The chasm between “us” and “them” has grown ever wider as identity politics has become more and more en vogue – but identity is not static, nor subjective. Nor is it so straightforward.
A few years after I migrated to Australia, my lovely Australian husband told me to put down some roots. He could see that I had been struggling with the change from being Ingeborg to “Holly” (because-you’re-from-Holland) and his solution was to supply me with tools. Literally. He owned a little house on the prairie back then, a log cabin twenty minutes outside of Forster, New South Wales, on top of a hill overlooking valleys and more hills. So he gave me a tool belt and told me to build myself a place on the land. It was, of course, as real as it was symbolic: he was hoping that with the footings of the building I would also anchor myself.
What I put down was what we called the Blue Room: a seven-by-seven meter super-shed, with high ceilings, a cozy pot-belly, and views that went on forever. It was made from the Australian material par excellence – corrugated iron – but had quintessential Dutch touches, like large windows and doors and no internal walls at all. On dusk, kangaroos came to admire their reflections; at night, it was dripping in stars. It was my heart-place and it did the trick, in a way: because I had built it, and because it had become an easy fit with the landscape, I felt more part of my surroundings.
A couple of years ago, we had to sell the place. Long story. And it didn’t seem to matter in my mind, because part of who I was, was still there, on the side of that hill. Except that now it isn’t. Looking for something else online the other day, I came across an aerial shot of the property as it is now. And my Blue Room has gone. Nothing remains, not even an imprint, not a shadow to show that it once existed. Of course, it should not have mattered. We sold it and the new owners have every right to do what they want. And I built it once, and that should be enough. Still, it hurts. Because of the building itself; I thought it was beautiful, and fitting. But mostly, I think, because with its eradication, I feel a little eradicated myself. Removed, rejected, wiped out. That is childish, probably, and a bit of an entitled whinge at a time when we are confronted with real and much more pressing problems. But then I started thinking about it, and somehow it seemed be part of those problems.
Recently, more and more people, most famously Stephen Fry, have stood up to reject what they call the scourge of identity politics. Often without really explaining what they mean by it, they call it, in Fry’s words, a “fatuous, outmoded notion,” telling their listeners that it has nothing to do with a straight-thinking “us” in the middle, but with crazy people who think that their gender, sexuality, color, or heritage is the only thing that counts in the world. Let me address that anger, and explain what it’s got to do with my Blue Room. First of all, the issue of identity. I always find it interesting that most people who are rejecting the idea that somebody’s identity is important are people who know who and what they are and are not rejected by others because of it. Yes, of course, Fry is gay and bipolar, and that would be a problem if he was a chimney-sweep in Afghanistan. But he is a rich, adored writer and television presenter in a western country with its future king as one of his best mates and a Twitter following of 12.7 million. He might have some doubts about his own worth once in a while, but that is less an identity issue than it is a healthy human trait.
Too much force on any human being leads to one of two things: fight or flight. I think that what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of both: a lot of anger as a defense against hurt, and distortion.
Identity is a complicated thing. In a world of migrants, most of us have more than one. We are a little like Barack Obama, a mix of things: languages, colors, experiences, histories, stories. We are many-voiced and have many selves. We are hybrids, stews with a pinch of this and a handful of that. That, in and of itself, is, of course, absolutely fine. Except that we live in a world where we are constantly asked to be only one thing. Especially in Australia. Look at the response to the Bourke Street attacker. The second one, not the first. In every political statement, he was called a Muslim and a Somali and a terrorist. The fact that he was also Australian, and fairly young, and traumatized, and a whole lot of other things, did not matter. Because he had done something wrong, those parts of his identity could be taken away to reveal a foreign body, something that obviously needed to be removed. Not part of “us,” where “us” decides who can be part of “us.” That was interesting, because the man who he killed was as half, or both, as he was: an Australian not by birth, but by choice. And not that long ago, the Australian government described Italians as “childlike,” people who had to be handled with “firmness,” otherwise they would become “sly and objectionable.” We seemed to love the victim, but not the perpetrator. For the same reason. What this shows is that identity is, at least partly, in the eye of the beholder. Others decide who you are and what you are not. They also choose which bit of you is important, which you can talk about, which matters. And what should be erased. That means that a lot of us are stripped of our past, of our names, of parts of us that don’t easily fit with where we are now and what is acceptable there.
The second part of identity is how we feel about it. Identity, of course, is an experience. Being Australian means very little when you are at home, where everybody is Australian. Only when you are in a pickle on a mountain in Iran does meeting an Australian matter. Suddenly you are best mates, even if you would have walked past him or her at home. So, identity is something in opposition: only if you see what you are not, can you see what you are. That also means that it is flexible. It changes according to where you are, who you are talking to, and who they are. It is also ambivalent and contradictory sometimes. When I am in Holland, I feel very Australian. And the other way around. But I am also many other things I take with me wherever I go. I am a grandmother, a mother, a woman, a wife, a writer, a cranky bastard, a reader, a cook, somebody who likes cleaning, a reluctant walker, a teacher, an opinionated sod, and an admirer of Roy Hargrove. The problem comes if I can only be one of those things, if I have to choose. If my identity becomes prescriptive instead of a large enough coat that I can mix and match other clothes with. If I am put in an identity corner, or if (part of) what I am is disallowed.
Barack Obama once wrote that all of us carry a secret truth with us, a deep core of knowledge of who and what we are. Everything is in there, good and bad, and that means that part of that truth also involves a measure of self-hatred. Most of the time that is okay and livable. But when it receives more pressure because of outside hatred, then it becomes a problem. Too much force on any human being leads to one of two things: fight or flight. I think that what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of both: a lot of anger as a defense against hurt, and distortion, as Obama also said. If people can’t be who they are, if they are not allowed to have a comfortable place in the world, then they become dangerous. None of us are happy when we feel cornered and most of us will fight like rats to get out of it. Also not very helpful is to ignore people altogether, just because their “identity” doesn’t suit your ideas of how your world should look. The biggest fear we’ve all got is to be inconsequential, insignificant, irrelevant. We’ve only got one life and we want to be somebody and leave something behind. That is why the bulldozing of my Blue Room mattered: my little bit of graffiti, my “I was here” had been whited out. One guy with a big pot of paint and it was like I had never existed.
Of course, this is a little childish, and in a way it serves me right for wanting to build a memento mori to myself. Nevertheless, it told me something about all the others. My best friend, who has been living in Britain for most of her life, but now feels rejected because of Brexit. My Congolese-Australian student, who is smarter, more ambitious, and works harder than her white domestic peers, but can’t get a summer job because he is black and too “other.” But also one of my colleagues, a lovely 70-year-old who has always lived within a 20-kilometer radius of where she was born: white, working class, as Aussie as they come, who surprised me by owning up to feeling unsettled in her new house because it was so different from the other, in the same street. We are all, I think, in one way or another, struggling with identity. And I know it is fashionable now to reject anything that has the term “politics” in it, but, to quote Obama one last time, there is no wall between psychology and politics. Therefore, it is not fatuous or indulgent or outmoded to try and think clearly about identity and what it means. And what the consequences are of ignoring it. Or ripping it out, like my poor Blue Room.