How we choose to be identified has a huge impact in the way we go about living our lives. Part of our growth as men is coming to terms with who we are.
The recent news about Rachel Dolezal (White woman turned Black) and Caitlin Jenner (former Olympian Bruce Jenner) brings up a deeper conversation about identity in our society. Does our [external] identity really matter? I think it does.
A great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once said,
“The only true journey one takes is the one within.”
I am originally from Zambia. I came to the United States 11 years ago to pursue a college education. What I also got, was a journey of self-discovery.
When I first arrived on U.S. soil I was quick to highlight the fact that I was not the “regular black guy.” At the time, I just wanted to be known as the prestigious international student from Africa. But after a while when I began to watch more TV and became aware of how Africa was being portrayed in the media, I quickly disassociated myself with the motherland, i.e. the place I called home. Preferring to go by “John” the international student, I thought my identity was so insignificant as to be easily hidden. I was wrong.
One incident in particular occurred during my third year of college and made me realize that identity matters. On a weekend afternoon, my soccer buddies and I were driving back from an indoor soccer game. In the car were my three soccer team mates (who were all white) and a young lady from Europe who was our unofficial cheerleader. As we approached the campus, the young lady turned to one of my friends and said, “I can’t stand black people.” Everyone in the car went silent and she quickly turned to me and said, “John, not you. You are different from them (black people). You are practically White.” Everyone in the car broke out in laughter, but I remained silent.
After reflecting on this event, I realized that how I choose to be identified and the people I surround myself with can have a huge impact in the way I feel and go about living my life. I came to believe that part of my growth as a man was coming to terms with who I was. I also had to decide what to do or think about how others perceive me, my race, and culture. Experiences like I had on that day coming back from soccer changed the dynamic of my relationships with many people and cost me many friends.
I empathize with people that try to define or redefine themselves. As flawed as their process may appear to us, Rachel Dolezal and Caitlin Jenner are doing a hard thing that many people do not ever do. As adults, they have made the choice of who they want to be, and are taking actions to be seen as that person.
If Rachel self-identifies with the African American community, so be it. I personally wonder if it was necessary for her to be estranged from her biological family or attach the long extensions to her hair. Maybe it was. In the case of Caitlin Jenner (formerly Bruce), I respect the choice, even though I feel as though she could have embarked on her change earlier in life before having multiple children and impacting their lives in ways we are yet to fully understand. Then again, who am I to say when the time is right to make a gender transition?
Thankfully for me, my journey to self-discovery was simpler than Caitlin’s or Rachel’s. I will not likely be in the news. Rather than criticize and throw stones, I ask myself whether I am living life as my true self or if I am living as a zombie, the way society has defined for me. Now I turn the question over to you.
Photo: Getty Images