‘Whomst’ are you?

16 July 2019 | Columns

Justicia Shipena

How do you respond to someone who asks: “What are you?”

Clearly, there’s no right answer to such a weighty inquisition; yet, when I was asked this very question by way too many people, I felt compelled to answer: “Human.”

One of my peers was still perplexed, however. He asked: “I’m an Ovaherero, but you’re definitely not, so what are you?” It was at this point that I realised two things: First, identity can be equated with ethnicity, which derives from one’s heritage, and second, this identity requires a label.

I recognised both ideas to be characteristics of society, although they never meant anything to me, personally.

It takes your brain about 39 milliseconds to form a first impression of a person. Evolutionarily, this neuronal speed is amazingly beneficial. Survival has required fast responses to an ever-changing environment.

In the modern world, however, this processing has its drawbacks, mostly due to the difficulty in changing that rapid first impression. Our preconceived notions about people are highly connected to first impressions, and it’s simply easier for the brain to group new acquaintances into pre-set categories.

To the brain, the additional cognitive energy needed to overcome this initial impression, with the pre-existent opinions likely underscoring it, just doesn’t seem worthwhile. What amounts to mere cognitive indolence, quickly devolves into the formation of stereotypes. And just like that, prejudice is born.

When I realised that my peer equated ethnicity with identity, I had never thought to call this chauvinistic. Chauvinism; the word carries powerful, negative references that are almost always derogatory.

As a young individual, I already had a sense of this correlation and didn’t think the questioning deserved this name; after all, I had come out unscathed. Without the social stigma, regional chauvinism is only, as Merriam-Webster defines it: “Undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged.”

Though many would agree that chauvinism is but one component of identity, the two elements are too often used interchangeably. Of course, ethnic pride is healthy and normal. In fact, it is said that people who identify more strongly with their tribal group identity are generally happier. However, identifying strongly with a tribe should not be all encompassing. Individuals are more than their skin colour, their heritage and their culture, and people should recognise that about themselves and others.

Should we fail on this point, we would be submitting to pre-existing notions about ourselves and just continuing the idea that tribes and identity are coterminous. It is one thing to be proud of your heritage, but it’s entirely different to also limit your identity to it.

I confused my peer largely because I didn’t fit the tribal groups that already existed in his immature brain. Certainly it’s easier to identify with one’s tribe and base one’s entire identity on it, but to do so would cut off the non-tribal elements of one’s identity, as well as limit one’s perspective about the rest of the world. Being multi-tribal, while not ostensibly easier than belonging to any tribe, makes embracing these other elements easier.

Researchers found that high school students who identify with multiple tribal groups tend to be happier, less stressed and more socially engaged in school.

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks led research that found individuals who associated themselves simultaneously with more than one identity were more creative and better at solving problems.

All of these advantages stemmed from the subjects’ multifaceted self-identification. When we detach identity from race, anyone, multicultural or not, can have this layered self-identification.

Since my encounter with my inquisitive peer, I have met many like him who pose similar questions and exhibit similar maturity.

Windhoek is one of the places where so much time and energy is invested in identity edification, and race-labelling is especially dangerous. Self-segregation into cultural or tribal cliques only stunts full self-understanding. We really should be asking ourselves who we are, not what we are. So the next time someone ask you what you are, you might as well tell them: “I am Namibian!”

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