Identity matters

Guest commentary by Hsin-hsin Huang 

“Who am I?” This question is not only asked by teenagers in search of identity, it is also asked by all of us in a world facing rapid changes. Having a clear identity anchors us in an age of diversity, enabling us to know how to be our own persons in relation to others. There are four important types of identity to consider as one pursues self-definition: Christian, personal, racial and ethnic.

Christian identity
As Christians, our first and foremost identity is that of a beloved child of God. We are the beloved, and God is love everlasting. While we have a propensity to misuse the free will given to us and make wrong choices, we must never forget we were made by love, in love and for love. As Henri Nouwen noted, it may require a lifetime to learn and live in the beloved’s identity. But it is crucial that we do. Knowing we are held in God’s love clarifies our priority and orients our choices. Being the beloved helps us to remember who we are in our core.

Personal identity
Personal identity is how we choose to define our individuality. It is the special blend of who one is that distinguishes one from another. It is not just one’s roles or titles; personal identity is what one wants others to know most about oneself. For example, I usually introduce myself as a “Jesuit Dominican Presbyterian Taiwan American female pastoral psychotherapist-educator.” Each word indicates an important component that shaped the person I am today. In these nine words, I claim my religious/spiritual, ethnic, gender and vocational identities. These nine words sum up the most crucial aspects of what forms my personhood.

Racial identity
You may wonder why I did not include my racial identity in my personal identity. In my mind, a racial identity is not who one is. It is how one is perceived and defined by the political environment. Racial identity is a political identity. Race is about skin color. No human should be defined by skin color. Race denies the uniqueness of ethnicity. It lumps people of different cultural traditions into one category for the sake of convenience. For example, by race I am considered an “Asian.” However, within the Asian category, there is a wide variety of ethnic differences in food and culture, depending on whether one is Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Malaysian, Mongolian, Nepalese, Okinawan, Pakistani, Pilipino, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Thai, Taiwanese, Vietnamese or any other Asian ethnic group. So by classifying me as Asian, you do not know what I eat or the cultural heritage I live out of on a daily basis. Additionally, by calling me an Asian, you also miss the multitude of paths that led me to America, as each ethnic group came to this country with its unique political, social and economic history, challenges and strengths.

Ethnic identity
The same obliteration of ethnic differences happens with racial/ethnic categories (used, for example, in census data), including “white,” “black or African-American,” “Hispanic or Latinx” or “American Indian/Alaska Native.” Individual ethnic groups are silenced and alienated from their ethnic roots when they are forced or persuaded to self-identify based on these political categories. I have seen many U. S.-born (second-generation) Asian-Americans use the political classification as their primary identity only to feel utterly lost as to who they are, unable to claim their unique ethnic culture or their affinity to a specific cultural and historical heritage. I have heard black students in my diversity class tell while students, “We would rather be called blacks, not African-Americans.” These black students want to be distinguished from Africans who freely immigrated to the country, so the history of slavery and oppression their people have suffered will not be forgotten. White students were aghast upon hearing the use of the word “black,” for they always presumed “African-American” to be politically correct. Lastly, people have struggled to fit themselves into the small box of a single racial group, since census data does not differentiate multiethnic classes (such as Kenyan-Malaysian-Navaho-American). For them, choosing only one classification denies the many facets of who they are.

Solidarity in the diversity of God’s children
Does that mean, then, that it is not important to claim one’s racial identity? On the contrary. Racial identity is important for the sake of solidarity. While racial categories do not celebrate individuality, they carry the collective political history and struggles of each race in the U.S. By embracing one’s racial identity, one chooses to stand with the others in the same racial group who have experienced similar political struggles. By claiming one’s racial identity, one takes a political stance to speak in one voice out of the shared political experience. Therefore, in solidarity, blacks and African immigrants stand together to combat injustice, as they are often perceived similarly. Likewise, Asian ethnic groups stand together to combat discrimination they experience. As Christians, we stand with each of the racial groups whenever any person or group is oppressed.

In an age of increased diversity, it is important to remember one has the ability to define and center oneself as well as relate to others, to emphasize both individuality and solidarity/diversity. By claiming one’s unique personal and ethnic identity, one celebrates one’s individuality and invites others to celebrate theirs. That is the meaning of diversity.

As the church moves into an age of diversity, my hope is for churches to teach the children of God that they are the beloved, encourage them to identity and embrace each of the components that makes them who they are, claim their unique blend of personal and ethnic identity and teach them how to stand in solidarity with others without losing who they are nor denying who others are.

Hsin-hsin Huang is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. She also practices as a pastoral psychotherapist. She is a member of the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Greater St. Louis.