Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Identity, Values, and Relationships

I recently got into a blog comment debate with someone I don’t particularly like or agree with on how and when values and identity are formed, and whether it is possible for them to change throughout one’s lifetime.  Truth be told, the debate was sparked by a blog post in which a Christian defended Muslims.  The commenter questioned why someone would do that, ultimately stating that, for example, an Arab Christian has more in common with an Arab Muslim than with a Western Christian, or that a Western atheist has more in common with a Western Christian than with an Arab atheist (note: “Western” was his choice of terminology, not mine).

Regardless of who exactly the conversation was framed around (to a point: we could be comparing Chinese to Japanese or Tanzanian to Kenyan and it would be the same argument), his fundamental point was that two people raised in the same culture have more in common and more shared values than two people raised in two different cultures possibly can.

I disagree.

First of all, if we’re pigeonholing people into race/religion/nationality, we’re forgetting the other fundamental pieces that build core values in a person: family, generation, social class, and milieu, to name just a few.  And as someone who has had more than one serious relationship – and many, many friendships – with people from different countries or vastly different cultures, I’ve taken away this:

1. Religion is often harder to overcome than anything else, especially in a relationship.  Two atheists from different cultures can often overcome more superficial differences (class, skin color), but just as a nonbeliever cannot often transcend their significant other’s devotion, neither can a pious Muslim or Christian get over their paramour’s lack of belief in God.

2. Family and social class often turn out to be more important than anything else.  More specifically, the way a person was raised (strictly, openly, by parents who fought, or who were happy) and the circumstances under which they were raised (if there was money, if there wasn’t, if there was conflict) often has a greater influence on their values than outside forces.  Two people from different places but who had very similar upbringings often see the world in the same way.

3. Age can be – but doesn’t have to be – a huge factor, and in fact, skipping a generation is almost always possible.  I have a number of solid friendships with Baby Boomers (mostly of the hippie variety), but very few mid-Gen Xer friends (being on the cusp of Gens X and Y as they’re commonly split, I think someone got the dates wrong).

4. And for a no-brainer…Common interest is vital – I can talk to just about anyone who’s super-Internet-savvy, regardless of where they’re from or how old they are, or whether or not they believe in God – but truth be told, often find myself bored to death by people who’ve never heard of e-mail (does such a person actually exist?)

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In discussing identity, I think of my favorite authors – Kundera, Benjelloun, Rushdie, Updike – all of whose themes touch on identity so eloquently, and often delve into the subject of identity in a second or third culture and the foibles presented by integration.  Each one of them from a different culture themselves, yet discussing such a universal theme, and often reaching the same conclusions.  Makes you think.

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My generation, those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s – those of us who grew up with computers but not on them, are perhaps unique.  More than any generation before, we have contact with people from other countries, cultures, and yes, ethnicities and races.  More than any generation before, we were taught that everyone is the same – even if we didn’t always believe it or society or our families didn’t always back it up.  We are bound, then, to have experienced a paradigm shift – where the other is no longer, but rather, a piece of the patchwork.

Do I sound like a total hippie?  Perhaps.  But even if we’re only one micro-step closer to that reality, there is no denying that the world is growing smaller and smaller for many.  While the headlines in every paper aim to draw us apart (“Obama’s top secret meetings with Muslims – his secret pact with the enemy!”), the reality for many of us is quite different.  And while we may still be very different, the discussions I hear and see in bars, on Twitter, and in classes lead me to believe that we’re similar than we once thought.

10 Comments

  1. For me I believe in my religion, and I believe in my nationality, I don’t believe in race issue cause I don’t think there is a pure race these days.

    But in the same time I don’t find these attributes in my identity are obstacles to contact any different person as far as he doesn’t offend my believes, I’m not asking him to believe, but don’t offend what I believe, very simple.

    The most important thing for me is how the other person treats me, regardless the religion or nationality, let’s not forget that Globalization nearly wiped out most of our sharp attributes [extreme values] in our Identities and we are weather we like it or not, basically living the American era.

    Most Arab Families watch American movies or series that definitely can’t be accepted as a values in their communities, but by watching they are already accepted the reality of difference.

    I do think that Globalization is danger, but I try to get the positive side here, weather you are Japanese or Arab or American we call all talk about what we like and hate about Windows, or about Britney Spears…etc

    It’s consuming culture that we are sharing here.

