‘I am an American, not an Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race betrayal, but it is a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally.’ What is identity? Many of us would think that the answer to this question is simple but once placed on the stop and asked to answer it, the answer creates more of an issue than the question. Identity can be defined in many different ways, and there is more than one identity. The most obvious of these is an individual identity, regarding one person and their ability to establish their identity and locate themselves.
There are also social identities and collective identities. Usually, identity is to do with ideas derived from society and often requires some reflexivity as it is to do with being a social being part of society. It is mainly acquired through social interaction and the meanings we decide of social positions and is often marked through symbols. Identity is all about similarities and differences. These help one identify their sense of self about others who are similar or different. For example, it can help identify distinctive characteristics that make one different from others or identify a shared viewpoint or physical features that make one similar to others.
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Identity is about how we think about ourselves, other people around us and what we think others around us think of us; many people would imagine social life unimaginable without a social identity. Mukherjee grew up in a Hindu, Bengali-speaking and middle-class neighbourhood. The general belief in her birthplace was that ‘one’s identity was fixed, derived from religion, caste, patrimony, and mother tongue.’ One did not need to ‘discover’ their identity because it was unchangeable, and one hardly had an individual identity. As the society consisted of similar people, there was a sense of a shared and collective identity, even if not socially, at least within one’s family, it was shared.
Her neighbourhood had influenced her identity greatly, especially when regarding social divisions—for example, gender. In the article, specific sentences make it clear that Mukherjee comes from a male-dominated society. ‘Men provided, and women were provided for. My father was a patriarch, and I a pliant daughter…I didn’t expect myself to ever disobey or disappoint my father by setting my own goals and taking charge of my future.’ It also seems that class played an essential role in the social divisions of the collective identity. ‘Two commands my father had written out for me…marry the bridegroom he selected for me from our caste and class’.
She also claims that intercaste, interlanguage and interethnic marriages were forbidden within their traditional culture. Even emigration was frowned upon in Bengali tradition as it was seen as a form of diluting authentic culture. It seems that a woman’s identity was set by her father’s identity (or status), or after marriage, her husband. Mukherjee also states, ‘I was who I was because I was Dr. Sudhir Lal Mukherjee’s daughter.’ It should also be noted that Mukherjee chooses to use the word ‘was’ rather than ‘am.’ This suggests that she has, in a way, cut off ties with her previous identity.
She now sees her primary identity as being American. Once in America, Mukherjee regarded herself as an Indian international student who intended to return to India to live. Her short and impulsive marriage ceremony led her into a whole new world regarding identities and their importance. She felt cut off from the ways of her life in Bengal as she had done something she would never have ever dreamed of doing. She now felt as if she had conflicting loyalties between two significantly different cultures. In America, women have more rights and participate in society just as much as men. This was new to Mukherjee as she now struggled to find her true identity, something she had never really paid attention to before.
There had been a recent uproar in America concerning things such as ‘who is an American?’ and ‘what is American culture?’. These led to issues involving the scapegoating of immigrants, which further pushed Mukherjee into adopting America as her new homeland and following American culture. However, Mukherjee done all with her own choice and therefore took her citizenship very seriously. The United Nations adds new members almost every year; many ‘old nations’ now find themselves challenged with ‘sub’ – nationalisms. It looks more and more likely that there will be a creation of more nationalities, and people may lose true sight of what their nation once was.
Many people in one society do not know each other or even of one another’s existence, yet there is a sense of a ‘community.’ Anderson (1983) describes this situation as an ‘imagined community.’ Members cannot know each other and despite inequality, there is still an imagined meaningful friendship. One can, and does have more than one identity. Goffman (1971) talks about impression management and gives life the metaphor of a drama. Humans are seen as actors and play many different roles. He believes that they follow certain ‘scripts’ which are relevant in some situations but not in others and interaction is seen as a performance to the audience.
This is known as his ‘dramaturgical analogy’. William Shakespeare once famously wrote ‘ All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrance; Each man in his time plays many parts’. This means that a concept, even if not widely agreed with, to do with Goffman’s idea has been around for a long time. b In the debate of culture and identity, the notion of agency is a central theme. Agency is about choice, the ability to exercise this choice in order to shape our own identities. Agency is highly related to reflexivity; a post-modern idea.
Reflexivity is to do with the capacity of humans to reflect upon themselves, their actions and others around them in order to change or improve themselves. Mukherjee was brought up in an environment where the notion of agency in regards to identity did not exist. Identity was fixed, and one could not change it. Therefore, when she adopted her newfound culture in America, she automatically was using an agency to choose and shape her own identity. Identity is ever-changing; it changes with time, place and an individual’s perception of reality (Vithu Jeyaloganathan – Sri Lankan-born Canadian, b. 1991).
An Indian politician and founder of the Indian Constitution ( B.R.Ambedkar) once said that ‘Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self.’ This may be representative of India’s changing views on the topic of identity and more importantly, individual identity.
- Anderson, B. (2001) Imagined Communities, In Seidman, S. and Alexander, J C. (eds) The New Social Theory Reader. Routledge
- Goffman, E. (1971) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin.
- Kidd, W. (2003) I am what I am. Culture and identity in Sociology. Sociology Review Vol 12 No 3
- Mukherjee, B. (1997) American Dreamer. Mother Jones January/February Issue