If you believe you are a citizen of the world…
What’s remarkable today is not that identities are becoming more fluid and borderless, but that they ever became fixed and bordered.
As a member of an ethnic minority in the UK, I’m frequently asked: “Where are you from?” It’s a question I’ve been asked so many times that I often wish I had a quick and simple answer. In fact, sometimes I consider just saying “China” to save time. But I know that would be dishonest, and so I find myself telling the same story again and again.
“Well, I was born and raised here in the UK,” I begin. I like to pause here as if I’m done for just a second – you’d be surprised at how much you can read about someone else’s inner thoughts by observing how fast they blink – before continuing. “But my family is from…Mauritius! That’s where my parents were born, where my grandparents built their lives, and where dozens of my aunts and uncles and cousins now live.”
At this point, I like to explain something about Mauritius. Its history, its location, the fact it’s no, not Malaysia.
Sooner or later, though, an pall of awkward silence forces me to continue: “But, if you go back a few more generations, my ancestors are from China”.
At this point, people finally exhale and say that’s what they thought all along. They ask me whether I cook Chinese food (yes), whether I speak the language (food words, toilet words, a few semi-racist slurs), and how often I “go back” (huh?).
Regardless of the way in which I tell my own story or the emphasis I put on it, I tend to become the friendly Chinese guy they met that weekend. Instinctively, this doesn’t feel right, but I’ve never been sure why. I’ve never been sure if I’m really British, Mauritian or Chinese. If I’m more Asian, African or European. If I’m any, none, or all of the above.
There are of course countless people who, like me, cannot say where they’re from with a word or two, but must tell a whole story of movement, of chance encounters between different communities, and of intermarriage and intermixing across generations. Moreover, according to much contemporary debate, the number of these global misfits is fast growing. People today are moving and intermarrying like never before, we’re told, and that in this ever more globalised world, identity is becoming more complex and fluid. The Lupitas, Keanus and Meghans of the world are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
For some observers, particularly on the right, this is a source of moral panic. They worry about whether these individuals can ever truly integrate and if their allegiances won’t be divided. These fears were well captured by the then British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2016 when she crudely declared: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. For others, it is merely an interesting phenomenon. Academics and researchers do ethnographies of second and third-generation migrants, different diasporas, and coin new terms such as “cultural chameleons”, “global nomads” and “third-culture kids” to describe new and strange individuals with complex identities and multi-chaptered biographies.
Two false premises
These perspectives may have some value, but many are also based on fundamentally false premises. They take as given certain questionable assumptions and, in doing so, limit our understanding of what identity is in the first place.
The first false premise is that these questions are new. Reading the literature, one might think globalisation and migration are recent trends that only began after the Second World War and have been soaring since the 1970s. On the one hand, this is true. Migration is new. That’s to say, the framing and use of the terminology of “migrants” is relatively recent. The first recorded use of the term “migrant” was used to refer to birds and it was only really in the 20th century that it was popularly used to refer to – mostly non-white – people.
In that sense, migration is a new phenomenon. However, the thing it describes is anything but. From our ancient ancestors, to the Greeks and Romans and Bantus and Mongols and Western imperialists, human history has been one of continuous movement. We have sometimes happened to cross rivers, or mountain ranges, or seas on our journeys as well as – more recently – lines that define the edge of one entity we call the nation and the beginning of another. It is not a curiosity that humankind covers the globe, that Africans were part of the Roman Empire as it expanded into England, or that two of the world’s oldest mosques, built for Arab Muslims, are in China. In Africa in particular, continuous movement was the norm. Before colonialism, Achille Mbembe writes, “circulation was fundamental…mobility was the motor of any kind of social or economic or political transformation.”
The second false premise is that identity is fixed according to certain essential categories. We often think of ourselves as if we’re the readouts of a census form in which we’ve been forced to tick boxes that define us along supposedly foundational lines such as race and nationality. That’s we struggle to comprehend those who fit into either several or none of the pre-defined categories or see them as strange and exotic.
Looked at through a historical lens, however, this way of seeing identity is quaint and parochial. To begin with, our contemporary ideas of race and the nation-state – arguably our two primary categories of identity today – are not even two hundred years old, a brief blink in the scope of human history. How was identity defined before? Who were we before we had nations and race? Well, in pre-colonial Africa, a world of continuous movement, identity was also continuously moving. It was contingent and contextual rather than innate and rigid. As historian Terrence Ranger writes: “Most Africans moved in and out of multiple identities, defining themselves at one moment subject to this chief, at another moment as a member of that cult, at another moment as part of this clan, and at yet another moment as an initiate in that professional guild.”
