Monday, June 15, 2015


"In the social jungle of human existence, there is no
feeling of being alive without a sense of identity."
--Erik Erikson

For nearly a week I've felt the "need" to write something on the topic of identity. I've mentioned this desire to a couple friends and they have been rather encouraging. What probably put me over the edge most was an NPR story I heard this morning while driving from Oklahoma City to Tulsa for a civics education conference. NPR ran a great story dealing with "identity" surrounding Jeb Bush's expected announcement of his intentions to run for the Republican nomination for President. <link to the story>

The article centers around Jeb Bush's strong connection to Latin-American culture, despite being Caucasian himself, because of having married a woman from Mexico and raising for their children in and around the Latin, largely Cuban, culture within Miami, Florida.

In fairness, Mr. Bush was not attempting to claim his ethnic/cultural heritage had changed. Simply speaking another language surely wouldn't be enough to change that caliber of identity, would it?

There are many things which relate to our identity: race, ethnicity, gender, sex, faith, occupation, talents, etc. But recent events raise the question as to how much of our identity is within our control rather than imposed upon us by commonly held attitudes from society. Is there a point at which so much of what society perceives about you makes it so that you can't change that aspect of identity regardless of what you do?

Technology has brought human society to the point where we can surgically change the appearance of our sex--our maleness or our femaleness into the other. Does the removing/changing of organs actually change our identity?

Technology can also help modify the appearance of our skin-tone: tanning beds and crimes can make you darker...might even by a few options, other than make-up alone, for going lighter. And I would imagine that with tattoo technology, there is probably some way, while highly prolonged to accomplish, to make a more permanent change of this caliber. Throughout my travels I've felt strong draws to the cultures of other ethnic/peoples; to me it's not a stretch to see myself wanting to truly identify with one of those cultures if I did in fact live among them permanently. I'm doubtful, however, that I can fathom the desire to belong would be strong enough that I would seek to alter my physical appearance in any significant way. Is it possible to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time?

As you ponder that question, but before you actually answer, think about those of a mixed racial or ethnic background. As is common among so many Americans, I could call myself a Euro-mutt since I have a mix of so many backgrounds. If you were to turn my genealogical background into a pie chart the single biggest slice, comprising nearly fifty percent, would be "German". However, the ethnic identity with which in most commonly identify myself isn't German...nor is is English--the origin of my surname. I most commonly connect with the "French-Cajun" line of my family even though this slice would be less than twenty percent of my pie. Much of this is linked to a stronger connection with parts of my father's side of the family rather than my mother's as well as a strong historic interest in the era of history in which the British government forced the French-Acadians to leave what we now know as Nova Scotia following King George's War (early 1700s); a vast quantity of these deported Acadians migrated to French controlled southern Louisiana becoming the Cajuns.

Another example of this mixed heritage pondering...several years ago I had a student who had a white mother and a black father. I don't know which part of his heritage with which he most identifies, but he made a point on several occasions of referring to himself as a "Half-rican American". My suspicion is that he strives to embrace the fullness of his genealogical heritage as part of his identity...and this may go in phases throughout his life.

Our current president is from a mixed racial background. While he was raised in an environment primarily around his mother's family and "white culture", in his adulthood he seems to be more embracing of the "black" side of his identity. Should it matter how President Obama prefers to identify himself? Is any less black by embracing "white culture or any less white by embracing "black culture"? He is who is he is regardless of how you or I perceive him.

I chuckle to myself as I typed that last line. I love how so many within my faith tradition celebrate when, in the spirit of Romans 10:9, myself or anyone else in our tradition proclaims to be a "Christian". Why is my identity as a Christian respected when I make the claim and yet so many of these same people, even individuals who are dear friends, reject the profession of faith made by President Obama? Why do they embrace me as a Christian and yet lambaste his as a "Muslim" when he and I have each publicly made th same confession of Jesus being Lord?

Are there limits to when an individual can self identify in the manner which they choose? Should self identification be subject to the approval of others? How many members of society would need to agree? Should it matter what me and my friends perceive about another person, especially if we don't personally know him/her and will most likely never meet her/him?

Or is identity totally subject to perceptions of others? Is our identity limited to what others believe about us? What if what the others believe is not grounded in reality?

I guess at its heart, I do understand that much of identification efforts throughout human history have been a way for us to divide ourselves into groups. We love to have the "us" and "them" mentality. We like winners and losers; and unfortunately all too often it is the winners who create the identification labels for the losers...the losers then choose to accept the label as a second or third (or worse) tier status or to embrace the label and wear it as a badge of honor over time...the whole history of the term "Okies"??? That's one term of identity that I as a life-long Oklahoman still have trouble embracing.

There are a handful of identity labels that I wish all of us would just agree to focus upon: humans and sons and daughters of God. I think a focus on these identifying labels would help lead to greater interactions of a most positive nature. This would make me "happy" identity I love to live.

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