Politics of Identity

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Like many people, I’ve been disturbed by the birther movement’s latent racism. One of the most touching responses I’ve seen to the President having to release his long form birth certificate is by Baratunde Thurston, a black comedian who (among other things) works for The Onion. He posted a heartbroken video response that’s well worth watching.

Blogger Anil Dash posted to Twitter: “In all seriousness, people have asked me where I’m ‘really’ from my whole life.” Yes. I get that, as well. It’s “Where are you from?” followed by, “No, where are you really from?” instead of “What’s your cultural heritage?”

And that’s an increasingly complicated question for many people. I live in the Boston area, grew up in Pittsburgh, and was born and raised in the States to parents who immigrated from India, and we’re Bengali. So in terms of cultural background, that makes me a Bengali from the ‘burgh. We’re a rather specific subculture of short, football-loving Indians who can sing Tagore songs.

There was one time I got the “Where are you really from?” question that I loved. My interlocutor was an eight year old girl, and I was startled because people who ask that question have tended to be older. I told her my background, and she gave me a rundown of her racial makeup, down to eighths. “I’m very interested in cultures,” she said.

It was a terrific jumping off point for a conversation. The difference was that her question came from trying to make sense of herself rather than Othering. She was trying to work out how all of these bits and pieces of culture and genetics made her a unique person, and how someone else became another person — what part was the person, and how much of a person had to do with her composition? How did the two relate?

The relentless focus on what a person is reminds me of The Little Prince’s scathing assessment of grown-ups:

Quand vous leur parlez d’un nouvel ami, elles ne vous questionnent jamais sur l’essentiel. Elles ne vous disent jamais: <<Quel est le son de sa voix? Quels sont les jeux qu’il préfère? Est-ce qu’il collectionne les papillons?>> Elles vous demandent: <<Quel âge a-t-il? Combien a-t-il de frères? Combien pèse-t-il? Combien gagne son père?>>Alors seulement elles croient le connaître.

When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about the essential. They never ask you, “What’s the sound of his voice? What games does he like? Does he collect butterflies?” They ask you, “How old is he? How many siblings does he have? How much does he weigh? How much does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him.

Later in the story, a fox tells The Little Prince a secret:

On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

One doesn’t see well except with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye.

It’s a secret children know and grown-ups can stand to relearn.

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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