Photo by Kian Ansari

Our complex, intractable, evolving identities

“It is not a problem of race. It is a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.”

— James Baldwin, 1969

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A week before she died, my grandmother became convinced that a gaggle of costumed Chinese opera singers had arrived at her hospital room to take her to the afterworld.

Amy’s life was full of complex stories and identities. In the 1940s, she was a reporter for the biggest Nationalist newspaper in Shanghai. There’s an old photo of her walking down a city street like a boss, notebook in hand, a trail of suited men in close pursuit. According to my great uncle Henry, who grew up with her, Amy was the ultimate charismat, who proudly owned her identity as a prominent anti-Communist voice, who was beautiful and powerful and held court with almost anyone who crossed her path.

The Amy I knew was not this. It was 30+ years later and she was living in an old apartment building in Tokyo, a stranger in an enemy’s land, a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, withered old lady who didn’t have much of an audience except for the occasional visit from my little brother and me. I know she loved us but I was also quietly scared of her. I always felt that she had some sadness, and that it was important to her that we kept coming to visit, even though she mostly was just sitting in front of the TV kicking it with her cigarettes and whiskey.

Amy in Shanghai, sometime in the 1940s

For half a century Amy lived as a socialite, wife, mother, widow — a seasoned cultural code-switcher in a homogenous, racist post-war Japan. She spoke Chinese, Japanese, and English and had friends from all over the world. She rarely talked about her life in China, even though I knew that a lot of relatives got left behind in Mao’s Great Famine and are still reeling from its consequences. She was the lucky one, who had some emotional war wounds but escaped before shit got too crazy, before they obliterated any trace of creativity, personality, identity from her people. So she buried her trauma and reinvented herself. It wasn’t easy, but she made it work, toggling between her Shanghai roots and the expectations of her adopted home.

My family is pretty sure that the opera singers weren’t really at her deathbed. But who can say? What’s true is that, for a long time, the world inside of Amy’s head didn’t align with her external reality. It was easier to categorize her as an old person, a foreign person, a sad person, a hallucinating, at-the-brink-of-death person — but maybe she was actually a really creative soul who figured out a way to shapeshift reality in the final hour.

My new theory is this: Since she didn’t get to carry out her full potential during this lifetime, she manifested a royal exit to catapult her into the next one.

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Identity is complex. So we try to simplify it by putting people in boxes.

By age.
By race.
By class.
By gender.
By ideology.
By nationality.

The beautiful, complicated thing about being human is that each and every one of us experiences it differently. I don’t know how memories, images, awarenesses reside in other people’s brains. I don’t know how you “see” time, or feel it pass. I don’t have the words to describe the textures of my dreams, or the depths of my consciousness. But I know they are different from yours.

At my work, every day, an upstanding group of humans band together to create beautiful solutions to intricate large-scale challenges. We have an open office, we eat lunch together, we have tons of 1–1s, we hug, we do yoga, we send each other heart emojis, we put our brains together around the same ideas. And yet I have to believe that everyone comes from a different place. What on-ramp do each of these people have to navigate every morning in order to get here?

I’m sure there are those who pray in the morning.
Who speak a different language at home.
Who feel awkward in their own skin or secretly hate other people.
Who are feeling sad about something completely unrelated to work.
Whose cultural backgrounds challenge them to fight different battles.

I know why there are categories. They define, they protect, they create a sense of belonging. But they’re not useful for telling anyone’s full story.

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It seems like more people are waking up, becoming woke to the world and their place in it right now. White people are asking questions that people of color have known the answers to for decades. Privileged people are starting to realize that equality is a myth. None of this is new. It’s just new to the people who are waking up now.

There’s a This American Life episode about a girl named Melanie, who had a volatile reaction to a field trip her class took from a public school in the Bronx to a nicer private school across town. The teachers thought it would be a great opportunity for the private school kids to develop empathy for the public school kids and for the public school kids to learn from the private school kids. During the field trip it became clear that Melanie was clearly the smartest kid in the room. “We were studying the Enlightenment… [and she was] making connections between the painting and Enlightenment era philosophers, and quoting John Locke and just schooling all of us,” a friend recalls.

It’s now a decade later and the reporter has tracked her down. She’s working at a supermarket not far from where she grew up. When asked what happened for her on the day of that field trip, Melanie says that it was a huge aha moment for her — but not in the way the teachers had hoped.

“I felt like a ratchet-ass girl from the hood… I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.”

Melanie knew she was smart, but her school was so under-resourced that she couldn’t even apply to Harvard. On that day she saw up close for the first time the disconnect between the life she was worthy of having and the reality of her circumstances. So she decided not to get her hopes up too high.

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Like most people, I want to live in a world where we all have the potential to be our best selves. I love stories of people defying their odds to do amazing things. But this can’t be true for everyone right now. Right now, the world is designed to make sure that the people at the top of the privilege chain can choose not to see the realities that others have to live with every day.

If you’re reading this, and you have privilege, and you want things to change but you don’t understand what you’re doing wrong — read about it, ask others, inquire within. Find out what your blind spots might be. To evolve as individuals and as a society, we need to constantly seek out what’s on the other side of our lived experience, so that we understand the world better. Prejudice happens on so many levels and is multilayered. Having good intentions isn’t enough anymore.

Gary Zukav, one of Oprah’s favorite deliverers of wisdom, talks about how every decision, action, or experience directs you toward either a more conscious or unconscious evolution. We all carry almost contradictory aspects of our personalities — loving, insecure, generous, selfish, mature, child-like. “If you are not conscious of all the different parts of yourself,” he writes, “the part of yourself that is the strongest will win out over the other parts.” We need to acknowledge all the parts that make up our identities so we can be better humans. Only through that awareness can we start to change anything.

Amy didn’t do this. She didn’t know how, she didn’t have Oprah or Gary Zukav, she only had cheap Japanese racist sexist comedy and a couple of punk grandkids to keep her honest. And that’s okay. Because she’s somewhere out there kicking it with her Chinese Opera crew now. Her time in the world as we know it is over.

But ours isn’t… and we’re running out of excuses. That’s why we need to get to work.

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Lisa Katayama is a former journalist and non-profit founder with lots of other identities that will not be listed here. She currently leads editorial strategy at SYPartners.