In my French III Honors class year of high school, we studied a section called “l’identité français”, or “the French Identity”. My teacher introduced the unit by asking this:
How do you identify yourself?
Before answering, many of us asked her “Identify as what?” “What do you mean by that?” and others said “I don’t get it”. She simply posed the question again,
How do you identify yourself?
After a considerable amount of silence in the classroom, coupled with faces of confusion, one of us finally raised her hand and answered. With a questioning inflection in her voice, she said “By our roles in society, like whether we are part of a sports team or a club or something. Lots of people always say ‘I”m a _____ player’, I think that’s kind of a way that we identify ourselves… right?” Once again, my teacher did not respond to any question, she instead just wrote it on the chalkboard. The rest of us were still incredibly confused, but we decided to try and give examples of how we identified ourselves anyway. By the time our teacher finished silently writing out our responses on the board, it looked something like this:
- Roles in society- sports, team, club (I”m a _____ player)
- Ways we relate to others(brother, sister, friend, girlfriend, cousin…)
- Cultural background
- Physical appearance(white, black, brunette blonde…)
- Hobbies(I like _____)
- Things we do(I don’t cheat/ I do my homework, I am studious)
Even though we weren’t really sure how to answer the question, we still gave it our best shot in answering. This was an Honors course, and as Madame liked to say, we were the “crème de la crème” of French students, and not answering Madame correctly or disappointing her made us feel horrible, especially since she always made sure to remind us that we were Honors students. After looking at the board for a little while, Madame said “Okay, so we have this stuff that you all said on the board, but now I have a follow- up question for you:
What is an identity?”
The room was silent. We looked around at each other, hoping that at least one of us knew something that would get us out of this frustrating rut of not- knowing that we were in that day. But nobody said anything. “See,” said Madame, “How can you guys even answer this question if you don’t even know what having an identity is? This unit, we’re going to be examining, exploring and attempting to express what it means to have an identity. Are you born with a pre- determined identity? Is it created for you by your parents as you’re young and then you grow up and choose to keep or alter it in some way? Is it made by you and you alone? What influences an identity? How do we define it? Is there a wrong or right way to identify yourself or someone else? Is there a right or wrong identity to have?”
And from what I remember, examine this topic we did. If we said culture was how we identified, we were met with “What is culture?” If we said anything, we were met with “what is?“ I think this unit might as well be called WHAT IS, because that’s all we talked about- what is this, what is that. Being questioned on what we thought we understood in terms of identities made us second- guess our own knowledge of how we relate and exist in the world. Every class was a debate, and none of the conclusions we came to were ever concrete. Even as a senior in high school, and long after this unit in high school, I am STILL trying to figure out what “l’identité français” is. Forget about the French identity in particular, even in a general sense- I’m not too sure that even now I know exactly what my identity is or how to define it. I like to think that it’s a more fluid than stagnant thing, determined by the individual as well as their environment, but sometimes I am faced with situations in our world and its history that bring me right back to questioning everything I think I know.
Passing by Nella Larsen is a literary piece that is currently making me question what I think I know about the identity. A story of black women attempting to pass themselves off as white women in American culture, it creates this melonge of identities we think we knew about or recognized that of the black identity versus the white identity, and the female identity to boot. The encounter between Clare & Irene embodies this phrase: “Suppose the woman did not know or suspect her race”(Larsen, 8). Upon seeing Clare in the café, Irene really isn’t sure if the woman who’s skin is light enough and eyes might be dark enough to ignore her reproaches, but caring enough to indulge in conversation in someone she knows. Irene thinks that this woman who might be willing to talk to her would do so only because she does not recognized that fair- skinned Irene is in fact, an African- American woman. But plot twist, so is the object of Irene’s gaze! Each of them cannot believe that the other just appears so… white. And they spend a considerable amount of time worrying about who might notice these two black women enjoying themselves in a predominantly Caucasian café. Thank God they seem to be more white than anything else. But the thing is, they aren’t just white- they are both both black and white. Why is it that in the later half of the 1900s, years after slavery, identifying as black was still a bad thing to non- blacks, yet something altogether so important for those that were? The prevalence of racism forced many people of African ancestry into the “black” community exclusively, despite having roots in “white” culture as well. This only further supported the divide amongst people, who it seemed, were becoming more and more “the same” over time. What did, or even does it mean to identify as black as opposed to white, or vice versa? Is it just a skin pigmentation thing, or is it cultural? Is it an attitude or a mindset is geography and ancestry enough to give someone the label of black or not? Does it even matter if you are black or white- and this time I don’t mean it in relation to racism, but does that even have a baring on the type of person you are? Or is it that other people make it have a bearing? Or do you? Does that dictate your morality- what makes it so important?
Are identities a good or a bad thing- from what I understand of them, they help in making you a “unique” individual, but from what we as people know of them or how we use them in terms of other people, I feel like identities also have the ability to pigeon- hole you into portraying or fitting a certain stereotype or role, to the point that if you stray from it, others accuse you of not being loyal to one thing or person or another, or even yourself- and that’s hard. How can someone say you’re not being true to yourself if you don’t even know what or who you are to begin with? Especially at young ages, we tend to have a really hard time figuring out and understanding who we are. But is who we are the same thing as our identity? I don’t know. I’m not sure, and I don’t know if it’s anything easily figured out either.
I think that figuring out “l’identité français”, “l’identité de moi” and how to define them is going to be one hell of a struggle. I couldn’t explain the identity at 16, I can’t explain it now, and even those before me have had a rough go at it. I don’t quite know how Clare and Irene are going to resolve their identity “crisis” or issues, if we can even consider what these women are currently experiencing as such.
Maybe you can answer these questions try your luck and lemme know what you come up with.
If you want to follow along with me as I read through Passing, here’s a free PDF version that can be found online. I have currently completed part I.