A young lady recently told me “Rowan, with your beard you could be Santa, except you’re too dark.”
She thought it was funny.
She was putting me in a box where, in her mind, she determines my identity and what I can and cannot do.
Those in the conservative tradition tend to emphasize that we are individual people that together become one. E Pluribus Unum. This view of humans as either individuals or parts of a group ignores and therefore implicitly denies cultural identity. Conservatives argue that this is actually good, for they reject identity politics and thereby avoid racism. They claim to hate collecting people into a lump, and the result is that they swing to the opposite extreme. They deny people’s cultural identity.
Cultural identity is central to a person’s being and to ignore it explicitly is a mistake. Take, for instance, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah or the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa. Hanukkah is a legitimate, religious, and cultural occasion for many people. Kwanzaa provides an avenue for observers to manifest their cultural identity as African Americans. Yet, these holidays are often ignored. And when they are mentioned, it is in attempt to be humorous or ironic. People are often not cognizant of the disrespect within such humor. Through this disrespect, we implicitly endorse the mindset that the cultures to which these holidays belong are not worthy of our attention.
When we ignore a people’s cultural identity, it denies the parts of who they are that are shared with people from the same culture.
Take me as an example. It’s not uncommon for people to assume that I am African American. When people make such assumptions, they put a false tag on me that I have not consented to associate with.
This lack of consent about my own identity, something over which I have sole right, breaches a basic right that I have as a human. When people assume I am something other than what I say I am, they deny recognition of me. They act as if my personhood is not as legitimate as their perspective.
In fact, I am Indian. When I say this, many assume that I mean Native American. The fact that people continually make these assumptions further demonstrates that they do not respect my right to self-identify. Although it’s unintentional, by not clarifying my self-identification, people implicitly label me.
Hillsdale claims to care about people bettering themselves and becoming more virtuous. Is it really virtuous for you to deny that I am Indian? If everyone treated me like that, it would make me feel like my identity is unimportant. On the other extreme, is it virtuous for you to only see me as an Indian? Obviously not!
The answer is simple: do not put people into boxes, recognize the boxes into which they have put themselves. Recognize that others are nuanced with complex backgrounds. The only reason that it is okay to recognize others’ boxes is because they have control over them; consent is the key difference.
When students are forced to participate in a society in which people ignore others’ right to self-identify without the students consent, their rights have been violated. For instance, when students of color self-segregate on college campuses, whether it is helpful or not, it is their own decision to which they have consented. Consent is the difference between a person’s autonomy being respected and their rights being left by the wayside.
Ask people about their background and what their individual experience is like. It is crucial as we try to respect others’ rights and personhood. If we respect others’ unique upbringing, race, sexuality, spirituality, and person, we would have a kinder, gentler nation.
Rowan Macwan is a sophomore studying the liberal arts.