    Yes consuming culture is bad in some levels, but it maybe a leading point to start more serious discussion.

    Just a note: There is not such a thing called culture clash, it’s people who clash, not cultures.

    • these attributes don’t mean any thing to me in communicating with others, and i do believe that people who clash not cultures but why when ever the an identity issue is on the table the Globalization is in the scene and the American is the once to blame. The French revolution influenced all the world by it’s politics, literature and life style, before them the Islamic conquests had the same impact . America now days is no difference, it’s just another step of Humanity, because they lead the revolution of our era the revolution of communication (Internet, T.V and Moves). I’m not saying that we should excepted as it’s or I’m excepting it (cause I don’t except any thing easily) , but what I’m saying is instead of blaming Globalization we should blame the people whom following it (IF IT IS THAAAAAT DANGEROUS), why I don’t believe it’s that dangerous cause some day another revolution will start and another cycle of human life will begin, thanks for the changeability of human mind and the ability of breaking out from the boundaries of cultures, religion and politics some individuals will start another revolution and so on until a meteor crashes to our planet (in that time there will be no Bruce Welles to go on it dig in it and nuke it, the world will not thank America for saving the planet one more time) see even me make fun of some aspects in American culture but It’s not there fault.

      Jillian, I really like your post and these comments from me and alloush prove your point, two persons from the same country (Syria) has different opinions.

  2. Hi Khaldoun,

    I think you’re glossing over the American struggle to articulate racial difference or bi-racial identity. Also, immigrant families with different cultures struggle with pressure to assimilate culturally to belong.

    The issues brought up in your comment have more to do with conversations about global culture. This is a great way to talk about America online and do important work. America is having new conversations now, too, about identity that I’m not sure have to be global ones too but are still interesting.

    To America’s credit, we do religious difference well or have in the past and build a reputation for robust pluralism (not to say it’s always a success but compared to other countries). However, issues of Islam in America have mostly been framed in religious terms like “jihadism” or political ones like “terrorism” but actually point to racial or ethnic difference too, especially since the 9/11 attacks became a story about Islam in the media.

    The Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago of a movement of young people across the US for such conversations between religions, fyi.

    So, if I brush over these in theory it’s only because I do want to keep it short and sweet as I can. It is difficult enough to describe one. The Desi identity and immigrant children from Southeast Asia diaspora intersect with American religious communities that tend to focus on Islamic practices from the Arabic-speaking world and not Urdu for instance. They identify racially as brown and not any specific culture but rather three: American, SE Asia Diaspora, and race. You can have people from Persian decent who’s family emigrated to Pakistan then to the US who call themselves Desi because they grew up in neighborhoods with Desis and so see it as rooted in American identity too.

    These issues aren’t really being articulated in American public yet so I understand that global culture jamming online is important. Differences exist though if one does some digging and talking to people. The major issue is race, in my opinion. This society is not “post-racial” since President Obama took office. Race matters and differences make us real to others. Otherwise, they do tend to be ignored.

    Racial issues are working out in the everyday lives of people and a reality for the spectrum. Race will be discussed as part of career paths, new music, and in politics. Ultimately, I think the outcome will be a deeper and more healthy understanding of race (and racism) but first some anger. People of color especially get frustrated because race is also an invented concept passed down through generations and internal, rather than only an identity. You have Muslim punks and Afropunk music for example. There’s a documentary “Afropunk” on Google videos if you want to watch.

    I hope it is not just as a question of religion because ultimately, the topic people have to agree to disagree about between traditions. Honestly, I don’t like talking about Christianity. I’d rather talk about immigration or something political and eventually, religion will and should come for me as much as race does.

    – Kaitlin

    • I’m not articulating racial difference or bi-racial identity, cause i believe in individuality more than race, religion and culture. Identity mostly is a reflection of what a person believes and the experiences that he\she has been through, so if a person believes in religion ,race or any thing else it will appear in his/her identity, but for me these things Restricting me. Because of this, I wanna have my own unique identity with no boundaries, separated from what identify most people in this world. Did I achieve this identity? no, do I seek for it? absolutely, Am I ganna achieve it? ahhhhh, don’t know but it’s worth seeking for.

      even though you have a different view from me, but you opened my eyes on immigrant crises in US more than before.
      Thank you

  3. Jillian – Great post and interesting comments from all. Thank you! You hit on some insights about relationships. Dear lord, that last comment was long. Racialicious isn’t talking about these questions, do they? They should.

