Escaping Identity

The other day I listened to a radio program about people with “mixed identity” who were either agonizing over which “identity” to identify with or bemoaning the difficulty of remaining “true” to one of their “identities”. At first I couldn’t understand why I found this disturbing, but soon it came to me: my whole life has been about trying to escape from my various “identities”.

I was born “white” in Florida to an upper middle class mother and a middle class father. Most of my friends growing up were typical “Southerners” — not all “white”, but all fond of fishin’ and huntin’ and fast cars and the like. So my early identity was what I now think of as “privileged Southern redneck”. When the local high school had a home football game, the whole town came out and sang “Dixie” to the Confederate flag to start the game. When I had learned enough history to begin to grasp the implications of that, I stopped going to the games. When I saw a cross burning on a stranger’s lawn, I was stunned. When the house my uncle built for itinerant Jamaican fruit pickers was burned down by the neighbors, I was furious but impotent.

But I got a break: I went away to prep school in Michigan and learned to think, write and talk like a “Yankee”. I repudiated my “Southern redneck” identity, although I still enjoyed going home to Florida for vacations, because that was while Florida was still relatively unspoiled, with wildlife and fish and remote beaches and swamps galore. My love for Florida (the land) was lasting, but I no longer cared much for the people or the culture. I became a “preppie”.

Needless to say, my friends in Florida didn’t care much for my “preppie” identity. After a while, I began to see their point. My “preppie” friends tutored me in the proper deportment of a true “preppie” — one must always perceive “townies” as fundamentally inferior, which understandably annoys hell out of same. I tried pretending to be a “townie” but no one was fooled. Meanwhile a lot of the other “preppies” still considered me a “Southern redneck”, which was below even “townies”. So I became a “jock” and tried to win a better identity by running the hurdles really fast.

The “jock” identity (and good grades) served me well, so I got into a decent college in Connecticut and became a “college boy” and soon a “frat man”. Those years were packed with developmental crises, as they are for most adolescents; I managed to assuage any angst I might have over my newly mixed identities by staying drunk a lot.

When I graduated I resolved a typical “What next?” crisis by applying to Berkeley for graduate school in Physics. That summer I had a spectacular adventure with model airplanes, lost glasses, a Rocky Hill CT police detective and a government shipment of guns. That and the looming Viet Nam draft prepared me well for Berkeley, where I got to work on my “hippie radical leftist” identity at the same time as my “physicist” identity. I was at People’s Park (as a spectator). I marched. I carried signs. I lived in a communal house. I smoked dope. I went to concerts at the Fillmore. I missed The Last Waltz. I got married for the first time and moved into an apartment a block and a half from the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco. I went to Sexual Freedom League parties. I tried to grow long sideburns; I failed at that, but did well at Physics. Pretty soon I had a PhD and a failing marriage. I told my Florida draft board exactly what research I was working on, and they granted me a deferment. Pretty soon I was 26 and no longer a prime draftee anyway.

Through a mixture of sheer luck and good judgment, I became involved in the development of a cool new experimental technique using muons that began to take off just as I got my PhD, at the same time as major new accelerators were coming on line in Canada, Switzerland and Los Alamos. I chose TRIUMF, the one in Canada. In 1973 we moved to Vancouver and I became a “hippie postdoc”. That was a satisfactorily ambiguous identity for a few years, during which I split with my first wife and lived in a communal house again. Then I became a “professor”, which involved a lot more work — like 100 hours per week for the first few years and at least 50-60 hr/wk until I retired at 65. Somewhere in there I became a “Canadian” by choice. I was still an “American” but I felt ashamed about that, whereas I was only mildly embarrassed to be a “Canadian”.

Somewhere in there it was not-so-patiently explained to me that I was an “oppressor”. As a “man”, I oppressed all women, whether I intended to or not. As a “white man”, I oppressed all people of color, whether I intended to or not. As an “old white man”, I oppressed all young people, whether I intended to or not. As a “old cis straight white man”, I oppressed all LGBTQ people, whether I intended to or not. As an “old cis straight white male intellectual elitist”, I oppressed all ignorant people, whether I intended to or not. Since I didn’t get a choice in the matter, I made myself a black T-shirt with “OPPRESSOR” on the front in big red letters, so that people wouldn’t think they needed to inform me of my identity. It didn’t work.

I guess this was when my distaste for “identity” peaked — or maybe it was that instinctive distaste that so infuriated me when all those awful identities were forced upon me.  So I became an “angry old white man” on top of everything!  

Pretty soon I ran out of resentment and started examining the logic of “guilt by privilege”.  No, I never asked to be the beneficiary of advantages that could be traced back to colonialism or slavery… but I was, and I didn’t turn it down.  If nothing else, that meant I had also inherited an obligation to do what I could to make up for those injustices.  Is it possible to ever “make up for” such injustices? No, of course not.  But how could I not try?  The first step was to put away that “OPPRESSOR” T-shirt and the identity that went with it.  Others may forever see that identity stamped on me, but I don’t have to give it power.


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