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Gary Younge
Gary Younge on identity: live webchat

A few weeks ago Martin Wainwright joined us for a few hours to talk about True North, his book about England's "better half". A great discussion ensued, with many commenters chiming in to talk about their experience of England's north. Today Guardian columnist Gary Younge will be online from 3pm to 4pm to discuss the concept of identity and belonging. Below is an excerpt from his book Who Are We - And Should It Matter in the 21st Century? Start asking your questions now.

We all have multiple identities. We are many things at once and at all times we are also the same thing – ourselves. "A Hutu labourer from Kigali must be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis," writes Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. "And yet he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a labourer, and a human being." Any form of identity politics that seeks to diminish that multiplicity, or rank identities into some preordained hierarchy, will inevitably end in distortion.

The full extent of this distortion was exemplified in an episode of the US version of the comedy show The Office, where Michael (played by Steve Carell) welcomes back a gay Latino colleague, Oscar (played by Oscar Nuñez) with a celebration:

Michael: Of course we are going to have a party. A celebration of Oscar. Oscar night. And I want it to be Oscar-specific.
Oscar: Michael, I –
Michael: No, no. I mean, not – not because you are gay. Your gayness does not define you. Your Mexicanness is what defines you, to me, and I think we should celebrate Oscar's Mexicanity.

The fact that we have a multitude of affiliations does not mean that certain identities may not come to the fore at certain moments. Far from being neutral, they are rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in relation to one another. I'm sure whenever Oscar returns to the US from Mexico, he feels his "Mexicanity" quite keenly at the border. But if he went to try and get a marriage licence in Scranton, Pennsylvania (where the show is set), with his partner, I daresay his "gayness" would become far more relevant.

But the fact that at any given moment one identity may be stressed more than others does not mean that the others cease to exist. We also have choices. "We do belong to many different groups, in one way or another, and each of these collectivities can give a person a potentially important identity," argues Sen. "We may have to decide whether a particular group to which we belong is – or is not – important for us."

Michael's theme night for Oscar also raises another issue about our multiple identities. The decisions as to which ones we assert, when we want to assert them and what we want to do with them are ours.

But identities are fluid in character, dynamic by nature and, therefore, complex in practice. Decisions about which ones we prioritise do not take place in a vacuum. They are shaped by circumstance and sharpened by crisis. We have a choice about which identities to give the floor to; but at specific moments they may also choose us.

In 2004, a Muslim Guardian reader in Britain, with a wife and three daughters, wrote to me to say that two of his girls voluntarily wear the hijab, whereas his wife and one other do not. "This is imposed from outside as much as inside," he wrote. "The girls used to consider themselves Pakistani, until they visited Pakistan. [This change was] internal. [But] they could not consider themselves British because the external world told them they weren't. So their identity became 'British Muslim'. Not a religious revival, but an establishment of identity. Since 9/11 however, they will not relinquish the 'headgear'. It would be a sign of defeat. Whilst worn, it symbolises resistance." "We are the sum of the things we pretend to be," wrote the late Kurt Vonnegut, "so we must be careful what we pretend to be."

To join the discussion post your comments/questions below

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