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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.


  • Candice is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena, an interdisciplinary online magazine dedicated to ideas, people and culture She has a master's degree in political theory from the London School of Economics, and thus can be most commonly found reading esoteric coffees and sipping political literature. Her favourite colour is the darkness that dances at the centre of all human endeavour, and she is so witty and talented that other witty and talented people have commented on her jealously. These qualifications render her suitably empowered to engage in armchair philosophizing and political punditry. Indeed she intends to live by her pen, or in modern parlance, her keyboard. Follow me on Twitter: @CandiceCarrie and Instagram: candicecholdsworth Email: [email protected]


  1. Mark Kerruish Mark Kerruish 17 January 2011

    I am Mark. I am a father and a husband and a brother. I am a teacher. I am a South African of Anglo African heritage (thanks, Mo). I am…

    You’ll notice that I start with the particular and become broader in my identity groupings in a ranking that works from the particular or atomistic to the general or systemic. Not all people do this in formulating their identity and such folk will progress in terms of the importance of identity markers from the systemic to the atomistic.

    Good for them, particularly when there are legal or societal benefits that accrue to identified groups, but not necessarily good for world peace or loving one’s neighbour.

  2. LS LS 17 January 2011

    Well put, but in a society like ours (SAn) we need these tags as you hinted at the beginning of your post. We need to know who’s white or black, African, Coloured or Indian for policy implementation. Unfortunately identity is a contested terrain, meaning you can’t just decide I am coloured without someone disagreeing with that. Personal identification is not without its problems when you live in a society with a past like ours. I know who I am and I won’t debate it with anyone; we have been classified in the past without our consent for that matter. This is so unfortunate because these tags bring conflict and strife.

  3. Xhing Yoing Xhing Yoing 18 January 2011

    Hellow, I am Xhing, I am from the Yoing clan hailing from Yangshuo (Guangxi) beside the Li River, I am a trader and entrepreneur and dual SA citisen, politically im liberal, economically am capitalist, racially am BEE, I think “Identity” is an overrated empty concept. So in closing, i shud just say am none of the aforesaid, am simply am a Global Citizen and divine peace loving creature of the universe.

  4. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 18 January 2011

    Identity is a complex, personal matter. I think individual identity is an emergent property resulting from individual experiences and the sum genetic markers of many years of evolution (mostly nature, some nurture), which is not static, plus possibly some other as yet unidentified factors (cosmic radiation for all I know). While many claim ‘we are one’ due to great similarities amongst human DNA, few extend this analogy to incorporate the great similarities between human and say, chimpanzee DNA. To me, it indicates the opposite, namely that the small differences often matter a great deal – far greater than we thought. For this reason alone, policies can only be non-arbitrary when they focus on heterogeneous individuals and not on homogeneous groups.

  5. clarus clarus 18 January 2011

    I received this comment the other day: “Are you an American? You write as if English is your native tongue. But you describe your ethnicity as being “other”, even though the photos all appear to be those of a “standard issue, white Caucasian female”

    Who wants to be a standard issue ANYTHING? Given the limited choices that forms usually allow, I claim Celtic as my heritage.

    Last year when taxi drivers in Shanghai asked where I was from and I told them SA, they either responded “I can’t tell by looking at you,” or “But you’re white!” Now they are far more likely to say “The country of the World Cup!” – I am so glad that some people have this addition to the frame of reference they use when classifying me.

  6. MLH MLH 18 January 2011

    I like to get to know people a little before divulging personal information and I cannot imagine introducing myself as white, European or heterosexual and female. If I wanted to influence someone on the phone, I am content to be what I am there, too. I don’t think there is any need to categorise for statistical purposes. 25% unemployed is 25% too many, whatever their race and I hope all of us realise that there are people with scarce skills sitting without jobs. Others with useful skills are also out of work and IT skills are not required to clean floors; I learnt to do that before computers were invented!
    The state could lead the way on this reportage of race. If we didn’t need to know the race of everyone who died on our roads over Christmas and New Year, why do we need to know it in other spheres?
    Essentially, I’m me and you are you and let’s work from there. If we want to become friends, we will. If not, so what?

  7. Kamwini Kamwini 18 January 2011

    Nice one. You know who YOU are but which YOU do you present to the world? Is it always the same YOU. Or does it change with the company you’re in? Have you been conscious of this? Does it matter?

