding out the answer to that question shapes every aspect of how we all treat that child; likewise, for the child, this distinction, boy vs. girl, will become the most important aspect of their identity as they grow older. Race or ethnicity can also be an important factor in a person's genetic identity. This is one of the questions on my mind with regard to my daughter: how will she be treated by her peers as she grows older and they understand that she isn't fully one race or the other? I have mixed-race cousins who, as teenagers, chose not to acknowledge themselves as either black or white but, instead, claimed a completely different - and false - identity (they told people they were Puerto Rican). I don't want my daughter to go through the pain my cousins went through, which is why I'm concerned about this question. Likewise, we also define our familial identity through genetics. I am their grandson, their son, their brother, her husband, her father, their nephew, their uncle. We wear all of these identities based upon our genetic relationships to other individuals. We treat each familial identity differently, just as everyone else does in their relationships to us. As for whether our sexual identity is part of the genetic component is something I can't say with any certainty. Is he or she homosexual because of their DNA, or was he or she influenced in some way (lured by another, sexually curious, etc.) to try gay sex? I can't say; Allahu alim (God knows best).

The second component I label as "rational," although another name might be "membership." We identify ourselves as members of various groups. One of the first groups we join is that of a class of students. We proceed through school, joining other groups over time: the band, the orchestra, sports teams, clubs, scouting groups, and so on. In time we graduate, where we join yet another group, that of the alumnus. In all these groups, we usually make a conscious choice to join the group or not. I can become a member or I may pass on membership. My association and identity with this group is (or should be) based upon a rational decision. This is the area that I find most problematic in Gabriele's definition; I believe such memberships should be based upon specific criteria. Examples: I sometimes joke that, although I am of Irish, English and Scottish ancestry, I grew up Italian due to the cultural influences of various Italian friends and families (some of whom are extended family). Am I Italian? No. I lived for a year in Korea; just before I left there, one of my students told me that I was Korean, meaning I thought like a Korean. Am I Korean? No. In 2000 I reverted to Islam, and I accept everything that is within the orthodox definition of being a Muslim. Am I a Muslim? Yes (insha'allah). Are the Ahmadiyya Muslim? I would say no. By Gabriele's definition, I believe the Ahmaddiya might make the claim that they are part of Islam because they "feel" to be Muslim. This is not good enough for me. To be a member, you must accept the rules of membership; if you don't, you're not a member - you're a wannabe. Granted, the definition of who is a Muslim and who isn't is somewhat fuzzy, and we can all fall into and out of a state of Islam, in which case only Allah (swt) knows who truly is a Muslim and who isn't. But I can't just say that, well, I grew up in a quasi-Italian culture, and I lived for a year in Korea and, as a result, I'm both Italian and Korean. It doesn't work that way. Membership in these groups are based upon specific rules, and I can't just claim membership based upon my feelings.

The third component is cognitive, meaning by a person's way of thinking. This component and the next, emotional, are the two most important components, in my opinion. A person's identity through their thinking is ever changing over the span of a person's life. By our life experiences and attitudes toward a myriad of topics, we form numerous identities. Our ability to think logically and succeed through our educational systems often dictates various identities through life. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is a question we ask of virtually every child; what will your occupational identity be? We think about the occupation(s) we wish to be employed in and work our way through the educational process toward the desired outcome. (Of course it doesn't always work out that way.) In turn, these occupations often lead us to be in specific socio-economic groupings, another identity. Sometimes what groups we end up in is beyond our control, but most of us strive through our adult lives to be in the group(s) we aspire to. (For example, most of us want to be rich; very few of us want to be poor.) Similarly, we make choices about what type of lifestyle we want to live. Do we want to live in the city, the suburbs or the countryside? Do we want to be homebodies or do we want a more frenetic lifestyle? Again, these are choices we think our way through, although we may be influenced by others, especially our parents, about the lifestyle we want to live. The college or university experience is another major factor in the cognitive component. Not only are we preparing for a future occupation there, but we are also being challenged in our beliefs and attitudes by professors and friends. Each of these individual issues may form separate identities; we may become a part of larger movements.

The final component is emotional, and I think a good argument can be made that both the cognitive and emotional components are deeply intertwined. For example, memberships in a political party or religion are probably decided upon by a mix of both rational and emotional arguments. I believe that a person's cultural identity is largely based on the emotional component. Culture is dependent upon a number of determinants, such as language, religion, food, clothing, art, music, and rituals and customs. While many, if not all of these, have some basis in rational thought, for most of us these cultural factors have very strong and deep emotional attachments. We grow up within a specific culture and perhaps one or more sub-cultures, often viewing our mother culture, rightly or wrongly, to be the correct culture, the way other cultures should be. ("Why can't they be like us?") Of course, if we travel to other parts of the world (or even within our own country), we may acculturate aspects of another culture into our identities. When I say I grew up Italian or I think like a Korean, this is what has really happened to me. I have taken aspects of these other cultures, indirectly and directly, and incorporated them into my own identity. My identity has shifted to some degree, especially since I began living overseas seven years ago, in 2001. My wife now says that I think like a Malay (her culture); that may be but, in all honesty, I can't really tell if it's true or not. The process of acculturating elements of Korean culture was more distinct to me; it was a very exotic culture, from my initial perspective, and I could maintain some difference in my mind between my American cultural background and my exposure to Korean culture. But my acculturation to Malay culture has gone on much longer and been such a deeper exposure that I think I may lack the ability now to see the differences. I may have to return back to America just to understand just how much I've changed.

Which component predominates? Of the four components, I would say that the rational component is the least prominent, even though these memberships are normally chosen by conscious decision. The genetic component may be the next most important, although, for some, this component may be extremely important. For a transgender individual, the genetic component ("What sex am I?") may be the most important component of all. As I mentioned above, the cognitive and emotional components are deeply intertwined; still, I would say that the emotional component, especially from the cultural perspective, may be the most important component of all. However, as a result of all these different components combining together, I feel as if I have not just one identity, but a large number of different identities, all making up, in layer after layer, the pearl that is my personal identity.

1 comment:

Safiya Outlines said...

Salaam Alaikum,

A really good post, Masha Allah.

As some one who's due to give birth (very soon), insha Allah to a mixed race daughter, I often think of the same issues