    Rock on with ya identity posts.

  4. Hey Kaitlin, Khaldoun, Alloush,

    I just want to say how much I love that this conversation is taking place!

    Khaldoun, you said “Because of this, I wanna have my own unique identity with no boundaries, separated from what identify most people in this world.” – I feel the same way, incidentally. I’ve never seen the point in identifying with common categories. My racial identity is obvious, my religious identity nonexistent, and even if I think current gender boundaries and parameters suck, identifying as “queer” is just another way of labeling oneself in a way that’s somewhat disingenuous! I try to avoid labels on the whole.

    -Jillian

  5. To clarify, I’m not saying it’s disingenuous for everyone/anyone to identify as queer, but that it would be somewhat disingenuous for ME, given that I live an entirely heterosexual lifestyle. Of course, there are a lot of hetero folks who do identify as queer, whether in solidarity, or because they too have different beliefs (just as I do) on gender, but I’m still just not comfortable using the term, when I then have to explain that no, I’m really just straight.

  6. Khaldoun,

    I think what you just said is the identity piece is a modern crisis. The way we see ourselves and the way we’re perceived have to be in harmony. The crisis can’t really have a “solution” but tension doesn’t leave room for much closure.

    My point is that differences can’t be left open-ended in a hippy, free love way either without identity conversations becoming stale. Acceptance is not the same as assimilation and that mistake is a common one to make. I’ve never been part of a movement but I think the “no identity” argument as a powerful one that brings many people together as much as the “new identity” one.

    It’s been a huge struggle for me to express who I am but all of these identities can and do co-exist. I’m honestly not sure why the evangelical Christian part of my life was part of who I thought I was, but making sure people understand why it matters to me is how I’ve been able to see change. Evangelicals still don’t get me. A lot of Christians apologize.

    I think that conversation needs to be had about culture, race, identity. We should talk about these things even if being a white, straight, American means I see them mostly in terms of gender issues. Evangelicals don’t so we had quite a tiff.

    Or maybe conversations do not have to happen. There’s a tension for a lot of people and the closure.

    It’s been a huge struggle for me to understand how this is a shift and not the revolution some see it as, only historic in my own way. Revolution in daily life. These are legendary conversations that should happen now and online and in America. People believe in change and want the experience. It’s not a coincidence Obama’s slogan hit home for so many people, but he’s one dude.

    All I have to say is, Palin needs to stop vanilla icing the gender in politics conversation. She doesn’t want to understand equality at all. Hence, the reason for this spiel. This is why gender matters in politics: understanding equality is important and dishonesty only makes it that much harder to gain respect. Bush didn’t make it easy for people to trust Obama.

    A lot of Americans see it as a revolution in other places like Iran or Obama as representing the new American identity to the world. Politics gets weird unless people understand equality as more than a concept of democracy. Speaking out about the conflict in Iran and acting in support of it online is making it obvious that a lot of people don’t really understand the conflict here either. Just saying.

    I’m so glad this post happened. Thanks for making me think of it globally all of you. Jillian – I wanted to clear up why I think you were right on about the Iran issue. Also, we’re all a little gay. Smooches, darling.

    • Kaitlin,
      I wanna argue with you on a different topic than identity. in your first comment you started with an assumption “I think you’re glossing over the American struggle to articulate racial difference or bi-racial identity” and i made a comment about it and i think that we are done with it. In your second one you made another assumption “I think what you just said is the identity piece is a modern crisis”, what i wanna know is, where in my comments you found the indications that made you make this assumption???

  7. Great post! I find myself thinking about these issues a lot. Being in Morocco has thrown the issue into relief, but I’ve been an immigrant for most of my life and have always been intrigued by what it is that makes individuals connect, or clash. I completely agree with the four points you mention. Connections and identifications depend on so much more than simple categories of race, nationality, or culture – and for that reason are so much more difficult to predict or classify than a simple ‘Clash of Civilizations’ worldview likes to think. Which in turn sort of emphasizes the suggestion that defining others’ identities (and our own, for that matter) according to such starkly defined categories, is kind of tenuous and doesn’t serve any useful purpose, if it just ends up narrowing our sense of shared humanity… Thanks for this!

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