Identity has become a contentious issue across the globe. Public debates on race, gender, faith, and other ‘identity’ variables have heightened our awareness not only of our own identity but also our orientation toward others who are ‘different.’ What labels are acceptable? What comments are offensive? What topics are taboo? Should someone have said what they did in social media? Should I have responded? These are questions with which we wrestle, publicly and privately. Yet, for all the present attention on identity variables, I wonder whether our debates are motivated by genuine desire to understand others, out of love for a fellow human being. My starting point for this reflection is the belief that all humans have inherent value and dignity as evidenced in God’s pervasive love for humanity, which is the foundation on which I base my own Christian faith.
Evidences and Embodied Identities
We recognise a variety of evidences to build an argument or believe someone else’s argument. In a court of law, evidences could be eyewitness testimony, expert testimony, DNA, artefacts, and so on. In news stories, we look for verifiable facts. In scientific articles, we look for replicable facts. But when it comes to someone’s personal experience, evidence is challenging territory.
Relationships are built between people, not labels or descriptors. To describe my physicality is to describe me as a petite, brown-skinned, dark haired, woman. Some have called me ‘black’ (much to my surprise), others have called me ‘Indian’ (not that much of a surprise), and yet others, to my delight, have simply seen me as ‘local.’ However, to be in relationship with me is to know me – my beliefs, values, passions, peeves and idiosyncrasies that make me a unique individual beyond the descriptors of my physicality, even though my physicality too is part of who I am. If my physicality keeps tripping someone up because s/he doesn’t want to say anything that might offend me as a woman, as a brown person, or a perceived ‘minority,’ then we may never get to have those deeper conversations that build genuine friendship. Similarly, if I hear offense in what others say, no matter how justified I feel in hearing that offense, I may never get to hear the person behind the perceived identity or the words that contribute to me taking offense (e.g. ‘how can a white man understand what it’s like to be me?’)
My experiences are my own, just as yours are your own. Some painful experiences have no evidence, apart from the deep internal scars we carry with us. And some experiences were not even our own, but our ancestors’ or experiences of others with whom we identify by means of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or some other identity variable. Yet we feel their pain by association and the experiences of our ancestors often frame our current narratives.
These invisible scars can create an atmosphere of tentativeness and hesitancy in our relationships. If we see someone with a broken arm, we know not to shake that arm vigorously in greeting. But how do we know not to poke an experiential or historic wound with our words? We do not. So, we skirt around issues we perceive might be ‘sensitive,’ we offer blanket apologies for any offenses we may inadvertently cause, and we use generalisable and innocuous descriptors to the point where sometimes it is no longer clear to what or whom we refer. But in the active avoidance of offense, have we also deprived ourselves of opportunities for genuine understanding and healing?
To be clear, I do not deny the pain many of us carry due to historical and present-day injustices. My scars may not look like yours, but they are there, and they are real to me – as yours are to you. And when you and I are in relationship, it is inevitable that I may prod your scars and cause you pain. It is equally possible you could dismiss my scars or question their relevance in today’s enlightened society, causing me pain.
What then is our recourse? Do we simply avoid pain by avoiding any real conversations? Do we walk on eggshells around each other for the rest of our lives? Do we limit our relationships to those who sport similar scars to our own, those who ‘understand’? I hope not!
I have been a student of intercultural communication for most of my life. When people from different cultures interact, there is high probability for misunderstandings and potential ‘offenses’ because we carry with us layers of cultural formation, the nuances of which are impossibly opaque to an ‘outsider.’ Yet, to form relationships across cultures, we must exercise grace and assume good intentions on the other person’s part, to nurture the friendship beyond initial ‘offenses.’ If we value the friendship, we challenge and encourage the other person to understand why what they said could be interpreted as an offense, and welcome similar honesty about our own behaviour in turn. In such instances, we begin to better understand our own cultural biases, we expand our frame of reference to include the other’s way of seeing things, and we enrich our lives with a friendship that will stretch and challenge us beyond our comfort zone.
I think the same principles of extending grace, and engaging in ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ dialogue, also apply to conversations across different identities. Unless we are willing to truly dialogue with the ‘other,’ to understand him or her as a human with inherent value, unless we are willing to get past the initial pain of our scars being inadvertently prodded, we will limit our circle of genuine relationships to those who sport scars that match ours, and to conversations that revolve around the perceived perpetrators of those scars, keeping the pain alive, avoiding anyone who dares to presume there may be a way forward for mutual healing.
As for me, I have been a ‘minority’ my entire life. I have been at the receiving end of painful words and acts of discrimination that were malicious, inadvertent, or indifferent. No doubt, I too have been the perpetrator of such acts toward others in my own flawed and ongoing journey toward wholeness. However, being an educated woman living in a free country, I am privileged to have not only the tools, but also the agency, to self-reflect and make choices that either facilitate or hinder relationship with those whose identity is different to mine. I thus approach ‘identity’ conversations on the premise of the following broad principles: firstly, I should be open to listening to another’s point of view, regardless of the extent to which I agree with it. Secondly, I should not dismiss someone else’s (identity) pain just because I do not understand it. Thirdly, I should not expect someone else to understand my own pain or perspective unless I am willing to open myself to genuine conversation and relationship.
If we are willing to endure the discomfort of someone treading on our wounds in their journey to understanding us better, if we are willing to listen and be heard, perhaps then we can get beyond the cacophony of outrage and progress towards healing dialogues. Let’s talk about gender, race, and offenses, so that we can also talk about repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, and building a better legacy for the coming generations despite our scars – or perhaps, because of them.
About the author: Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is Deputy Vice President Student Affairs at Alphacrucis College. Her area of expertise is intercultural communication.
 John 3:16; Romans 5:7-8