Saturday 28 January 2012

Split identities, and other ugly words

I think I can safely say that whoever calls you Auntie Beth or Your Excellency is not very likely to call you Elizabeth or pooky-schnookums as well. Although you may respond to all four forms of address, being addressed in different ways doesn’t mean that people can’t decide who you are: it means that different people have learnt to address you appropriately. The same is true of whoever calls you Mary, Maria, Marie or Mei Li. Accepting to be addressed in different ways is not a symptom of split identity, it is evidence that you have learnt to acquire different identities, which suit you at different times and in different ways.

Identities are social constructions, negotiated through and with other people. Our identity, to my mind, is composed not so much of what we are as of what we are being, depending on where we are, when, why, and with whom. Much like clothes, we need to change out of a few identities and into a few others in order to fit our daily needs. We also grow in and out of identities: I still remember the first time someone referred to me as “the lady over there”, instead of “the girl over there”, and I still remember the cafeteria attendant at the school where I took my first degree seamlessly switching from “Madalena”, his usual form of address to me, to “senhora doutora”, the Portuguese title we bestow on graduates, as soon as it became clear to him that I had also switched from student to lecturer. It wasn’t until I had those labels applied to me that I realised that they did indeed apply to me: their appropriateness to my identity was new to me.

This flexible process of acquiring, losing and/or complementing features of our identity is the reason why it might make better sense to talk about individual identities, in the plural, because speaking of identity in the singular makes it look like there’s a single one which either etches itself onto an individual from womb to tomb, or should do so. This is also why suggestions that those of us who are multilingual and multicultural may have split linguistic and cultural allegiances cannot make sense. “Split” in relation to which integer(s)? Hyphenated identities only make sense if we believe that non-hyphenated ones not only exist but exist as default. Being multilingual and multicultural does not involve unlawful encroaching upon territories which rightfully “belong” to other people either, because there is no copyright in languages or in cultures. Whatever the number of languages that we happen to use, we’re not made up of bits and pieces of someone else’s behaviours, we’re made up of our own bits and pieces.

Image: © Adaiyaalam 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

We actively enact the process of acquiring our identity, as Robert Le Page and Andrée Tabouret-Keller argued in their book Acts of Identity. Their observations among Caribbean Creole speakers and among West Indian communities in London led them to conclude that our wish to be identified by others in specific ways drives our social interaction: we act to create the image of us that we want others to have, and we do this through our uses of our language(s). Michèle Koven, in her book Selves in Two Languages in turn observed how the use of different languages impacts both the ways in which we express our identity and the ways in which others perceive it.

As we grow up, we learn to shape our persona(lity) through progressive adjustments to the ways other people see it fit to engage with us and, in turn, to the ways they allow us to engage with them. Children will naturally experience glitches along this path. They may, for example, inadvertently project an image which does not fit them, not because they haven’t yet learnt how to assert their identity, but because they haven’t yet learnt how to use their language(s) in order to do so. The next post will have something to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Speaking like mummy, and speaking like daddy. Saturday 4th February 2012.

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