michele humes recently wrote a very interesting piece about the census and identity entitled "after the census, or, leave my race out of it." check out the second link to read the article - it's about her qualms with the current, inflexible identity stamps the census and other such forms use to categorize people. like many bi- or multi-cultural people, michele is upset by the cookie cutter generalizations and mass labeling often perpetuated by red tape.
identity has always been a history propelling issue. self-identity affirms or detracts from our sense of self-worth. it motivates us... or it deflates us. identity isn't just ours to define, either. we constantly assign identities and judge the multitudes of other people who pass through our lives. identity labeling can just be an unconscious aspect of day-to-day life - or it can incite extremes: favoritism (of a certain class, race, or religion) or genocide. and whether our assumptions actually match someone else's sense of self or not often gets lost on the wayside.
i can relate to michele's frustrations. i'm a mutt. more specifically, i'm swedish, finnish, irish, canadian (yes, that does count - call it "north american" if that makes you feel better), french (yes, that one counts, too), russian, romanian, polish, and australian. if that's not enough, there may be a few more that i missed in there. and out of all of those, i'm mostly finnish. (about thirty percent, to be exact.) i've never been to finland. my mother was born in australia; i'm currently in the beginning stages of the long process of claiming dual citizenship. (we're getting her passport now, after that i get to play with paperwork.) i've never been australia, either. so when michele talks about not knowing who to identify with - her american background or her chinese - i get that.
but michele brings up another point: even if we don't make or take the effort to define ourselves, other people do it for us. a lot of this can be based off of our looks, our mannerisms, accents, all the little details we don't really think about but, when put together, make up a portion of who we are. the problem is, what other people see isn't always what we think ourselves to be. michele takes issue with people automatically assuming she's just chinese - and that's understandable. we shouldn't have to compartmentalize who we are to reinforce stereotypes.
over the years i've tried to make my heritage a bit of a game. i've often gotten asked "where i'm from," as if stating a blanket region or county will divulge some pertinent information about my looks or personality. (oddly enough, i got asked that question most when i was waiting tables.) with my hodgepodge of cultures, i normally tell people to guess. so far no one's picked finland. mostly i get indian, greek, italian, maybe russian (usually in the winter, when i've lost any tan i may have had). once or twice some one guessed egyptian. out of everything on that second list, only russian could be considered correct.
so, when i get to filling out those lovely generic forms michele so adores, i'm stuck really not knowing what to check. yes, a large part of my heritage is white. and that's what other people usually mark down for me. but that doesn't really explain who i am at all. in the early 1900s or so, america worked on a race categorization system for immigrants. the finnish were not put in the same category as whites; they were put in the same group as mongols. this seemingly odd choice was made because, out of all the groups that were being created and assigned, the bone structure of the fins was closer to the mongols than to anyone else. and that was it. that was the whole reasoning behind that. so, when people ask me where i'm from, i could technically say i'm a mongol, and it wouldn't be entirely untrue. but they don't have that box on the race checklist for me to mark. and then i have to consider the other aspects of my heritage as well. australia is generally considered as "pacific islander." but i'm not really that, either. my experiences with the pacific have all been out on the west coast - not on an island at all.
when given the option, i mark myself off as "other," and my reasoning behind that selection is this: the options generally given do not describe me in a way that i identify with. to pick any one aspect of myself to identify by is to generalize and deny the other parts of my cultural heritage. one of the most difficult lessons i've been learning and re-learning about identity is that, no matter how other people label you, they can't define you unless you let them. self-identity continuously trumps public assumption. if you let other people decide for you, you really will only be one thing or another: chinese or american, not both. finnish or australian or whatever. not a thirtieth. but if you make the conscious decision to decide who you are on your own and what's important to you, then those labels really won't matter at all.
i'm not normally big on posting pictures of myself here, but i found a couple pictures of me that show how different the same person can look. in one i have bronzer on (although, these days i do get tan like that in the summer) and in the other i don't. (one of these days i would love to do a photo shoot and see how many ethnicities i can be. it's a passing thought, but if you know how to do hair and make-up and are interested, let me know.)
it's very weird looking at them both next to each other - almost like looking at two entirely different people. i almost don't feel like either of them are me.
have your own identity crisis? i'd love to hear about it.