DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
I think of this concept as having internal value. In other words, it encompasses how you live your life, how you eat, where you live, who you associate with, what inspires your creativity, and what modifies your worldview.
All kinds of identities exist: Irish identity, Italian identity, Puerto Rican identity, Black identity, Cherokee identity, Jewish identity, Coptic identity, etc. I usually think of them as nations within nations. There are different forms of identities such as national, ethnic, cultural, religious, etc.
As a History minor, from studying the barbarian tribes of Europe, some of whom would become the ancestors of modern Europeans (Franks, Gauls, Burgundians, etc.), it is clear that labels are created from any overwhelming problems that arise.
In the case of those tribal confederacies, they banded together because the Romans expanded their empire and crossed into their territories. It is also important to note that people can mold their identities as a form of adaptability. Just like how the Europeans molded their identities in the face of Roman hegemony, there were African slaves in the Americas who molded their identities in the face of White hegemony.
The ones who were settled in the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia would create a language that had the English words imposed upon them while also using the grammar from the African languages they originally spoke. They would become the Gullah people.
There were other cases when African slaves would run from their plantations and either became adopted by a Native American tribe or form their own tribe within the Amazonian rainforest or the Jamaican mountains in the case of the Maroons.
Such sociological courses of action can be creative acts of resistance in harrowing circumstances. From the struggle through slavery molded the Gullah, Garifuna, and Maroon identities.
Besides my research in history (both in my curriculum and in my free time in the Bankier Library of Brookdale Community College), what also stood out in my linguistics class was learning how there really is no strict dichotomy between “civilized’ and “primitive” languages. This was argued by linguist Claude Levi-Strauss, who studied the naming within the natural world by indigenous South Americans, which was as complex as the nomenclature used by academic biologists.
Since language is important for connecting people of the same identity, I will also argue that there is no strict dichotomy between “civilized” and “primitive” groups. No one group of people are as sophisticated as they would like you to believe. In the case of the European tribes, they had to borrow their prestige from the Romans.
But another way of connecting with people of the same identity is entering an invisible contract. It’s not through a metric system or how pure your lineage is, but by how much you value and respect the customs that come with identity alongside modernity and progression.
Identity is also not of capitalistic value. To respect it means to not bestow it with a kitsch authenticity. For example, not celebrating Irish heritage by getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, or only listening to rap music to get a good feel of African-American culture. Truly understanding those identities means learning basic words and salutations in the endangered Irish Gaelic language and the perseverance of gospel sung by slaves that would evolve into such genres as Blues, Jazz, and R&B.
Identities can also be preserved in adaptive ways. One of those ways involves code-switching and the separation of outside and inside the house. Malayali might be spoken in the house, while outside of the house English is spoken.
Understanding how others’ differences can unite us, even more, may sound paradoxical, but it can be a fascinating journey. It is also about developing empathy, primarily in the face of cyclical events.
Just as much as Latin American and Muslim immigrants are demonized today, this harkens back to the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attacks, as well as the Irish and Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the later 1800’s.
However, there are harmful identities out there that are based on attaining power and superiority over other identities.
What I don’t like about the label “White identity” is the history behind such a label, with such proponents as the Ku Klux Klan and the Alt-Right.
That label also doesn’t take into account that White people don’t have a common history in America amongst themselves, since Anglo-Saxon-Americans had a different history from Irish-Americans, who had a different history from Italian Americans, who had a different history from Polish Americans, etc.
One of the leading figures in the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer, in his infamous “Hail Trump!” speech following the election of Donald Trump, talked about whiteness, “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror.”
It is not just the domineering nature of White supremacy that is the problem, but also sets the bar really high on qualifying as a decent enough White person. If being White means admiring and emulating the likes of Christopher Columbus, the Crusaders, Adolf Hitler, Confederate generals, and Donald Trump, then it would be fair to say that a small handful of old, rich White men have the right to be proud of their whiteness, as Spencer himself would define it, and the rest of the White people are just disposable.
In an identity without such cancerous mutations, nobody is disposable, either within or outside the group; and it does not determine who is superior or inferior. It does not run like a business, but a family, a family willing to welcome anyone wanting to learn about them. It is something to be shared, not enforced.
Another identity that is also based on supremacy and subjugation is radical Islam, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, or whatever you want to call it.
It is aggressively pushed by the clergy of the Saudi royal family into the televisions and newspapers throughout the Arab world and into the hearts of young, impressionable people. This is the perfect example of a hierarchical identity that consists of a small number of wealthy people controlling the majority.
In the article, “Saudi Arabia: An ISIS That Has Made It,” Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud makes a point that “ISIS is first and foremost a culture, not a militia.” Indeed, Islamofascism is a culture based on subjugating other identities, such as the Berbers, Copts, Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis, etc. Who are also included are adherents of other branches of Islam, such as Shi’ites if the subjugators are Sunni (or vice versa).
To be a good Muslim, in this identity, means to declare war on anyone who is opposed to a global theocracy; which involves admiring and emulating the military exploits of the prophet Muhammad, Amr ibn al-As, Saladin, Osama Bin Laden, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, etc.
What makes a religious identity like this cancerous is how it relies on the ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. Without such strict adherence, religious identity only involves an Emersonian relationship between a person and the God of his/her religion without any intermediaries.
In the face of those domineering forms of identity, people do have the ability to adapt and persevere, as I mentioned early in this article as well as in my other article. The very fact that an identity is not abandoned but preserved and not corrupted but molded is an act of victory against supremacy.
Personally, I am about to graduate with a B.A. in English with a Minor in History. One of my biggest regrets thus far is not becoming an Anthropology minor, because I find it truly fascinating how entire peoples can forge an identity for themselves with whatever tools are at their disposal. It is thus important to note that an identity is a history of the human condition.