Self-Identity (photo: Pixabay)

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.

  • Makiel

    Great article, but what did you mean, when you stated, your Indian but not Native American?