Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who Are We Anyway?

Last night I was reading an essay by Harvard psychologist Kimberlyn Leary where she makes a statement about race that connects with things I've been pondering deeply the past few months:

"Socially constructed meanings of race, racial stereotypes, and other similar automatic processes are often applied inflexibly to racially designated others. For this reason, I'm going to suggest that it is the social fact of being 'raced', rather than race itself, that inflects loving relations...In making this distinction between 'race' and being 'raced', I explicitly mean to parse the biological and cultural markers of difference from the way in which these differences become coded and differentially valued. To be raced is to be implicated in a system of cultural weights and measures that a priori aims to specify, stabilize, and fix who one is and who one may become."

Stated simply, so called racial identities represent not who we are but rather something that is done to us and which to varying degrees we do to ourselves. I would go beyond race though and say that we are likewise 'gendered', 'sexually oriented', 'ethnicitied', 'nationalitied' and on and on. All of these dimensions of our human experience are at best descriptive but are not definitive. The soul has no race, no sexual orientation, no ethnicity, no nationality, no class. We are more than the sum of these social constructs. I believe the degree to which these so called 'identities' have assumed a primacy in the way we think about ourselves and others is a measure of the power materialistic assumptions about reality have come to exert in our lives. My point is not that these aspects of the soul's journey in this world have no meaning, they may even be said to facilitate our spiritual development in important ways. Rather, it is a more subtle issue of maintaining a balanced understanding in which the soul remains at the center of our self-concept and does not become marginalized by or treated as equal to the kinds of social constructs Leary is referring to. I'm reminded of a statement by 'Abdu'l-Baha:

"How good it is if the friends be as close as sheaves of light, if they stand together side by side in a firm unbroken line. For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 76)

If there are in fact "multiple identities that were born of passion and desire", what is the object or objects of this passion and desire? That will be the subject of my next post.

In the mean time, what do you think about identity? What are the implications of considering the soul as central to who we are?


  1. I like how you desciribe the dimensions of identity, "all of these dimensions of our human experience are at best descriptive but are not definitive". I agre with you that our various identities is how we try to understand our reality... understand truth. Although using these identities to tell others who we are is not suffiecent because it is not truth in itself... it is just one fragmented vision of the truth. Keep up the great blogging!

  2. One concept that I really like is that I am a spiritual being having a human experience. I take that to mean that my reality is spiritual, and that my experiences in the world (and what I choose to do with what has happened) guide my soul's development. Even if what I do with what happens isn't directly related to my soul's development, I am realizing that it can open or close me to receiving God's love and grace. I'm grateful I got that during a lovely conversation with a friend of a friend at the Cambridge celebration of the Birth of Baha'u'llah last night.

    As race relations tutor in the undergrad dorm I live in, I'm planning an event on multiracial identity for the students - I'd like to invite you to participate and offer your perspective. Will get back to you on details if you're interested.

  3. Clare and Allison, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Allison I'm interested, though not sure what you would want me to say about this topic. You know my number, let's talk about it soon.

  4. Absolutely beautiful concept of the soul and of how we construct our human selves into concepts of race, class and so on. Thank you Phillipe!