When I was out running one day, I
passed by a group of young adults palavering on the sidewalk. Something disturbed me about what I saw, but I didn’t know what it was until I was taking my post-run shower.
Nothing about the group was, from one point of view, exceptional. Maybe in their thirties, casually dressed—man with cargo shorts and loose shirt, another in slim-legged jeans and white tee-shirt—woman with a blond ponytail and exercise clothing, another wrapped in
something shawl- or tunic-like, sunglasses propped on her head. A couple of strollers. Lively chatter.
They were, in a sense, my people. White, or whiteish, economically sound if not overly well off, probably college-educated, probably sharing a number of class interests. The kind of people who probably will not be stop-and-frisked, pulled over, surveilled by a neighborhood watch. The bourgeois safe.
resembled the kind of stock images used by advertisers to link their products with people who look “right,” the kind of people in the filler images in picture frames or subway ads for back-to-school clothing: everything bright in the center, no darkness from the fringes.
But passing by them, I did not feel like one of them, though, as I said, we probably had many affinities. And that’s because, given our political whirligig these
days, the idea of having an “identity” is in wicked flux, with presidents calling Jews who don’t support him and Netanyahu disloyal; rightists, alt- and otherwise, worried about being replaced by a brown-skinned invasion; American citizens being told to go back where they came from. It’s enough to give anyone the fantods.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ethicist for the New York Times (among his many other appositives), recently
published The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, in which he very carefully, considerately and intelligently parses the many tributaries that feed into the unitary word “identity” to show that, in fact, the word is not at all unitary but a simmer of many different ingredients, some more prominent than others at different times, some boiling away to be replaced by others, but almost never an entirely settled matter.
In the great and
grinding New York, the city where I spend most of my time, there are, of course, eruptions daily about identity, most pronounced in interactions with the police and in trying to fend off developers who want to exorcise all poor people from the buildings they build. But in the usual run of a usual day, we all just simmer together. The street is a constant show of all skin colors, all body types, all velocities, all sartorial choices, all moshing together in one giant jaywalk across
everyone’s possible path.
This whirl and oscillation, at least for me, is just the world as the world should be—not a denial of our differences nor a denial that our differences matter but just people getting on with the business of their lives without getting too much entangled in what it all means and who is it made for. It’s a rough kind of cosmopolitanism, the mass of people like a country trying to live their lives in a sovereign
way, a country that requires no citizenship as the price of entry into the sharing of the commons since the people who make up the “country” come from everywhere bearing every memory of every wound and gift visited upon humankind, all of them equal in value and voltage.
Passing by the people on the street jolted me out of my NYC country back to feeling tagged and identified by another country, and the feeling did not sit well because while
I want an identity as a unique human being (we all need one of those), I don’t want to be branded with an identity, some searing cultural metal pressed against my flesh alloyed out of sanctimony, accusation and conceit that does not align with anything I believe about myself or my place in the world.
I like Appiah’s notion of a restless identity, but I don’t think most people will find the notion attractive or exciting. Most people,
at least in my experience, want to know that they’re ballasted, which requires both a fixed image of who they are and a fixed image of who isn’t them so that they can have an adversary, if not an enemy, against which to define themselves. As Robert Sapolsky points out in Behave, human brains are built to quickly determine who is in and out, and it takes a lot of energy from the executive lobes to counteract this bias with thought, logic and evidence, something most people
don’t know how to do or want to do.
Assuming that I ever see this group again, I will say hello and wish them a good day and know that, if I stopped, we’d all get along just fine, at least in that meeting-for-the-first-time way, because there is a lot we share and mutually like. But I will also keep trying to keep my identity twitchy and skeptical, refusing to be strong-armed out of any imaginative space I want to enter by the color of my
skin, my gender or my age. Authority to speak has to be earned, not assigned by the accident of color or gender or another other inadvertent attribute, and it’s only earned through the hard and empathic work of the imagination.