Recently at Speakey Spokey in Brighton (a great night featuring readings from Colin Grant, Sea Sharp, Preti Taneja and music from Rachel Chinouriri) the audience were asked by poet Raymond Antrobus how many of them have more than one identity. No one raised their hands – apart from the people, mainly those on stage, who were not white. It made me think once again about the concept of identity. And for me it is a concept rather than a state because the definition or expression of my identity isn’t something that comes naturally. I wanted to explore why this was.
If we had to map identities, I would be able to find one that suited. But it would be something consciously stepped into; predominantly because I am white, heterosexual, middle class and fit easily into the privileged centre-ground, and a big part of that privilege is being free of the necessity of defining myself.
It made me wonder, in that room of mostly white people who didn’t put up their hands, whether identity is in part ballast, a form inhabited against or in resistance to privilege. Stick with me because there are a number of assumptions there that need finessing.
Firstly, I do understand that I have an identity and that of course ‘white’ isn’t the default setting from which all else is ‘other’. White people are in terms of numbers, an exception to the rule of the human species.
There are two directions of identity; one, split variously by context and culture, comes from those around you and another that comes from yourself. If pressed, my self-identity would be as an artist and writer, a mother. Being a white woman is not problematic any more than being a woman with blue eyes or brown hair; but claiming whiteness is. People who claim whiteness do so in a way that is at best usually embarrassing, and at worst, dangerous. I don’t understand what their whiteness means to them. It is like they have parcelled up this organ, this skin, this biological drift out of melanin production, turned it into a magical commodity that makes them cry with strange emotion, or feel scared, or feel powerful; It doesn’t make sense.
Geography offers another marker of identity. I once joked, in a culture that defined various strands of northerners as ‘real’, being middle class and southern was so unreal I barely existed. I don’t have historically deep roots anywhere, my family moved from place to place, came from all the countries of the British Isles. I’m not nationalistic or patriotic. I deeply love certain landscapes – the beechwood and chalk hills where I grew up. But I can’t identify as a beechwood person. I love the village community where I spent my childhood but believe that certain cultural markers aside, most of what happened is broadly similar to most of what happens in villages all over the world. People care for each other, they bicker and fight about petty things. They love, leave and find each other. Children learn from teaching and mischief. Habits of behaviour form slowly like the land. Perhaps being from a village is part of my identity.
There can be a romantic utilisation of identity. For some the thrilling, uncommon strand of their heritage, however slender the connection is the one that is the identifier. I longed when young, for a more dramatic provenance. I would have loved to be able to present myself as ‘other’ – of course without the restrictions that otherness can bring. When we are young we imagine ourselves only triumphing, only being glorious. We don’t see the shade, the dark corners, the prejudices and daily grinds that for many will be the reality of a differentiating heritage. I was after all lucky to be in my centre zone, it gave me opportunity and security, and freedom, I see now, from the necessity of daily having to justify myself.
But also when I was younger, I felt a dusting of shame, a layer in the whiteness of my skin that linked me to the most appalling acts of humanity’s rich history of appalling acts. I didn’t want to be an inheritor of empire. But of course I am. Though history may be shameful, I don’t feel that shame personally any more. But I do know that the wealth that created the well-resourced locus in which I grew up came from everything associated with this country’s dark history. That identity is not something to feel proud about. That identity is what the Generation Identity far-right want to take pride in and take us back to.
There is a kind of ignorance that often seems to go with privilege. I don’t exempt myself from the charge. It has been easy for me to think that the politics of identity is a mistake. I fear the human tendency to define ‘us’ leading to the next tendency to define ‘not us’. It seems possible in an age of fragmentation and argument that a mosaic of identities will make things worse. That the boundaries will lie hard against each other and divide us further. I think that perhaps naively I hoped that we could all define ourselves as human, as one.
In the village I feel so benign about, some years ago I was walking with my boyfriend of the time, a black man, who looked around the village green, then turned to me and said ‘hold my hand.’ It was, gently, a challenge and I knew immediately why he had made it. For him, of course it wasn’t a village like all other villages across the world. It was a village where he would likely be the only non-white person. I was free to take my experience of being there as universal. He was not.
Perhaps for many white people the identity that they could most easily put on, the crude cartoon, is not desirable. Or can I chose? Which version of Englishness would I claim? Can I choose The Barmy Army over football hooligans? Can I choose curry over spam and spotted dick? Is Englishness stained for all who claim it by Brexit and its vile cheerleaders as it was by slavery and empire? If I claim Shakespeare must I also take Kipling?
My identity is not red white and blue. Or regional. As nothing falls on me naturally, I’ll probably remain floating, aware of and grateful for the privilege I inherited from the identity that it makes no sense for me to claim. But I have realised that because of that privilege, I am seen. I don’t have to fight to be seen because everything about the way our society is set up already sees me. My personal identity can disappear in that being seen. And a mosaic is after all a beautiful thing. Like a stained glass window. Though I am in no hurry to reach for my own, I am grateful to live in a place of so many identities. One day I hope that privilege will be refracted through all the many panes of the mosaic window that makes us. Then perhaps our boundaries and our definitions will soften and the oneness of society will have genuine viability.
In the mean time, for all those fighting for their place, their visibility, respect.