Identity can be lethal. It is a curious component of how we define our humanness. In most contemporary societies, our identities are compressed into neat little pieces of paper that are carried on our persons – whether it’s a driver’s license, a government issued ID card, passport, etc. We are that paper and that paper is us. It is the ultimate expression of attempts to simplify our being. It is the ultimate expression of how we categorize and are categorized. And then something happens that illustrates just how deadly these categorizations can be. This is particularly true when perceptions and broad based simplifications misconstrue or fail to reflect the complexities inherent in the self-expressed identity of the person. These external perceptions (those that the Other holds) are frequently contrary to or dissonant from those that the individual, himself or herself, holds. Add to that a cross-cultural element and the environment is ripe for deadly conflict.
Take the case of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year old Black male who was recently shot and killed by a Florida neighborhood watch advocate. It is alleged that the boy was shot in self defense. Due to the circumstances that followed and the lack of police evidence acquired, the exact details are most likely lost forever. The incident itself, however, stands alone as a grave testament to the broad strokes with which identity is externally imposed in contrast to and in conflict with its internal expression.
Wearing a hoodie… in and of itself, can and does occur in any corner of the world. On any given day in 21st Century life, a young person, or not so young person, may be seen dressed in this article of clothing. It may be viewed as a tool of self-expression, but typically has little significance other than as a multi-functional outer garment (for warmth, to keep rain off of one’s head, to keep the world out – a particular marker of moody adolescents, etc.). Other than that, the garment holds no special identifying markers – except, however, when the wearer is an African America male. At that point, a process of what I call demonic (a step below dehumanizing) categorization may occur. (Dehumanization reflects passive agency – immediacy is of little concern. Demonic implies an active agentic expression – rightly or wrongly- there is an immediate threat of evil from the target,). When demonic categorization occurs, the person has been assessed and devalued to the level that he is not only not human, he is perceived as so harmful as to be on the opposite identity spectrum of the Other – embodying evil; this facilitates the ability of the Other to use deadly force - quickly.
From a social/ethnic conflict point of view, if one’s only experience with a certain group (ethnic or otherwise) is from a limited or narrow perspective, then it is easy to attribute to or create a projected identity with broad strokes of preconceived (often ominous) notions. It is also easy for people to be influenced or positioned by the broader society into believing the worst about a certain group. International conflict brims with such situations. Depending upon the type of preconceived notion (e.g. Black male equals miscreant- thug, hood, gangster, etc), one can then see threat or hostility (where there may actually be none). Preconceptions frequently elicit misconceptions of identity which, in this case, lead to expectations of threat and hostility. This, in turn, becomes the basis and fertile ground for social conflict and ultimately, violence.
It would be unreasonable to argue that there is no criminal element that exists within the Black population – just look at the crime statistics in Detroit, this, however, actually reflects the same criminal element that exists in any impoverished community in most urban areas in the world – from the favelas of Rio to the areas of East or South London. Viable social issues arise when misperceptions of identity due to these broad strokes are internalized and acted upon as reality, then result in harm, injury or extreme violence.
We have been “positioned” by the media, news, film makers to believe the broad strokes with which they paint certain groups of people. We have been subtly and covertly manipulated to believe that vast numbers of certain peoples are who they have been externally categorized to be. Most people would easily believe that the Asian-American scholar earned his or her graduate degree because s/he is super-smart, though there are many Asians who do struggle with academics. On the other hand, an African American, earning the very same graduate degree, is rarely categorized as being super-smart; he or she only gets their degree, often covertly or overtly implied, because of Affirmative Action. These are subtle attempts at negative categorization.
Until the media, academics, and politicians begin to verbalize and categorize Blacks and other visible minorities in a much more realistic, comprehensive and complex (versus simplified) manner (e.g. one can simultaneously be an African American male, an attorney, wear a hoodie, and have parents who are both physicians, or one can be a Chinese American, dance hip-hop and excel at basketball), people will continue to engage in demonic categorizations reflecting broad stereotypical strokes that will continue to elicit violent or deadly social conflict situations with horrendous outcomes.
The challenge, therefore, in the face of discordant social conflict situations, is how to deter the jumping to conclusions about the true identity and accompanying motives/actions of any person of color, particularly, young Black men who are often viewed in ways not reflected in the actual criminal statistics in this country. We need to model and lead our communities and the broader society to a place of. Transcendence implies an astute awareness of the real and the overcoming of historically, bigoted and harmful misperceptions of those who are not like us. Absent such an awareness, the likelihood of a similar tragedy occurring is quite high. Who are we? Our identities are often much more complex than the color of our skin or the visible accoutrements that we may wear. Part of who we are has to include the notion that we are our communities and our communities are us.
Janice R. McRae received her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from Michigan State University. She received her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Michigan, a Master’s in Comparative Politics from The American University and a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University. She has recently completed a conflict mapping of intragroup discord in Native American communities focusing on members who have been disenrolled or cast out and developed intervention models to address these concerns. She was also a member of a national delegation to China to study the traditional Chinese methods of conflict resolution, as exemplified in mediation committees throughout sectors of that society. She has worked as a mediator and facilitator over the years and has taught at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland University College.