Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

“The Construction of Identity,” or “The Most Difficult Topic”

September 7th, 2009 · No Comments

The notion of ‘identity’ cannot be pinned down as having one definition. For the purpose of this post, I define identity as a socially and personally created label one can embody, shed, defend, create, and mold (not necessarily used at all–or at least not in this order). When used in terms of immigration, the presence of identity can move in one of many ways:

1. Relying on the Traditional and Comfortable

Mrs. Suri, one of the minor characters in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane resides in London, yet she remains solidly committed to the Indian views and traditions regarding marriage. She lives in a city among millions of people from all backgrounds. She does not adapt; she surrounds herself with the familiar. Some would confuse this with stubbornness. Committing to the comfortable is a choice you make when you reflect on your own identity. You can let outside perceptions to mold how you carry yourself, or you can resist. The latter results in a situation similar to that of Mrs. Suri. You stick to your identity you created for yourself long before immigrating to a new place defined by very different identifying features.

2. Voluntary Adaptation

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London has in many ways voluntarily adapted itself as a modern place of worship set several thousand miles away from India and, more importantly, the Ganges River (one of, if not the most important site in Hinduism). They expect non-Hindu visitors to the mandir, as indicated by an extensive exhibit tracing the main tenets of the religion. Certainly, places like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey have taken on a revised role as a tourist attraction, but you will not find there a museum describing the history or practices of Christianity; that’s left for the history books. The massive Hindu temple stands out in its relatively modest surroundings (except for a slight view of Wembley Stadium in the distance), so naturally it will garner some attention. The mandir, however modern, does not seem to lose much of its traditional identity. Hinduism thrives there; thousands are said to pray in the building during the day and more so during holy days.

The BBC has a link to some of the other ways Hindus have had to adapt to a new identity in 21st century, but I am unable to access it on my computer. I suggest taking a look, for it looks informative and will certainly give a much more comprehensive understanding than I can.

3. Hesitatant Adaptation

While the Hindus have voluntarily adapted themselves to modern London, the Sikh community – as understood after a visit to the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sahaba in Southall – has taken some hesitant steps as enforced by British law. For example, one of the five tenets of Sikhism calls for the carrying of a sword for the defense of the weak, justice, and as a representation of God. British law forbids this, so this tenet cannot be fulfilled in 21st century Britain. A second tenet of Sikhism calls for uncut hair, as to symbolize, in part, one’s comfort with how he/she was physically created by God. For many jobs in Britain, one’s hair must be cut and trimmed, and some Sikhs decide to cut their hair accordingly. They lose part of their identifying features as a Sikh when faced with the new identity demanded of them by surrounding British culture. The gentleman who showed us around the gurdwara expressed his desire for all Sikh men to be allowed to carry their ceremonial swords, for, on that day, the two conflicting identities can coexist without having to forego one or the other.

Post-colonial literature points to this hesitant adaptation, but from a different perspective. Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen traces the difficulties several Nigerians face when trying to willingly adopt the British culture. Racism, prejudice, and misconceptions form a glass ceiling that essentially blocks the immigrants from moving away from their status as a ‘second-class citizen’. The hesitation can be drawn from the communities themselves or from a host identity defined by prejudice; one party cannot take full blame for the contrast between different peoples.


The construction of identity in the London of 2009 immediately appears like a forever mixed jumble of different practices, rites, and customs fighting for its own place of comfort. I see it as being in a state of disequilibrium, where the role of prejudice and anti-immigration compete with the openness and accommodating nature of some Londoners. Some want to enjoy their own separate community and their own traditions; others are willing to adapt and let their surroundings mold their identity. Neither is wrong, neither will prevent one from having a fulfilling life.


I still question my views on this topic, for it is a dense subject to write about. I look forward to the day I come to some brilliant understanding of identity construction and its adaptation/resistance when facing a new identity. Until then, I remain confused, frustrated, and exhausted.

Tags: Brandon