& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

Racial Identity - to have or to be (Isabel Adonis, writer)
13 August 2007

Racial Identity - to have or to be

Posted on: Tuesday 14 August 2007

Isabel Adonis

Isabel Adonis

The philosopher and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, distinguishes two kinds of identity, characterized in terms of having and being. The 'having' identity is grounded in the external and material, while the 'being' identity is grounded within the person themselves.

If my sense of identity is based on the material, then I am what I have, and what I have in terms of identity, I can lose. This creates anxiety, and has to be guarded against. However, a sense of self which is based on expressing an inner reality of human experience - I feel, I see, I teach, I am sad, I am ashamed is not dependent on the external and there is a freedom from the danger of loss of self. An identity based on the expression of one's feelings through action has no material self to be lost.

This concept of identity as having and being Fromm derives from the work of Marx, who was concerned with the themes of labour and capital, where capital is dead, and labour alive. He quotes Marx: 'The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have and the greater is your alienated life. Everything the economist takes away from you in the way of life and humanity he restores to you in the form of money and wealth'. Marx's central question is what is more important, things or life?

So what of a racial identity? What does it mean to have a racial identity and how might it fit with Fromm's theory? My skin is brown and my hair is frizzy and people see me generally as black; but if I say I'm black, they say 'well, I don't see you as black' and if I say I'm white, they think it a joke. It doesn't seem to matter what I say, I always end up, not as the one, but the other one. We are both always stuck in a paradox where the other of myself is always left out. If I say I'm different, they say we are the same: if I say we are the same, they say I'm different.

Being mixed race is a challenge, not just to racists, but to any fixed or unitary identity, like English, or Welsh or Scottish. My versions of laying claim to blackness and whiteness would count as a having an identity, because it is based on the outside, as linking up with someone else, an external group, rather than an expression of who I am from moment to moment.

When Fromm links identity with the material he doesn't only mean what car I drive: he is talking about the need to be part of a bigger group, a flag, a nation, an ideology, anything that appears bigger and therefore more important than the individual feels herself to be. Society teaches one from the beginning to conform and to compete for a place: in truth one has that place already. But the emotional and spiritual poverty of one's individual life with its changing and uncertain reality and meaning put one under constant pressure to make and defend an identity of having, an identity of capital.

It is hard not to do this because society has made this external authority - I am a professor, I am a doctor - the most important; more important than, I teach, I help the sick, identities which describe actions. Instead we are encouraged to be things, images that fix us and close us from the possibility of change, and which inhibit communication with each other as we protect our singularity. And the pressure is strong to identify mixedness as another thing that I have.

Society is divided because people want to hold on to something, to an identity, to a culture, to a religion, and claim the power and particular advantages of that position. People want to be separate and there is a tension between we-ness and I-ness, being together and being separate. But with the dependency of an external identity, one is never a separate individual, but always part of the group, and yet never truly together because the group is identified by its separation from the other. Human beings are always changing, society is always changing and we need to express ourselves in changing and not fixed ways. Equality, participation and interaction are human qualities and not material qualities, they relate to actions of a human kind - something a person does and not something a person has. In Fromm's sense these qualities are part of an internal sense of self, an identity of being and an honest expression of self.

To enter society as yourself is an act of liberation, a transformative act.


Read Isabel's partner Bob Macintosh's paper here.


About the author

Isabel Adonis is a writer, artist and educator. She lives with her partner, Bob Macintosh and they explore race and identity together.

Dear Isabel:

I enjoyed your conference dialogue on Utopian Integration immensely.

Thank You.


06 September 2007

I so totally get this and wish I had been born with such knowledge. The good thing about mixedness is that there is no fixed form, no boundaries. I can be happy in so many different social worlds and do not have to restrict myself to just those of my parents. Being able to do so I feel gives me a greater appreciation and understanding of many cultures not just my own. It is something that I feel is missing in many Western societies, the desire to learn more to increase our consciousness as apposed to the need to learn more to increase our bank balance.
Sharron Hall
04 September 2007

Charles, I won't get into the metaphysics of your comments as this probably isn't the right conference forthat.

Nor is the right conference to get into theological arguments but I'm highly disturbed your suggestion that not believing in God and/or believing in the separation of church and state are what drives the (age-old and universal) tendancy for humans to convince ourselves that we belong to different kinds, be it races, religions, classes of cliques.

I'd like to consider myself a thinking person too!

Hamish (Mixedness & Mixing)

Hamish (Mixedness & Mixing)
04 September 2007

Isabel Adonis articulates a position similar to that of those who understand that, when all is said and done, we are not our bodies. Rather, we are the eternal sparks of consciousness animating these fleshy forms of ours. We are not light-skinned blacks or dark-skinned whites -- or Christians or Jews or Muslims for that matter -- because those are merely temporary external identifications that die along with the body.

Gurus and sages have taught this for millennia, and quantum physicists now support the proposition that our bodies are nothing more than localized energy fields in motion. The rate of vibration produces the deception of solidity, thus leading folk to believe they are their bodies -- thus brainwashing many to believe that we are innately representatives of racial and ethnic groups.

As food for thought, can we not make the case that supporters of racial identity -- who decree that people must identify with the temporary body instead of with the eternal spark of consciousness or spirit-soul animating same -- are essentially atheistic?

In other words, if spirit or consciousness cannot come from the illusion we call "flesh," can a thinking person come to any conclusion other than that atheists and/or strident secularists are the prime movers behind the preservation of and insistence on "racial" identities? Inquiring minds want to know.

* * * * *
Charles Michael Byrd, author of "The Bhagavad-gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness." http://backintyme.com/cmbyrd

Charles Michael Byrd
04 September 2007

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