Futility of Identity

Food for Thought

My daughter rarely asks to go eat Asian food, so I was a bit surprised when she suggested having a dim sum brunch. Aptly enough, she brought up the topic of biracial identity. I’ve always found it funny that the white race functions like white paint; if any amount of color is mixed, it’s no longer white. That is, whiteness requires a degree of purity. If any other color is perceivable, it dominates our recognition of it. So, Obama is black first and foremost.

In the US, especially these days, whiteness is very much like a blank canvas. I see teenagers clinging to whatever traces they can find on their canvas to assert their identities. Even if they are 100% white, their distant European heritage (e.g., Italian, Greek, Russian, Polish, etc.) becomes a significant part of their identity. I feel bad for white kids whose European heritage is so mixed that there are no perceptible traces on their canvas. If not race, gender becomes the next best option. But what if they are cisgender too?

But in many ways, you’d be better off giving up this type of pursuit for identity. Who you are is antithetical to identity. Identity is what you choose from the system of differences that our culture has created. This system existed before you were born. It had nothing to do with you. It’s like choosing a letter from the alphabet. You didn’t invent the alphabet. No matter which letter you choose, it can never represent who you are. In fact, what truly defines you is what falls between the letters, what the symbols fail to capture.

The harder you try to identify yourself with the preexisting system of symbols, the more alienated you will feel because, ultimately, the symbol you are looking for doesn’t exist. If it does exist, it means there are countless others identical to you, which in turn defeats the very point of finding an identity, that is, to differentiate yourself from others. A symbol can establish itself only through repetition.

A pursuit of identity is a waste of time and energy, but it’s a process that everyone must go through. The quicker you can get over it, the more time you’d have left in your life to pursue something more meaningful.