Now with so much racism going on in the world it seems especially important that I write about this.
For several months now, I have been exploring the beautiful, racially segregated South Africa. In fact, it is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, especially Stellenbosch and Cape Town regions. It is no new thing to say that South Africa still struggles with apartheid. And this particular position ignores the history of South Africa which aim, according to Tina-Louise Smith reasons, was “to create a class of poor people to assist a class of rich in their unbridled and guiltless accumulation of wealth.” Well, technically, that’s what it is. I find it offensive however, because in South Africa both access to information and access to everything else are mostly determined by one’s racial identity, not by intellectual ability. Believe it or not, your identity – colored, white, black, Indian – does matter in South Africa. Ironically, people will treat you base on this. This specific assumption runs dangerously close to feeding the notion that people who are of a particular race, are in that position because they are stupid.
Identity is an inconsequential and slippery factor. As much as you might believe that your age, gender, or race is irrelevant, they affect how others perceive you. In fact, they even affect how you perceive yourself. Regardless, identities are just realities; they are not truth. They are not the same thing. They get thrown around so loosely that people have forgotten what they actually mean. Our identities are really not who we are.
On the other hand, Identity affects the way different people experience the world. Unfortunately, according to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, “we live in a world in which the nation-state dominates, in which your value as a human being, the value that the formalized structures of the world gives you, can often be determined by what passport you carry.” I would know, as a person who travels on a Nigerian passport. Travelling with a Nigerian passport means carrying the weight of assumptions – that I am likely to be lying or to be a drug dealer or a fraudster. The many expressions of disbelief when I say I’m a Nigerian pastor; being asked to step aside for more questions, suspected as though I perpetuate some kind of illegal activity, the extra processing steps required for visas to countries as diverse as South Africa and Denmark. I wish I could tell the various embassies that I, in fact, am a citizen of the Body of Christ.
But of course identity goes beyond a mere passport. It is a sensibility. It is a deep feeling of awareness. It is a core and unavoidable part of our lives. Our responsiveness is enmeshed in our concept of identity. While I have a great affection for South Africa and live part time in South Africa, I know I can never be a South African because I will never understand the game of rugby.
More seriously, we need to shape our identity or it will shape us. We live in a world where admiration is prevalent – and if we’re not careful, the impact of our identity can inflate our ego and strangle our self-image to the point we are completely twisted, and can act out of bitterness and confusion, forgetting who we really are. Once your identity is threatened, Paul Graham reasons, you become defensive and resistant to change or even dialogue. Challenging someone’s identity can indeed trigger his or her defensiveness.
Since our response to situations shapes our identity, and in turn, our identity shapes our actions, we cannot pretend that identity doesn’t exist because it is at the core of our lives. And from what we are hearing from the news, we can see that the forces of misunderstanding and hatred in the world are as a result of our differences and identities. All I see here however is nothing but misguiding taglines: realities lacking truth; people judging others based on general assumptions than specific details; folks focusing on what ought not, than what makes sense; groups fighting each other base on void reasons. What stands out for me is this: there are no bad people. There are only misguided realities. But what do I know?
Shaping our identity may not be as easy as we think. According to Rick Warren, our identity helps us sharpen our answers to the 6 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and hoW. It shows What we stand for in the world. It shows Who we stand with. It shows hoW we manifest our different values. It shows that Where we stand is an integral part of our identity. It shows Why we take a stand. And it determines Whenwe act on our stance.
As we consider sharpening our identity for good, it is important to ask ourselves these questions: What do we stand for? Who are we standing with? What are the key things we’re going to do to manifest our true identity? Does our geographical location inspire us to live out our true identity? What are our reasons for taking a stand on what we believe? When are we willing to take on risk, suffering, or pain to see that our dreams and true identity becomes reality? Coming up with these answers can be difficult, but it is essential. You can’t just go with the rhythm on everything and allow others to define you. Neither is absolute formality nor informality a practical approach to life. When you resolve these questions for yourself, you’re better equipped to lead a life God created for you, and not fit into people’s molds.
As for me, identity is by choice. I refuse to be defined by my society. The way my society defines me is not who I am and neither is it who I’m meant to be. I desire to be known by the grace I have been given in Christ Jesus. I aspire to be identified with Christ’s sacrifice – as a follower of Jesus, by living a life based on love over hate. A well thought out life of purpose, which He perfectly modeled for us on the cross of Calvary. On a daily basis, my response to situations, the people I spend time with, and the principles I choose to defend are what define my identity, and not what people think about my race. Therefore, I rather choose to construct an identity based on my relationship with Christ, which signals to the world a model of excellence over mediocrity. I don’t know about you?
Be defined by YOU!