  8. Richard Richard 19 January 2011

    Always easy to make vague statements. If you think you are as at home as a black African, see if that works by living in a black African country (excluding SA, which has particular complexities). Aesthetics are different for different groups, travel and live in other ethnic lands and see.

  9. Ullrich Ullrich 19 January 2011

    This labelling, obvioiusly, is about self-identity in view of others, as well as about social competition. Just think of that ridiculous American definition of any person as “black” with an eighth black ancestry – a symbolism of “purity”, untainted by servitude, or of a “latino” meaning a “non-white” person, pure Spaniards included. The horror about being “tainted” seems to be about social ranking. Brazilians, with a sense of irony, have the expression “branco Bahiano” for a “white” from Bahia in the north-east with a good admixture of black heritage. It pays tribute to the reality of mixed heritages in the context of social competition.
    Claiming “African-ness” to be the sole property of “blacks” (Indians, Chinese and others preferably excluded), means to deny others, “whites”, the right to participate in the common society and its culture, in public discourse, academic, economic and political participation. Ideological property rights to being a “true African” serve handy purposes in social competition.
    This may explain why so many claiming an exclusive right to be legitimate “Africans” don’t care in the least to use an African language or make their children learn it. The sad neglect of indigenous languages in South Africa, languages of the majority, reveals this ideology of being “African” as what it probably is. So how about promoting “black” culture first and not to be nervous if others want to share in it? Why not be proud about the “others’” interest in also being “African” ?

  10. Robin Bownes Robin Bownes 19 January 2011

    Well said Candice, and from my opinion, much closer to the mark than most.

    In South Africa, identity has historically been something with which we’ve been labelled. For some, these labels seemed favourable, for most they were not. It is therefore both understandable, and terrible that in the “New South Africa”, we are still working so hard to apply and/or deny identity labels to each other.

    If we learn anything from those dark days of Apartheid it should be that firstly, nothing good can come from applying identity labels to each other, or denying each other’s right to identity. Secondly, we South Africans, more than most people in the world should realise that dividing ourselves or others by means of identity labels can never result on anything good.

    Individual identity is something that we choose for ourselves. Corporate identity is something that we choose together in order to unite ourselves for common purpose and common benefit. While we continue to foster division by failing to adopt, and denying each other a common identity, we will also fail to attain those goals to which we all aspire.

  11. X Cepting X Cepting 20 January 2011

    Gee, good one, Candice, you seem to have put the finger on the collective South African bruise, judging by the comments. Personally, “I am” has always been enough for me and that changes with each new experience. Not a static state. I suppose an identity crises was inevitable in a country that suffered first from British superiority and then from Afrikaner separatist policies. I know some “coloured” families that were split down the middle, by the ludicrous attempts to develop in “pure” separate camps. It is not just happening here either. I think it is just the fear of the reality showing: we are now living in the global village where borders, if they still exist have become blurred. What will it take, our very own rain of birds to make us realise that we are not that isolated trading post of different contentious tribes always at each others throats anymore, but a part of one humanity living on a planet that is clearly trying to tell us something, judging by recent events.

    Good comment MLH.

  12. Candice Holdsworth Candice Holdsworth 25 January 2011

    @Garg Unzola You raise an interesting point about the difference of degree (and not of kind) between chimpanzees and humans. From my perspective that could also have implications for our conception of ‘humanness’and its subsequent entitlements.

  13. Candice Holdsworth Candice Holdsworth 25 January 2011

    @ Robin Brownes

    Yes, I would definitely agree with that. As a (global) society we are made up of individuals whose interests may occasionally and usually do coincide, irrespective of our tribal (or other) identities and we should be able to work together to achieve those common goals.

  14. Candice Holdsworth Candice Holdsworth 25 January 2011

    @ Kamwini Good question. Does it matter? I think we are naturally self-conscious beings. We will always be concerned with how we relate to others. Upon what basis should that be predicated? I would argue not on the basis of an inherited identity.

  15. Candice Holdsworth Candice Holdsworth 25 January 2011

    @ X- Cepting The example of ‘coloured’ families is a particularly apt. It demonstrates the violence that is performed by imbuing the individual with a preformed identity, in which they are unable to freely define themselves.

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