February 21, 2008

Identity By Numbers

You know, I've never understood why people call themselves half-X. I'm sure that when people say they're half-Jewish or half-Chinese or whatever, they mean that one of their parents is Jewish, Chinese, Whatever. A verbal shorthand, so to speak. But why not say, "My Mom/Dad is [fill in the blank]."

How is it possible to have half a culture? Do you also have half a language? Half a religion (OK, I know this is America, but I'm saying . . . )? Half a history? Half a tradition? If someone identifies as half-Jewish, when they encounter anti-Semitism, do they get half as offended? What about someone who is half-POC? Does racism affect that person half as much?

It's certainly not about genetics. Case in point: Halle Berry. Her mother is White, but she identifies as Black. Another case in point: the "passing" phenomenon (Google it). Here's another one: Elrond.

I guess it's easy to be lazy about this with ethnicity. After all, you don't hear a lot of people calling themselves half-gay if one of their parents is homosexual. Might be a little too hot in that kitchen, I suppose.

Another thorny issue about half-identity is this: why call attention to one half instead of the other? What do we really say when we accentuate one half over the other? Are we saying one is normal and the other abnormal? Are we saying one is better than the other? What's the real message behind a half-identity?

I guess what I want to understand is: why do people feel the need to be half-anything if they can be fully both, or completely one or the other?


  1. I think ethnicity and identity are really fascinating in how they play into our lives. When I think of being half anything I guess I see it as more a cup half full sort of thing, not as a diminutive but as ownership, an attempt at quantifying to understand the whole.
    I don’t consider myself Irish at all, even though genetically I’m predominantly Irish. It has had very little practical effect on my life either way. My American-ness has effected me, my sexuality has effected me, and so I bear those as my own, but my German grandfather? just don’t feel a connection to that as my heritage. I’m sure this is a rather American way of looking at identity taking what I want, being a more proud San Franciscan than say a Bertram. But I like being able to make my own construct.

  2. Ian,

    I think what you're talking about here is fine, and a bit more honest than trying to claim something you feel no connection to. The thing that puzzles me about claiming half an ethnicity or half a culture is that it's something you really can't quantify. Do you think there's a better way to express that sort of thing without using a vocabulary vaguely reminiscent of mulatto and such?

  3. People should call themselves whatever they chose to, according to no one's standards but their own. I'm curious why it bothers you that someone might call himself half-Asian or half-black? It's simply a matter of personal choice and self-knowledge. No one should be expected to speak about their identity from anyone's standards or experience except their own. Nor be expected to explain themselves, in my estimation.

    Also ... ethnicity and culture are not the same thing.

  4. Matthew,

    I don't think anybody's arguing that people can't call themselves what they want. Yes, people should be called whatever they want to be called, but experience shows me that even names reflect privilege. It makes me wonder what they're really saying. Not what they intend - in fact, intent is often irrelevant - but the actual effect it has. Is it like Transformers where people are more than meets the eye, and the half-identity expands people's notions of ethnic and cultural identity? I wish I could say it does, but historically that has not been the case. Note passing and assimilation. Hence, the discomfort.