Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Digital and Ethnic Identity (My Response to Heather)

Thanks to Heather, who is taking a class from one of my thesis committee members, for commenting earlier today on this blog and for referring me to a recent post of hers about online identity. Her post makes the intriguing suggestion that because the internet is a sort of new world, maybe there are instructive similarities between second-generation immigrant/minority identity formation and online identity formation. Specifically, she's interested in the ways that both situations encourage the developments of multiple identities which are also a new, single sort of hybrid identity.

While I think her idea is interesting, I'm going to focus in this post on the differences between ethnic identity formation and online identity presentation in my experience.


Dear Heather,

You asked about whether the different parts of my identity I explore in my three blogs are mostly separate or more unified.

The answer built on the inside of my body is that they're more unified. After all, I only have one brain and if I understand correctly, all the synapses in there are networked somehow together. I don't have one brain for satirical ideas, another for Mormonism, and a third in which I'm an American from a minority background. All my experiences are interpreted by and stored in a brain in which the various elements I try to describe in my blogs are all present.

Identity, though, as I'm sure you know, is not only a product of what goes on inside the body. Identity also has a lot to do with our social selves: the way we appear to others. Identity formation, maybe, is a negotiation between external social dynamics and the internal dynamics of thought and memory. Those negotiations are very different in real life and online.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four times I've been asked by police to explain what I was doing walking in a certain place in the middle of the day. If I was fourteen or older the first time--I can't remember for sure--I already was 6'6" and wore a beard. I do remember it was summer, and that I was shooting hoops alone at an empty school playground near my house in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. They wanted to know if I'd been in or near the school. The second time I was seventeen or eighteen. I was in Columbus proper clearing discarded shingles from the yard of a family friend to make some money. A police car pulled up. The officer asked me several questions, and then watched me work for quite a while before driving away. Our family friend got home later and explained that there'd been some crimes in the neighborhood and one of her neighbors probably called the police about me. The third time was in November of 2001 in Utah (I was eighteen and had a long beard), where I was visiting my sister. I mentioned to some of her friends one evening, when they asked how people reacted to me post-9/11, that pre-9/11 I'd been questioned twice by police basically for being outside. The next day I was walking near the campus creamery when a policeman pulled over to ask me if I was lost. I said no, and he asked me where I was going. I told him I was just wandering around, and he asked a few more questions until one of my sister's friends from the night before happened to walk by and tell the officer that I was with him. The officer drove away. The fourth time I was twenty-one. I dropped my mother's car off by the elementary school where she worked at about 3 pm to walk to the high school where I worked as the after-school drama club adviser. This time, I was intercepted at my destination by both the elementary school principle and a city detective. Apparently, some girls at the school had reported that a scary man with a beard had been following them. Luckily, the principle had recognized me as Vilo Westwood's son and followed me on foot and was able to get the whole thing cleared up quickly, even taking me to meet the girls so they could find out that I was not so scary and was not following them, just walking to work at the same time they were walking home.

I don't share these stories to suggest that police are bad or bigoted--in at least two of the cases, maybe all of them, they were responding to citizen calls, which is something I'm glad police do. I share these stories because my feeling is that they took place because my physical presence is the dominant immediate aspect of my real-world identity. Neighbors across the street or girls walking home from school take in only the expressions of identity contained in my physical presence. And--let's face it--being tall with a face and hair roughly the color of Osama bin Laden's and a beard to match comes across as threatening to many perfectly normal Americans. My most obvious identity is my physical body as perceived in the local cultural context.

In a broad American cultural context, "foreign-looking" beards are often associated with danger. In my own brain's context, though, a beard is associated with Sikh and Jewish spirituality and orthodoxy, values which in turn mean a lot to me as a Mormon. A beard is also associated for me "on the inside" with my father, with good looks, with extended family members, with history. If I shave in order to avoid a certain externally perceived identity, I'm also denying a very different internal identity. If I grow my beard to express more dimensions of my internal self, I do so at the serious risk of being radically misunderstood in an external American context. Whichever choice I make, I'm stuck with the ways people react to my physical presence.

