A few years back I was chatting with a coworker and the subject of Wyoming came up.
“That’s where I’m from!” I said enthusiastically. (I find my enthusiasm about Wyoming often surprises people.)
And at that moment another coworker interjected with more than a little cynicism, “I thought you were from New Orleans.”
“I am,” I answered. “I was born in Wyoming, but I grew up in New Orleans.”
“Well, which one are your FROM?” she said with skepticism.
For anyone who has moved around a bit, that isn’t always an easy question to answer. Especially when the person asking has never left the place where they were born.
Where is my hometown?
And what if more than one place fits the bill?
Gertrude Stein liked to say, “America is my country, and Paris is my hometown.”
And I think I get what she was trying to say. There are the places that match the facts of our identity, and there are places that feel like home. I could just as easily say that Wyoming is my country, and New Orleans is my hometown.
I have been thinking a lot about identity lately. With stories about Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal in the news, I guess that isn’t surprising. We ask what is “real” identity and what is “fake”? What is authentic and what is put on? What is deception or self-deception? What is brave and what is a crime? And what do we decide is psychosis and requires professional intervention?
But what fascinates me most of all isn’t the fact that identity is more of a social construct than something immutable and genetic, it’s the fact that we find it so threatening when people don’t fit neatly in a box. It’s the fear and the anger, and the fact that we feel we have the right—the obligation even—to pass judgment. We feel vindicated. We feel righteous indignation. We have exposed a fraud.
About 15 years ago, a street photographer named Nikki S. Lee released a book called Projects, which unfortunately is now out of print. The young Korean-born artist took pictures of herself as a senior citizen, a chola, a trailer trash blonde, a stripper—rich and poor, young and old. I was instantly enamored with Lee and her photography, especially with the way she fully embodied often diametrically opposing ethic groups and stereotypes. I think what attracted me is the idea that we aren’t as stuck in the identity we inhabit as we sometimes fear. It’s liberating to think I could drop this version of Me like a costume, create a new one and walk away. (And some people do.)
We humans fight fiercely for our individualism, our uniqueness, our identity, but at the same time, sometimes the weight of that is a burden. Maybe that isn’t accurate. Maybe the burden is in the identities we are assigned, not the ones we freely inhabit that feel like home. Or maybe they are the identities that we feel obligated to hold on to long after we are tired of them and they no longer match what we actually are.
That is the appeal of dressing up in costume, isn’t it, putting on a mask and going to the masquerade? Because it’s a moment of honesty about our longing to shirk our identity even if only for a few hours.
Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld said, “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
This post isn’t about Jenner or Dolezal or my feelings about our culture’s response to transgender or the white appropriation of “blackness” for financial gain. All I know is that Jenner and Dolezal are human beings, not just constructs or ideas. All I know is that our culture seems ravenous about unearthing these stories so we can pronounce our approval or disapproval, and either way, pick the meat from their bones.
This post is just to ask Why?