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Oh the identity question…

I am against everything

Against war and those against

War. Against whatever diminishes

Th’individuals blind impulse

Dambudzo Marechera, The Bar-Stool Edible Worm

——-

The ever-lurking identity question, of which we are always aware, but not always attentive, has arisen once again. Indeed it is an entirely relevant one in the present political context demonstrated most tellingly by voting patterns, policies such as B-BBEE that are drafted by identifying distinct racial groups and in a society emerging from the wake of a political system that revolved entirely around racial classification most people, as a result, identify themselves this way.

Of course, race is not the sole criterion by which individuals do, nor, I would venture should conceive of their identity. An individual identity is manifold, and sometimes even contradictory in character. One can simultaneously be homosexual, religious, an evolutionary biologist, male, feminist, economically conservative, socially liberal etc. Or perhaps, if one has more of a penchant for the dramatic, slightly more flamboyant epithets may be appropriate such as: “The Unparalleled One” (in procrastination) or more humbly “part-time blogger extraordinaire … “

And then of course there are the people in-between, who do not fit neatly into any one category. My own grandmother, a pale, green-eyed “coloured” (a term from which friends in England recoil in horror; brilliantly parodied by Trevor Noah) woman from Swaziland often confounded and confused ready description. She spent most of the apartheid years attracting suspicion and curiosity alike.

I too must admit to being one of these in-betweeners. A third culture kid. Having been born to parents of a nomadic bent much of my childhood and early teen years was spent travelling from one place to the other. I always found it incomprehensible that someone could live in the same house their entire lives. I’d never lived in one place for more than four years. In South Africa I was always the English girl and in England I was always the South African girl, never quite one or the other. That’s not too say I ever felt excluded or misunderstood, in fact, what was always (and still is) fascinating is that it always mattered so very little. Wherever I’ve lived or gone to school I’ve always managed to relate to a fairly wide cross-section of people on some level and it has never been predicated solely on belonging to any particular group. Identity is also formed by more intimate, idiosyncratic experiences outside of the dominant narratives of race and nationality. Indeed it is the politicisation of identity that has served as the recurring catalyst for conflict. The French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the horror that politics, used in this way, is capable of begetting.

The weakness of policy-making in this regard is that it negates real difference and subordinates it to the broad brush strokes of political orthodoxy. The problem with political terms like “transformation” or “diversity” is that not only are they limited political conceptions of difference, but are also vague enough to be exploited for political ends. One notable example is the former minister of arts and culture, Lulama Xingwana, storming out of a photographic exhibition depicting black lesbian couples. Her objection? It was “immoral” and “pornographic” and ran contrary to “social cohesion” and “nation-building”. Clearly these individuals were not included in her vision of “promoting unity in diversity”.

Or there are even more divisive attempts to define “Africanness” or “Britishness” by racial heritage. Often purveyors of this pseudo-science will hide behind the claim that they respect diversity, and are merely stating fact. Not only is this lacking in scientific credibility, but it is also increasingly outmoded in a highly integrated, mobile, technologically advanced, global society in which ideas and values are shared across cultural and linguistic barriers on a daily basis. We are able to bear witness to the manifestation of a universal human spirit.

That is not to deny the existence of certain identities, which are indeed subject to certain biological and taxonomical restraints. I am human. I cannot, for instance, jump species and be considered feline. Although, there will always be those who will attempt this. It takes all types.

Identity. Somewhat elusive and not easily defined — or denied either — should not be tethered to any authoritative definitions. We are the sum total of our experiences and we do ourselves a great disservice to ourselves as the complex beings we are and to our common humanity by narrowing it down into singular arbitrary categories.