How important are cultural and national identities for an individual?

Our cultural and national identities play an important role in the formation of our individual identities.  While care must be taken to not stereotype people based on their ethnicities/nationalities/gender identities, such attributes do contribute to defining personal identities of people.  In the case of a country such as the United States, the exercise of locating and ascribing identities to individuals can be a complex process.  A country renowned for being the ‘melting pot’ of cultures, languages and races, people here can draw upon a range of national, cultural and linguistic heritages.  The literary works chosen for this essay deal with such complexities.  By perusing these literary sources and by performing further analysis upon them, the rest of this essay will attempt to answer the topic ‘Who we really are?’.  The question mark in the title is taken as a rhetorical device, meaning that it implies a lack of clear-cut answer to the purported question.  In other words, the thesis is that socio-cultural markers used to describe an individual’s background cannot be given too much importance and should not be taken as definitive of the person; there are dangers and risks in doing so, and there are many advantages in treating identity as a fluid concept.

In the write-up The People In Me by Robin D. G. Kelley, the author talks about his own multicultural background and in the process makes a valid observation about Americans in general:

“Although folk had trouble naming us, we were never blanks or aliens in a “black   world.” We were and are “polycultural,” and I’m talking about all peoples in the Western world. It is not skin, hair, walk, or talk that renders black people so diverse. Rather, it is the fact that most of them are products of different “cultures” – living   cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us every day, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. “Polycultural” works better than “multicultural,” which implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side in a kind of zoological approach to culture. Such a view obscures power relations, but often reifies race and gender differences” (Kelley, 2011, p.483)

The above passage clearly illustrates how identities work in real-life as opposed to how governmental institutions perceive of them in their census statistics.  Indeed, ‘polycultural heritage’ seems the more plausible characteristic of individual identity, as opposed to rigid categorizations.  Similarly, in the poem Executive Order 9066 by Dwight Okita, what we see is an instance of the malleability of one’s identity – in this case particularly that of national identity.  Fourteen year old Ozawa, who is of Japanese descent, is nevertheless fully acculturated as an American girl.  And this reflects in her food habits and other interests. (Okita, 2011, p.187)  The poem does remind us of the dangers associated with stereotyping through the example of Denise O’Connor’s hostile reaction to her friend Ozawa’s heritage.  For example, at the tender age of 14, young Ozawa must have found it extremely distressing to have been rebuked, snubbed and treated as a criminal by her closest friend Denise.  Even if some members of the Japanese American community had been spying for the benefit of a war enemy, it is totally not acceptable to include children in the suspects’ list, let alone the entire community.  The rounding up of Japanese Americans during the Second World War is a real event, albeit a disgraceful one in American history.  Hence the poem by Dwight Okita has socio-historical significance.  And the lesson we can take away is this: the government’s distrust of a section of the population is a gross violation of basic rights of its citizens.  And Denise’s adverse reaction toward Ozawa is just one example of the unfairness of it.  In this case of unwarranted distrust, the victimizers were the ones who acted and felt indignant toward the victims.  With the unraveling of more information, it comes to light that the aggrieved were the perpetrators of injustice and not the other way around.  And finally, the poem illustrates how dangerous rigid assignments of identities can turn out to be. (Okita, 2011, p.187)

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