I was filling out the Census 2010 form with my housemates last night and I struggled to answer some of the questions about "Who I am." Hispanic/Latino heritage is no longer a race, y'all! That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the way the question is worded on the Census form.
It asks whether I am of Latino/Hispanic "origin." What does that mean? My grandmother was from Spain. I think. Or maybe my great-grandmother. So I am "Hispanic," sort of. But I'm not of Hispanic "origin." I've never been to Spain. I don't know whether my grandmother has ever been there, or where she was born. "Origin" implies a starting place of sorts; does it mean where my "family line" originated, or me personally? Because it was too confusing, I put "No, I am not of Hispanic origin." But I felt like I was leaving something out.
The whole Census thing was difficult for someone like me who doesn't fit into the lil' boxes. My dad is Black, too, or as the Census form suggests, "Negro." I was initially appalled by the inclusion of that word, so entangled it is with our country's racist history, but apparently more than 50,000 people wrote-in "Negro" on their form in 2000. So, whatever.
Got me thinking about identity, though. Like Nick Jonas would say, I want someone to love me for "Who I Am." (sweet tunes, actually somewhat-talented Jonas bro). But who am I? Got me thinking about this recent Cat and Girl comic:
click to enlarge.
I was listening to NPR a couple weeks ago and they were discussing a new report about Millenials - us, y'all! I don't remember everything that was discussed, but I think they mentioned the tenuous relationship that us young folks have with work - something about how previous generations have imagined a much more direct link between what they do and who they are.
I like Girl's understanding of the issue as a positive social trend - we are moving away from defining people by "accidents of birth." This is nothing new in American society, at least ideally or intellectually - we tend to believe that the United States is a land of opportunity, with upward mobility and all that. But maybe in previous generations that's been less the actual reality than we want to believe. And maybe it's still not the reality for this generation either.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explained about grown-ups in The Little Prince,
When you tell [grown-ups] that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.
When we meet people, we still ask them "What do you do?" Should we ask the above questions instead? And surely, how one chooses to spend one's time can, and I'll say should, say a lot about who they "are." But only to an extent, you see.
But to what extent? If it's not what you "do," then what is it?
Awhile back, Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films -- these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the damn truth.
But to what extent are someone's "likes" and "dislikes" representative of who they "are," either? Rob Gordon says that who you are is what you like - the things you choose to entertain yourself with.
Another dimension is politics - are you libertarian, republican, anarchist, centrist? This seems like it has to do with ideals, or vision - how should the world be run, what should motivate people, how you think power should be distributed. I think faith fits in here too - "I am a Muslim. I am Baha'i. I am spiritual but not religious." This is an intellectual identity, of sorts; has to do with your inner self.
But all of these things change and grow as we do. I don't like the same music I did when I was younger, I don't do the same things, I don't practice the same religion or have the same politics. Is there something deeper? And it's deeper than DNA, here, too, I think.
It gets into the question of the individual soul - is there a pure essence to who I am, an "Elliott" deep down in there, never changing? Is my identity transcendental? Does it reincarnate? Is there such thing as a soul? If I had a twin brother, and he had my exact same job, pursued the same interests and passions, had the same upper-middle class upbringing, liked the same music and movies, had the same political leanings as I do, would we effectively be the same person? Or is there something deep within me that constitutes "me?"
It could be all of these things, to varying degrees. We all have the opportunity to define ourselves. So what do you think? Who are you?