Who Am I?

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?



    When I was 19, I remember being exhausted at the process of "becoming" myself, and thinking about how tiring the rest of my life was going to be, if being authentic meant constantly transforming this way.
    I don't think I change that drastically, anymore. I've come to terms with the fact that I am dynamic, I do change, but I am essentially a few things.
    I do think that there are some static things in us, and it boils down to the idea that I believe that I was created in God's image, and I think that God's essential make up does not change. Therefore, while I am dynamic, I am also static.
    I also really like this topic.

  2. Hm yeah! bringing Yahweh into it is interesting - most xtians believe that God is "un-changing." So how does that relate when we as humans are constantly changing? And like they say, all of our cells regenerate constantly and in 6 years or something you aren't even any of the same cells anymore you know? So anyway, we change.

    But if we're in God's image - then there's an unchanging image of what we are... or something - reminds me of Plato and his forms; like tehre's a perfect version of ourselves out there somewhere that is real and static to an extent and we're just shadows of that or whatever.

    What are these few things you are essentially? I wonder if I ask myself that - what are the core things that define you? Like I was telling Lisa recently, "I am never going to eat meat on purpose ever again." And she was like, "Well I don't know if I would say that." And I thought about it, and barring a complete transformation in our food systems and in global inequality and in humans' relationship to the environment I don't think I could ever eat it again, but who am I to say? I would have said, five years ago, that I would never accept that homosexuality was anything other than a grave sin. And I'm trying to think about other things like that, other examples, but maybe they're all religious.

    But who knows? I want to believe that I will never get tired enough that I will resign myself to doing something like eating meat, but that means I just want to always be a person that lives by my values/ideals. But those change too. Right?

    I'm at this point at a place where I think I am OK with the idea that I might have completely different opinions on anything in 5 10 50 years than I do now. I might be a completely different person then than now.

    Unless I do have some kind of transcendent soul, then I'll be the same dude just with different opinions.

    Also I like that "when you were 19" is stated as though it was so long ago, haha. We are still quite young, my friend. In 5 years you'll be like "Man, when I was 23 I had such stupid opinions/beliefs" Haha :)

    Thanks re: the layout. I'm still working on it - obviously I have to change a few more things. Like what's going on with these comments, they're hard to read. Haven't had comments since the re-design.

  3. I feel like our generation is too concerned with who we are and how we define ourselves. When I think of the time I've spent over the years figuring out what to put as my interests on my Facebook page, I wonder if I should have been spending that time pursuing my interests instead. We're more concerned with being interesting than being interested.
    I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. We all want to be liked. We all want to be heard and respected. I suppose I don't know exactly "who I am", but it's not really up to me. These things are subjective, even, if not especially, to ourselves. I'd like to tell myself that I have good taste, that I'm intelligent, and interesting, but the world may disagree.
    What we're left with is what we do, where we're from, and stuff like that. It's not the essence of who we are, but it's a part, and it's an objective part. I'd rather try to figure someone out that way than by what music they listen to, or what movies they watch. I wouldn't want to like anyone for what they like. Besides, if people judged me for what music I listen to I'd be in big trouble.
    At the same time, I'm unemployed, and that carries with it a certain stigma. When people ask "what do you do", I don't really have an answer for them, and they leave the conversation confused.
    I don't spend too much time trying to figure out "who someone is". We're just people, not Russian cupping dolls of complexity. There isn't much more to a person than how they look, act, and feel. For example, people reading this comment may think, "this Kenji guy thinks he's the shit". Now, do I really think I'm the shit? No. Am I the shit? Who's to say? My identity as "the shit' remains contested.

  4. I like the layout also, but the comment section is too hard to read in the white on biege. Actually your great grandparents were from Spain and your grandmother although fully Spanish was born in the Phillipines - because that was where her father was stationed in the army. Carmen, my mother came to the states in her early teens. Went to Berkeley for college and became a school teacher. I should learn how to do a blog so before I am too old to remember I can tell you a little bit about your heritage.

  5. @ Kenji

    I hear what you're saying but whenever someone on the Internet (or, I guess, in person) says "here is this critique of this point of view" and then immediately afterward says "but btw I subscribe to the point of view too so whatever" it's kind of annoying :) haha

    But I hear you to an extent. It reminds of fashion and I guess superficiality in general - we want to be liked, or we want to be perceived a certain way, and by identifying ourselves with aspects of culture we are making an attempt to align ourselves with whatever subculture has also aligned itself with that aspect of culture. It's all just group mentality I think at a base level; we need as humans I think to be part of a group, so it's just choosing what group.

    Reminds me of this argument in Franny & Zooey, though, when Franny claims that divorcing oneself, however much that's even possible, from certain trappings of American superficiality is a superficial act in itself to a certain extent. Then you're just aligning yourself with other people who "don't subscribe to _________." Like anarchists or anti-conformists who are pretty uniform in their rebellion against society or whatever, right?

    I disagree that "who you are" isn't up to you, though. I think that there are two levels - how you are perceived, and how you perceive yourself. In the Bible it talks a lot about how God knows what's really going on inside of you even if nobody's looking. Like there's the idea that your true self, your real identity, expresses itself when nobody's looking, you know? And I think that our self-perceived identity is so much more important than our other-perceived identity.

    This breaks down if you're a self-important blowhard douchebag, though. I guess humility is important too, to a certain extent.

    I'm not a fan of objective means of understanding anything, though, especially people. and tastes or likes in my opinion are as objective, or moreso, than actions and "accidents of birth" - what we do can change in whatever situation but tastes and ideals and stuff don't, or we would like to think they don't, at least not situation-by-situation. I don't know.

  6. @ Anonymous

    Hi mom! Thanks for letting me know more about my heritage! I actually never knew for sure any of that stuff. Wow.

    Remember how a while back I wanted to ask you about your childhood and heritage and write it all down? I still want to do that at some point :)

    Also, I fixed the comments, as you can see, so now it's easier to read. Still need to work out a few kinks.