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Racialized Identity and the Stranger at the Gates

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Photo of author James Baldwin

The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic – a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. An identity is only questioned when it is menaced, or when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never thereafter to be a stranger; the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. – James Baldwin

I had an epiphany about identity and perception this weekend. I was at an event put on by the prison, met a young woman there and we became engaged in a conversation about race. She told me that in her opinion we all have a choice whether or not to identify as racialized subjects, and that we can choose instead to identify with The Spirit or Higher Power. I responded that I thought that one could identify with a higher power, but at the same time, life goes on down here in this world and any identity has implications and real-life consequences. (I kept my comments about privilege to myself.)


This exchange sparked an inner conversation I began to have with myself about the relationship between identity and the idea of freedom. I began to think about how, at a young age, before I had any conception of who or what I was in a sociological sense, my body and skin were communicating with the outside world in ways that I could not control. People were identifying and labeling me based on that. That would have a huge effect on my consciousness of who I was and, when interacting with society, who I must be to survive. In the same way that I must identify with being an inmate – because not to do so would mean billy clubs, handcuffs and bullets would be there to convince me that I am – I had to take on the identity of being Black. Not because that was what I had chosen for myself, but because society’s gatekeepers – the schoolteachers, the policemen, the “concerned citizens” – had chosen it for me. And there were consequences for not accepting that as my reality.

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Yet for me, being bi-racial, and at times being perceived as racially ambiguous, further complicated matters. You see, I’ve always had a sense that in spaces where I announced that I was a Black person, there would invariably be certain people who would reply, ‘but you’re not Black enough.” And conversely, announcing that I was Asian would elicit parallel types of reactions. Much in the same way that if I said, “I am an American,” there would be people who would seek to argue that point. And I would be left there in that moment – silenced. In that way, identity was never quite about what I had made a choice for myself to be, but about fitting into some narrow conception imposed by others about what a person should be.

Having a racialized identity is always about moderating the tension between visibility and invisibility; that is, the visibility that makes a person of my particular mix a threat, and the invisibility that comes from the objectification of racism, of not being heard or listened to, of not existing. The rub is that we desire the invisibility which comes from belonging, from sharing a common identity, of not being different; and within that, we desire the visibility which comes from a recognition of one’s humanity and self-determination, of being “seen.”

Identity and hierarchy

This awareness for me has always highlighted the contradictions of identity. When people loudly and proudly proclaimed their identities, it always made me thoughtful and nervous, much in the way certain people of color and women feel when white men start singing the national anthem and proclaiming their patriotism. There was much more going on than individuals just announcing themselves to the world. Certain identities seemed to always be linked with the creation and maintenance of hierarchies, and thus with power, control and the fight over resources. These identities were not only built upon the subjugation of others, although not always intentionally, but also tied to some belief of it all being in accordance with natural law. That was true whether on the prison yard, school yard or the political stage.

But the fact of the matter is people naturally inhabit different identities in different domains. Identities are fluid, constantly shifting, changing and evolving. Having the ability, without fear of censure, to navigate in and out of identities, to adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate to a given space, is inexorably linked to one’s freedom. We are one person at home, another with strangers, and different at different times in our lives. There are no absolute identities. In this way, we are not only able to live amongst others and function in social settings, but most importantly, we are able to meet others as equals. These identities operate as a type of negotiation between human beings.

It is nature that provides us with the rich diversity of human beings, but it is we humans who turn that diversity into oppressive hierarchies that silence and “other” people. If identity creation seeks to establish a oneness or essential character, how is that achieved without creating mythologies of “others”? When we are able to free ourselves from the tyranny of hierarchies and adopt a more fluid and non-essentialist approach that honors difference, we can begin to examine freedoms that we have not yet even imagined. What of the plight of animals and other living things? What of the voices of children and the elderly? What of all living beings, even the most wretched among us?

I’ve heard racism, specifically the kind non-white people experience in this country, defined as being a form of unrequited love. I’ve also heard a definition of love that says it is almost indistinguishable from the feeling of being listened to. To be named, to be able to claim one’s place on the earth, cannot be separated from the most human desire to be loved. I am fascinated by the new young generation, spearheaded by the work of the LGBTQ community, who are imagining communities that are defined by a multitude of identities that are shifting, growing and in constant flux. They are redefining and reclaiming the power of identities, and inspiring dreams that do not run in black and white but in brilliant spectrums, wavelengths and bands of color and sound. They understand the connection between identity and freedom. In them I see the seeds of renewal being planted for a brighter and more just future. This is my hope.


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