SpruceRoots Magazine - June, 1998

by Lisa Dunn

When I was a kid, I got really freaked out at parades. I didn't even like Disneyland. I couldn't relate. I knew there were real people under those costumes and I couldn't see them. I felt separate and scared. I also felt envious because I wasn't having any fun.

I watched the Harbour Days parade in Masset a few weeks ago, and got a weird feeling that parades are just an exaggeration of normal life. We all gather in our groups (defined by age, gender, occupation, nationality, or interests), play our own music, wear our own costume, basically displaying what group we belong to and how we fit. My role was to be an audience; just like life - there are do-ers and watchers. Maybe I think too much. Maybe I should just go in the next parade. But what as? Who with? What group do I belong in? Who will have me?

In the bad old days of "hack & squirt," I did go in the Hospital Day parade on an anti-herbicide-spraying float. I was seen as an "environmentalist." Maybe I still am, and I am also seen as a woman (definitely not a lady), a party-animal and even as an angel. I have experimented with many different identities and have judged myself as fickle. I have been seeking an identity that will stick for more than a few years. This moment, I am a writer and you are a reader. But those are just things we do. True identity is in the realm of being, not doing.

So, who am I really? Who are you? Without thinking too much, imagine how you would finish the sentence: "I am ...." The list of answers describes your identity. The answers reveal the qualities of our lives we feel are most important. The list often starts with name and gender, and goes on with age, marital status, ethnic group, religion, occupation, and even star sign! Identity seems like a good thing. There's something safe and comforting about identity. Most of us are looking for a structure in which to belong, in which to make sense of our lives. We are conditioned to try to find our place in the herd, in the pecking order. Without identity how do we make sense of the world and our place in it? How do I deal with the often-asked question: what do you do (in the Queen Charlottes)? Indeed, what do I do? Who am I? I listen to my friends talk about their identity and it sounds so clear. "I am a Haida." "I am a business man." "I am a Christian." I just try to get a good night's sleep without knowing for sure who I am.

. . .

In the recent movie Contact, Jodie Foster sat on the launch pad and said, "I'm okay to go, I'm okay to go," over and over again. She acted so sure of her faith in science, engineering and extra terrestrial life that she was willing to risk her life to find the truth. She was a scientist, before anything else. There are people who are parents before anything else. There are people who are Haida before anything else. They know where they belong, they know where they're coming from, they know where they're going. This seems to give them power.

A friend once told me that he is a Haida before he is a human being. I had never heard anyone define their identity so strongly. He even expressed sympathy for people who haven't got that kind of identity. I was shocked into a new awareness of the power of identity. Since then, I have been curious about what identity is and how it functions.

It is obviously traumatic to a person or a culture to experience the forcible destruction of identity. First Nations, my own Celtic and Metis ancestors and many others are still suffering from the impact of one culture invading another. The wounds left by the forcible removal of all the ingredients of identity such as language, religion, land rights and governing structure are slow to heal. It is understandable if the healing process involves a fierce attachment to the newly reconstructed identity.

As meaningful and powerful as the identity created by ancient cultures can be, my experience is that modern identity consists mostly of image and packaging. And the dominant culture thrives on packaging. When I did an internet search on identity - by far the most common hit was related to corporate identity. That made me realize that we are often trying to sell our image: we agree to package ourselves in a certain way in order to be loved, or to feel secure. We rarely allow the bare essentials to be revealed. When we do, we risk disapproval and criticism for "letting it all hang out." If we let go of our packaging, would people still want to relate to us? We might be lonely.

. . .

So, is there a problem with having a strong identity? Let's look at two major pitfalls: separation and stereotyping.

I suggest, the "shadow" side of a strong sense of belonging is a strong sense of separation. As much as our identity reveals what group(s) we belong to, it also reveals what groups we don't belong to. While we thrive on finding connection with those who are similar, we thereby create separation from those who are not. There is a temptation to enjoy a feeling of superiority in our specialness and to act with prejudice towards others. Religious groups do it, First Nations do it, environmentalists do it; we all do it. The price is the pain of separation and loneliness when we don't belong (ask any teenager), and the pain of injustice experienced by people who are discriminated against.

Some identities are so powerful that they are used to justify some groups having power over others and to bestow rights that others are not entitled to. Our gender, age, race and nationality have been used in every culture to justify certain privileges and punishments. Today, some identities still legally distinguish us from each other. Being 19 years old or being a Canadian citizen provides certain rights. Being a member of the Haida Nation also provides certain rights.

Regardless of legal rights, identity affects how we relate to each other. We often decide how to treat someone based on judgments about their identity. When engaging with the world, at a meeting, or even with our families, our surface identities are interacting and this can create obstacles to understanding. We make assumptions and we stereotype; "oh, you work for MacBlo, so you must be ...; you're a woman, so you must be...; you dress like a hippy, so you must be...", and so on. It often seems easier to assume they must be that way, than to spend the time to find out who they really are. Those assumptions allow us to dismiss each other, and not see the person.

In conflict or at a meeting we tend to find ways that we are different from each other instead of looking for what is the same: our human-ness, our basic need for love, our fear, our enjoyment of good food, etc. What would happen if we let go of the "us versus them" framework, and looked for what makes us deeply inseparable? Instead of engaging in the familiar and predictable drama of the politics of identity, what if we explored the mysteries contained in the politics of unity?

Arnie and Amy Mindell came to the islands and offered some of us a chance to explore this during their Conflict & Diversity workshops. It was not soppy or romantic. It was hard-edged and tear-filled. We reversed roles and acted out a variety of identities. While the tears flowed we had that much in common, and after the tears dried, we experienced the freedom that came from seeing ourselves and each other as we are, outside of our usual roles, without the usual identities. We got beyond the dynamic of blame, which keeps everyone stuck in the past. Even if we only act "as if" we are the other, only for a moment, victim and perpetrator can let go of their identities and enjoy a new conversation, fluid in the present. When we share responsibility, identities become irrelevant. In that framework, all challenges become something we create together and experience together.

My quest for identity seems like it will separate me from you more than it will connect me to you. So, I have set myself the challenge to find out: who are we when we are the same? And then I laugh, how would that look in a parade?

SpruceRoots Magazine - June, 1998