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Where are you from? Untangling ethnic and national identity.

This post is about identity, a concept in my opinion necessarily co-validated by the individual and the group, within or near which the individual exists. I had set out to write a balanced, rational short piece on national and ethnic identity but what came out was my truth. A bit misshapen, a bit raw and ultimately inconclusive. On a positive note, it’s congruent.

The dialogue

I think, throughout life we continuously renegotiate our individual rights in the context of social structures, be it how we behave or how we identify. Varying amounts of personal freedom are given up for preservation of group cohesion.

When it comes to the sense of who one is, it appears our own ideas require recognition from others before the identity acquires its full potency. It seems the only way for self-identification to be sufficient is for there to be a single recipient of the communication–the self.

Seeing as most people live in groups, the affirmative feedback of the group on an individual’s idea about themselves grants validity. It could be argued that my being anatomically female remains true whether or not it is acknowledged by society. However, I wonder how much of the experience of being female is taken away if I were in fact perceived and treated as a male.

The inner thoughts

So, tell me, where are you from? This is a loaded question. It doesn’t have to be but in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society it often is, in my experience. It can be used to separate rather than to invite.

As much as I may understand the anthropological reasons for the division between “them” and “us”, it doesn’t solve the question of what happens to the people, who remain on the outside wherever they go. I wonder how those of us on the intersections of ethnicity, neurology and culture reconcile the differences that place us beyond clear delineation. For me, it is a continuous process of camouflaging and obscuring. 

Venturing into the distant past, the answer to the question of what happens to those, who don’t belong, was probably quite simple–they did not survive. Being part of a tribe was a matter of life or death. This may not be the harsh reality now, peripheral existence is very much possible. I should know.

The compromise

Perhaps with age, once the rebelliousness of young adulthood is long gone, the need to belong arises almost as strongly as it did in infancy. What happens then? I only have my view to fall back on, the answer to this is to engage. Choose your group and become an active part of it by providing value. The conflict between individuality and conformity will likely remain but a position of indepence, if possible to attain, tips the negotiation in one’s favour.

So, where are you from?

I am almost forty and I still have not formulated an appropriate response despite having to frequently defend my right of living in countries I called home. For a long while I tried to find a suitably acerbic answer. I eventually realised the abrasiveness would only exacerbate my disadvantageous position as an outsider.

Now I respond factually: “I live in Buckinghamshire, I am a British citizen”. Inevitably further questions arise and my honest conclusion of “I don’t know where I am really from, truly” does not seem to suffice, threatening to result in simmering hostility on both sides.

Look, I am a quarter Asian, a quarter Ashkenazi Jewish and a half Eastern European (wild mix of Ukrainian, Russian and Polish). I have lived in the UK most of my life. I consider English to be my first language because it is my strongest.

I would like to have a clear answer but, sadly, I don’t know. I am a composite of several peoples. I am becoming tired of untangling my ethnic and national identity. Maybe it could suffice to just be human.

Do you struggle with your sense of identity? Let me know in the comments below, I would appreciate it.

Two candles burning on a windowsill at night
My Shabbat candles

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