Maybe that's why I so vividly remember my first visit, sometime in my teenage years, to Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens with a predominantly South Asian population. Within a few minutes of getting off the subway, I'd seen several taller, lighter Sikh men who look A LOT like me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, and a part of me ached to live there, if only to experience a whole different way of physically being in the social world. A part of me believed that in Jackson Heights, there'd be a lot less obvious tension tied up in my identity, and a part of me desperately wanted that.

The way I sometimes feel torn between the waning influence of old cultures in which I would look fairly normal and an "overwhelming presence" of another culture, the one I live in, is the kind of experience I would guess Rocio Davis is talking about in the quote you use in your post. I live in America, I am very American, I wouldn't want to leave America for good. And yet--I'm obviously not "average" American in terms of physical appearance, inherited memory, or cultural outlook. So I have to form inside and outside identities through which I can negotiate all that.

Online identity formation strikes me as fundamentally different in that no one calls the police about me online. My physical presence doesn't come directly into play, meaning that the focus is more on my words: I get a more active chance to influence your view of my identity online than on the street. Also, no one is concerned about a stranger commenting on their neighbor's blog in anything like the way people can easily become concerned about a stranger hanging out on their neighbor's lawn: meaning that online identity happens largely in more interest-driven spaces, while real life identity forms in a more broadly public contact zone. Finally, I can put out a lot more information online before anyone has to react to me: you can follow the hyperlinks in one blog to another, find out as much about me as I and others have given you, before you have an obligation to interact. In the real world, someone might only find out I'm Mormon first and have to instantly recourse to their stereotypes before discussing any religious or political topic with me. Online, that person can examine examples of my religious and political thinking and have artifacts in the place of stereotypes.

This is not to say, of course, that the internet is some kind of paradise and the real world is terrible. There's a lot of richness possible in real-world, real-time interaction: the best of such interactions are, I feel, worlds better than the best digital interactions. But the internet is a very different space for formulating an identity than a country in which your physical appearance and family traditions set you far from the mainstream. It won't help us understand multiplicity in digital or minority culture identity formation to think of the two as closely related processes.


  1. Thanks so much for such a substantive response to my comment. I really appreciate your ideas and the time you've taken to integrate a discussion of them on your blog. One of your statements definitely sums up some things I have come to believe about online identity formation—using new media, people “get a more active chance to influence your view of my identity online than on the street.” That's why people usually experiment with a multiplicity of identities online. They are making choices to create identities that are tied to a sense of self in the offline world. I definitely understand how this is very different from the situations of minorities in the “real world.” How much choice did you have when a policeman approached you based on appearance? None.

    But you did make the choice to fashion your appearance based on an internal perception about how beards were tied to religious ideals and family heritage (I read your interesting series about your beard and BYU yesterday). Your internal ideals were tied to your external expression. Might this be paralleled to how people tie their offline identities to their “external expressions” online—the identities that they choose to create in an online space? I do think that minorities are sometimes able to exercise choice in their appearance and identity, like you did. I'm also thinking of the character Jing-mei in my central text The Joy Luck Club, whose friends do not associate her with being Chinese because of her choices in make-up, haircut, clothing...etc. Again, I do understand the limitations of the metaphor, I understand how online and minority identity formation are not necessarily “closely related processes,” and I am not trying to discount the experience of minorities.

    I do appreciate your answer that your three separate blog identities are all unified, in a way. That helps me out a lot. Thanks again for adding the socially-constructed versus individually-constructed aspect of identity formation to my ideas. Happy blogging in the future!

  2. Thanks again for your blog post. I think it's an minority hybridity and online/offline hybridity is an interesting thing to discuss: for your purposes, it was more interesting to compare the two, for mine, it was more interesting to contrast them. That's the joy of apples and oranges: you get something out of both comparisons and contrasts.

  3. Another good thing is that you get to eat both of them. And hey James, I really enjoyed your blog post and since I am doing my final English project on a similar idea, it would be cool to talk to you sometime.


Related Posts with Thumbnails