Raoul Wieland explains that while it’s wonderful to see diversity as beautiful, we also need to actively recognize the ways in which people are discriminated against.
James Baldwin, poet, author and civil rights activist once wrote that: “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes”.
One interpretation that I like to draw from this passage is that our nakedness stands in essence for our humanness – beneath it all, we are all human! you say. We are all human, yes, and yet, without a garment, without an identity to protect us, we are naked. Naked we seem to be vulnerable; left exposed to life’s harsh and abrasive touch. It would seem that absent identity we are lost and stranded. For example, think about Matt Damon’s confusion in the Bourne Trilogy.
Our identity, similar to a story, gives rise to a particular narrative that informs our life. At its best, it grounds us in a reality we chose, understand and take strength from. At worst, it locks us in a confining, dark and often lethal box. The particular identity that I hold is constantly being negotiated between myself – my sense of who I am, know to be, or want to be – and society with its set of expectations and norms. Identity then gives meaning to being (human) on this planet.
Identity is also dynamic. Baldwin speaks of changing one’s robes. As we move through life, we continue to change. Where I was once a young boy I am now a man; where I was once a soldier, I am now a teacher; where I was once a leader, I am now a follower; where I was once without child, I am now a parent. In some respect we can, through our actions, choose what identity to move into. Having a child is, in many circumstances, a choice that I can make.
Often, however, the choice is taken away from us. We are identified. The man without a home becomes the homeless; the immigrant becomes the unwanted; the person with a disability becomes a burden; the young man becomes the gangster; the Muslim becomes the terrorist; the queer becomes the abnormal.
Stereotypes have a big influence on how such an identity is created for us; how society views us. This can be very problematic. In Canada, First Nations communities are often stereotyped, prejudged and pushed into a particular identity category. As a result, many face discrimination. A report published by the Health Council of Canada found that “some aboriginal patients were refused painkillers even when in severe pain because of a belief they were at a higher risk of becoming addicted or were already abusing prescription drugs.”
We can also think about how society creates expectations around our gender. From the time that we are born, we are either viewed and socialized as boys or girls: boys do this, girls do that etc. Tony Porter, in his ‘A call to men’ speaks at length about how social norms, culture and traditional images of manhood confine men who don’t necessarily want to conform to the traditional identity of what it is to be a man, to a box – the man box. This can be very limiting and often negatively effects the relationships that men have with their partners.
Another dimension to this discussion can be glimpsed when considering Transpeople. A person that was assigned male at birth but identifies as female and desires to live life as a women faces the challenge of constantly having to navigate societies expectations that she behave like a man. Consider the confusion and anxiety that this creates.
Baldwin notes that the “trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes”. We have to believe in our humanness and trust that regardless of what identity we wear, our common humanity binds us to each other. Only then are we free to not only live out our particular identity and flourish but also to change it without fear (i.e. I reveal to my friends that I am gay and would now like to openly identify as such).
Too often, however, our common nakedness is not enough to keep our many garments from being seen as signs of difference, of being an ‘other’. Stereotypes, discrimination, oppression, hatred and violence are rampant. Some people are excluded and some are included. There are histories and presents of segregation and apartheid. It would all seem so silly if it weren’t so tragic and damaging. It is often surprising how small we draw our circle of compassion.
What if we were to pledge to hold all of our differences – our many-colored garments – as sacred, beautiful and valuable expressions of a common underling humanness? While this is necessary, I would argue that it is not sufficient. We are burdened with long, complex and troubling histories. Much inequality exists. People, depending on their identity, are at different places of power in society. What this means, for example, is that someone that is able-bodied is facing a very different reality than someone that is disabled. Too often people with disabilities become invisible or are treated as second class citizens. Valuing the common humanity that able bodied and people with disability share is an important step. Equity demands that we then go one step further and ensure that people with disabilities are accommodated, supported and have equal access to human rights, justice and social services as able bodied people do.
Another example are affirmative action policies such as racial quotas or gender quotas for collegiate admission. While this sometimes gets labeled as reverse-discrimination by people that advocate for ‘color-blind’ or ‘gender-blind’ policies, one can look to history and see that ‘white’ people and in particular men, have had affirmative action, preferential treatment, set-asides, entitlements and other benefits explicitly on the basis of race and gender for several centuries already. This again highlights the importance of translating the value of a common humanness as sacred into actions that reflect the weight of history and structural inequalities and that reach towards an ideal of equity.
Photo: Flickr/Purple Sherbet Photo