Identity is a weird thing. Race, class, religion, nation, gender, anything else that applies. They all seem like neat little categories, boundary lines that are as natural as where earth meets sky.
But everything has gradations, gray spaces, a range of possibilities. Not quite liquid water, not quite vapor.
Both in real life and in fiction, identities are lines in the sand that over time become trenches defended with barbed wire and high walls. Entry is restricted. You must get over the walls or pass by the gatekeepers.
Once inside, you may be questioned how you got there and whether you belong. But overall, it’s the boundaries that matter. What’s inside is less important unless an intruder really draws attention to themselves.
It’s interesting how especially in times of crisis, nationality, religion, and race tend to get jumbled up. These categories don’t tend to matter until they matter. Which one takes precedence is all contextual, and context is built on shifting sands.
That’s the public side of identity, the side that faces out from the individual. The other side, the one that looks inward, can be just as harsh (or not). A sense of belonging, honor, self-esteem, and many things besides all operate this way. You may feel strongly tied to some category but still not be accepted–group consensus counts for a lot, and some members of the group have heftier opinions than others.
When I met my (then future) wife’s grandmother, she quizzed me on my family, and it became clear that she was looking to place me somewhere in her expansive network of friends and family. I was related distantly to her husband’s family, but grasping at straws, I came to realize after about half an hour that her second cousin had been my bus driver when I was a kid. Then she put me to work in her kitchen, stirring pots for the Christmas feast later that day.
That’s a special sort of situation, I guess, but it led me from stranger to helpful guest in about an hour. We both understood implicitly that I needed her approval, and she determined what the rules of the game would be.
Our own internal identities are like clothes, they can be swapped out as the context changes, left to collect dust until we need them. The essential point, however, is that they should give us value without doing undue harm to others.
The different categories weigh a bit differently on different people in different contexts. I’m often mistaken for Cuban in Florida (especially by non-Cubans of course) and when I was on a trip in Cuba was often identified on the street as French for some reason. I’m really a mix of things, genetically speaking, descended from French, Spanish, German, and Anglos who made their way to the Mississippi Valley by the early 1800s, and an Irish maternal grandmother. I tend to package all this under the label “Cajun” though my French is pretty bad. For me, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, those well-mixed, one-time seaborne crossroads of empire make sense.
I am a product of colonialism, imperialism, and a few other -isms, for better and for worse. Everyone is to one degree or another. Generally taken for “white” though I don’t really know what that label means, what its contents are. Oh I know the historical and social and economic ramifications well enough, how deeply rooted they are, how post-colonial the United States still is, while also clinging to imperial ambitions like an old habit. But there’s nothing inside that box really. I wear my Cajun label like an old coat, shelter against the storms that life throws at me.
So I stand, Christian but not Protestant, white but not Anglo. My native Louisiana a crossroads of empire. Like many parts of my identity, I am in-between, and I empathize most of all with other people who are in-between, by the standards of the modern world living, breathing paradoxes. And why I have no patience for writers like Lovecraft who object to the hybrid, gray-in-between where most of us live.
Writing the science fiction of the future, we need to consider the in-between. There are reasons for categories, but only so much as they help people have a common voice and improve their lives. When the dividing lines cause more hurt than help, when they promote violence against people because they belong to a certain category, it is time to reassess our thinking. Every society has categories, internal divisions. What kind of world do you want to live in?
Thank you for reading my ramble. Just sorting some things about identity and my own sense of belonging lately. I hope it helps you to read it. Or at least does no harm.