Complexity defines us.

This morning, I had a great conversation via Facebook chat with my friend Andrea. She’s in Austria. She’s also Latina, and recognizes what that means to her here in the United States. We talked a lot about what it means to her to be Latina in the United States, and how the rules change now that she’s in Austria. One of the most frustrating things for her has been struggling with the question, “Where are you from?” She talks about it in a blog post.

There’s not an easy answer to that question for her. Her parents are from Mexico, but she was born in the US. She has spent a lot of time in Mexico, though. Does she say she’s American? (Which to the Austrians, means a lot of things that aren’t true of her, particularly that she’s White.) Does she say she’s Mexican? (That’s not really entirely true either.) There’s not an easy answer.

People are incredibly complex. When you start trying to define someone, we can start by identifying the social identities and categories they fall into…male or female (or trans or genderqueer), gay or straight (or bi or pan or queer), White or Black (or Asian or Latin@ or Native or something else entirely), Christian or Jew (or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or one of scads of other religious affiliations). Which is hard enough. But then, as I was starting to hint at even with those lists, those labels don’t fit real people very well. Reality always resists simplification. What does it mean if I’m male? Or if I’m gay? Or if I’m Black? Or if I’m Hindu?

The answer can only be really expressed if you find out what it means to me that I claim that identity. Labels are convenient. They give us clear-cut ways of how we’re supposed to think about other people. But that’s dehumanizing.

People have experiences and stories that shape what it means to be their identity. It’s a lived process. A lived pedagogy. Our complexities are what define us, not our simplicities.

But these simplicities do matter. Because they form the systems of privilege and oppression that we are forced to live in everyday. Andrea talked about how she knows what the rules are in the US but not in Austria. She’s playing a different identity game over there. We’re all playing an identity game, whether we want to or not. The things about us that we can’t change (and even those that we can) shape how people treat us, how well we see ourselves reflected in the media, and the opportunities we have.

Where do we draw the line between accepting simple categories and getting to the heart of complex people? It’s not easy. We see simple categories and we want to leave them at that. But real conversation and real growth occurs when we move past those.

I recently read a book that’s quickly become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s called The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley. She’s a teacher who spent a year with her class reading and responding to the books of Leo Lionni. One girl, Reeny, resonated with many of Mr. Lionni’s stories, particularly the story of Tico, a wingless blackbird. A wishbird grants Tico a wish: a pair of golden wings. Tico is able to soar far and wide. But the other blackbirds shun Tico because of his difference, his beautiful golden wings. The story ends with Tico tearing out his golden feathers, which are replaced by black ones, and giving them away.

Reeny dreams of a different ending to that story. She says, as Tico, “I just don’t want to give up my wings because I like them, because they look pretty. I’m not saying I look prettier than you. But I’m thinking, why don’t you stay and we’ll talk about it. Don’t fly away. See, we can keep talking about it, okay?”

Can we keep talking about it, okay? Race and gender and class and sexual orientation and religion and citizenship?

After all, in reality, there is no them. There are only facets of us. (-John Green)