Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Identity would seem to be the garment…

September 14th, 2009 · 1 Comment

“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self, in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.” – James Arthur Baldwin.

   We all identify ourselves whether it be through our gender, sexuality, nationality, race, economic status. Sometimes we make up our identity but often we feel pressured to identify with a certain group in order to feel a sense of security and comfort although having a certain identity does not always guarantee one comfort with the majority of the society. It has taken me a long time to gather my thoughts on identity because it seems that many “categories” of identity are superficial. Therefore, whenever I discuss identity, I try to focus on the individual. On individual’s “comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.” As James Arthur Baldwin stated, identity is a garment that most of the the time covers the true individual. By our need to identify oneself we limit our being.

   Upon arriving to London, it seemed that most of the society identified themselves by simply their economic status. In a country where monarchy and class are in their prime, there seems to be a focus on whether one identifies as being in the higher, middle, or lower class. While being in London, we have been discussing the construction of identity for the individuals who have immigrated to England and the effect that migration has had not only on the first generation but on the second generation as well. We have read works such as White Teeth by Zadie Smith that explores the migration and adaptation to postcolonial Britain, where the identities of the characters are defined not only by their economical status but also by the color of their skin, their cultural beliefs, their religions, their upbringings. In White Teeth, the author decided to introduce a wide array of cultures present in North London and explore how they mixed in a country like England which is a country “with immigrants.” Englishman Archie Jones, the family from Bangladesh, the Iqbals, biracial Irie Jones who struggles with not only her identity, but her hair, Alsana Begum, the wife of Samad Iqbal, second generation brothers Millat and Magid who are expected to be unaffected by the Western culture are all part of this mix. Some of their challenges include keeping their traditions and religions as part of their identities. Yet again such task is very “superficial” where one assumes that religion and cultural traditions are not present if one is also adapting to their current country of residence. Second generation characters such as Millat, Magid, and Irie struggle between the expectations of their parents and the society with their own wishes and their own chosen identities. They were not able to wear “the loose garment” and shed their given identities due to their historical past whether it be their origin, national past, or family history.

   Irie Jones is introduced to us as a biracial teenager a daughter of the Englishman Archie Jones and Clara Jones, a former Jehovah’s Witness. Being a teenager and wanting to escape her given identity and fit in with the majority of the English society, she goes as far as straightening her hair but literary burning all of her curly hair off. Her need to limit her being by fitting into one category or the other causes her struggle. As readers we are exposed to Smith’s recollection of Irie, her obsession by the typical white family, her constant need for the separation from her parents, her need to look different in order to attract male attention. Alsana Begum, who was also married to Samad Iqbal, struggled by having the identity of a Bangladeshi wife. Although we as readers can see Alsana trying to break the barrier of being a quiet, submissive wife especially when it comes to making decisions regarding her twin sons, she is unable to break the barrier. She is reminded of her role, her identity by her friends, her husband, and her children. Alsana’s story is a great representation of what masculinity meant in postcolonial Britain where male superiority has existed for centuries, it is even more interesting that she was an immigrant whose own culture also places a focus on masculinity. Therefore, her struggle with her identity can not escape her. Neither Irie nor Alsana are aware of their separate entities of being individuals. They are so caught up in the identities given to them by their families that they forget to live. They forget to be themselves. Their identities are the opposite of being fluid, they are trapped.

   After trying to explore identity in White Teeth, I am still questioning identity. Is identity something that we ourselves choose or is it always the result of the society?

Tags: Jeyla