Beneath the Surface

“I only see people, I don’t see colour or gender.” I’ve heard it said countless times, a self-effacing testament to the speaker’s ability to see the true person unobscured by colour, race, gender, sexuality or religion. With such decisiveness, they detach themselves from such bodily or social hindrances, and get to all the good stuff, the real stuff that makes us who we really are. Up until a while ago I would have counted myself amongst such people, but now I’m not too sure. The motivations of this sentiment are admirable, but I’ve been wondering lately whether it is little more than a fanciful ideal. Can we really unearth the unadorned personhood, shining in its glorious purity beneath the pressures and prejudices of the mortal world?

Identity is used to describe something outward, an external marker that makes us identifiable to others by prescribing us to a class of other beings. It aligns us with some and diverges us from others. Depending on the person and the form, it can make up who we are to greater or lesser degrees. In the case of a devout Christian for example, their religious belief will form a large part of their identity, perhaps even more so than other identity markers such as nationality.

Turning to social constructs such as gender or physical attributes such as skin colour or sex, it gets more complicated. They are on display for everyone to see and we have little choice in the matter. Of course we can chose to get gender reassignment surgery and choose our own gender, but even such cases are generally a matter of realigning the body with a predisposition. Either way, we are forced to identify as something. We cannot shed ourselves completely of these qualities and present ourselves as colourless, genderless or sexless people.

I think it is nice that someone wants to get to know the genderless, sexless, colourless and nationless Ellie, but even I’m not sure who she is or whether she even exists. According to John Locke our personal identity is shaped by our conscious experiences and memory, so according to him there is no Ellie minus my experiences as a white, Irish, female. She doesn’t exist!

This sidestepping of identity is most often evoked in situations when we are “getting around” one another’s difference. Other times, we embrace it; the sacred bond of female friendship, for example, is practically a religion it is so widely celebrated. Our femininity becomes a virtue we recognise in one another, that we reach out and grasp, and fuse it with our own.

In a world where much of our views are dictated to us, it would indeed be refreshing to start all our relationship in factory mode, to decide the perimeters of friendship completely fresh and free from judgment. Close relationships such as friendship are a safe space that allow us to see one another as equals, although we should not conflate this we thinking we are the same.

This lack of sameness is both natural and unnatural: natural in the sense that there are objective, bodily differences between people, and unnatural because most differences are superficial, derived by social structures.

The most pronounced natural and physical divergences are those that exist between man and woman. As a female I have different body parts. I am naturally slower and weaker. I menstruate each month and body holds within itself the possibility of carrying a child. No matter the kind of world we lived in we would be different, and our experiences of the world wouldn’t be the same.

However most of the differences, such as skin colour are superficial, and could easily be ignored. Others, such as sex, strength and disability could be accommodated for and mitigated. The world we live in, nevertheless, exacerbates these differences and makes them unnatural in the process. Depending on the situation, my femininity becomes either a weakness or a strength. My skin colour gives me an advantage. My sexuality makes me ‘normal’.

I think this urge for identity blindness comes from a place of seeking to restore the natural equality that exists between every human but which society has disturbed. This disturbance adds an extra layer to relationships of every kind, from brief interactions to enduring friendships. It creates an initial ballast of uncertainty between two people that are other, a fear of unacceptance engendered by society’s debate of your differences. It turns everyone into a potential homophobe, racist, sexist or bigot.

In some cases the layer of uncertainty barely exists. We flock to people, places, settings & communities where we can leave this burden of uncertainty at the door. For most people it is burden we never asked to carry, while others wear it with pride

And still I do not feel that identity blindness is the answer. Not in the world we live in right now.

It is denying reality, so much of it unfair and unnecessary, but reality nonetheless. My black friends have a different experience in the world because of their skin colour. They create communities around their blackness. It is something we should be curious about and strive to learn more. We should attempt to understand one another’s issues and extend a helping hand. We need to know what makes us different as much as we need to know what makes us the same.

 

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