From this perspective, what is novel about today is not that some people’s identities are becoming transnational and post-racial, but that they became nationalised and racialised in the first place. It is less remarkable that some people’s identities are becoming fluid and borderless than the fact that – in just this last heartbeat of human civilisation – they suddenly became fixed and bordered.
We often treat identity like it’s an objective fact that can be discovered. We trace our family trees and take DNA tests in the hope they will tell us who we really are and where we’re really from. But what does this mean when the histories of our ancestors and identities are ones of continuous movement and change? It is like trying to trace a glass of water to its past life as a cloud above the Andes or an iceberg in the Atlantic and saying that, when all is said and done, that is what it really is.
Citizens of nowhere
Recognising these false premises forces us to recast the question. It shows us our identities are not inherited and obvious, but must be created and given meaning. They are not natural and self-evident, but need to be socially-constructed and are deeply political.
This immediately begs certain questions. If all identities – and the lines they inevitably draw across people – are socially-constructed, by whom are they constructed and to what ends? If all the most meaningful identities are political, whose politics do they reflect? These are questions we must continuously be asking.
For instance, when destitute migrants are painted as alien and dangerous in contrast to good and honest (if equally poor) natives, who wins and loses from this division of identity along nationalist lines? When we’re told the world is facing a clash of civilisations based on incompatible cultures and religions, which similarities are given supremacy in this worldview and which are rendered invisible? When voters are told their ethnicity is truly what defines them and this should be their only consideration when casting their ballot, whose interests benefit from this narrative and whose suffer?
These categories, such as race and nationality, do matter of course. They capture some crucially important things we have in common. But what else are we and what other commonalities are missed when we draw lines in these ways? Which of the other infinite number of similarities – from height and age, occupation and political views, to sporting loyalties and musical tastes – could we build identities around as well as or instead?
If we could erase everyone’s sense of identity by clicking our fingers and start again from scratch, what would emerge? Would we quickly return to a world divided, first and foremost, into Syrians, Swedes and Senegalese; into Buddhists, Janes and Sikhs; into Arabs and East Asians and whites? Or would we end up with something else?
Might we end up with a world divided into, say: those challenging the status quo and those protecting it; those who grow food and those who eat it; those with pasts and those with futures; those allowed to move and those shackled to where they are? Might we decide that our closest similarities with others don’t derive from living within the same national borders (a category that lumps together beggars and billionaires), but from occupying equivalent positions in the same global system? Might we consider our shared biological histories to be less important than our parallel if distant experiences of climate change in the present?
This thought experiment is impossible to answer, but we may be closer to an answer than ever before. Though transnational identities or international solidarities are nothing new, today’s technology allows us to notice commonalities across vast distances in a way we never could previously.
This is already leading to new kinds of movements based on shared struggles, shared adversaries and shared fates – i.e. the very building blocks of shared identities. Young protesters in Sudan and Hong Kong and Palestine exchange tips on how to deal with tear gas. Climate activists calling for radical change in Bolivia and Kenya and Bangladesh coordinate their actions. Investigative journalists around the world share resources to cover the same global story with global consequences. Black activists notice how anti-blackness manifests in similar patterns of oppression across the world and organise accordingly. Women calling out their abusers on one continent inspire those with the same experiences on others to do so too.
Earlier, I mentioned Theresa May’s declaration that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. She meant it in a racist way that divides people, simply and crudely, according to her own small-minded notion of national allegiance. But her comment can also be read another way. In fact, even though I know its intended meaning, I cannot help but hear it as its opposite – as a radical and empowering rallying cry for how we can build new borderless identities and solidarities.
To me, her remark means that if our starting point is our shared humanity, the slate is blank. If we recognise that we’ve always been moving and that it is our personhood rather than nationhood that defines us (“if you believe you are a citizen of the world”) then we are liberated from the usual strictures that divide us and we become free (“you are a citizen of nowhere”) to forge the identities we want around the solidarities, shared experiences and fates we believe are important.
This is a rallying cry we must heed. Identity is not something to be discovered but decided, and if we don’t decide who we are around what we think is important, someone else will do it for us.
This is adapted from a speech James Wan delivered at the 2019 Maputo Fast Forward festival whose themes this year are identity and mobility.