Help! I Have an Identity!

Guest Commentary
Nicholas Rao
Class of 2018

Here in the U.S. identities and celebrities have one thing in common. No sooner do we build them up than we tear them down. Americans are obsessed with rooting out “stereotypes,” belying “generalizations” about a given group, and all-around torching suggestions of commonality among people. In the U.S. to perceive someone in light of an identity is tantamount to proclaiming that person sub-human – or (which is far, far worse) a non-Individual. After all, one might choose to self-identity as non-human – a rhinoceros, perhaps, or an elegant stone – but the Individual is inviolable. Like any super-being the Individual has an arch-nemesis: the Category. One can no more compromise between the two than between the Light Side and the Dark Side.

I considered this problem during an event hosted by the Department of Modern Languages – a Q&A with the president of NIAF (the National Italian American Foundation). The president is an intelligent, well-spoken and admirable individual – prerequisite qualities for the successful fielding of questions from university undergrads.

He got a lot of the usual questions – about negative stereotypes, discrimination – in short, about the myriad burdens and curses of living with an identity: the Italian-American identity in this case. I couldn’t help wondering: do Americans discuss identity for the sole purpose of establishing what it doesn’t entail? Would a definition of “identity” as understood by Americans run something along the lines of n., the marginalizing imposition of Category characteristics on an Individual ? Are we afraid to acknowledge that belonging to any Category – Americans, Italians, Chinese, male, female, old, young, bald, tall – entails the possession of characteristics that (Heaven forfend!) are beyond our control as sovereign Individuals? Can it be that, in our enlightened age, the Individual is not free to pick at whim from an ontological buffet of all potential attributes? That being Italian is not up to me?

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. To value your identity is to acknowledge that you belong to a group of people who share the same characteristics. And no, being Italian in your own way doesn’t really mean anything. You’re still an Individual, of course – just not a self-created, self-developed, Category-immune individual.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of comforting.

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