The Problem of Identity | March 28, 2014

The Problem of Identity

Recently, I was inspired to re-read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It is a book that explores the problem of identity. One of the main characters is a man who has been virtually annihilated by fire. His shins are burned down to the bone. He has no face, just an ebony pool. All identification was consumed when he fell from his burning plane into the desert of North Africa. A Bedouin tribe found him, wrapped him in grass fiber, and delivered him to a British base at Siwa.

Not knowing his name or his country does not seem to bother this man they call "the English patient" as much as it bothers the people who cannot label him. This is a particular problem because the story is set in 1945 when nearly all the countries of the world are at war, and they feel a need to know the burned man's nationality. He is kindly interrogated again and again.

Despite his near devastation, he talks all the time. He knows about the desert in Morocco and Afghanistan. He knows about and can label the many different kinds of wind in North Africa. He knows about Yugoslavia and Egypt. He knows the detailed topography of Tuscany. He can speak German, French, and English. He knows where every Giotto painting is in Europe. He knows most of the places where a person could findtrompe l'oeil. When they put weaponry in his hands, he can identify weapons from different time periods and from many different countries. He is a veritable collage of global information. (Not unlike our own Dr. Mascaro!)

Through this character, author Michael Ondaatje forces us to consider the problem of a single label.

Why is it that we tend to want to define people by single modifiers such as nationality or religion or race when we human beings are multi-layered? We are not just one thing, and the English patient beautifully embodies this concept. By having no name, no race, no country, no religion, by having only memory of people and places, of relationships and experiences, the English patient shows us another way to define ourselves. What would it be like if we transcended the barrier of labels? And can we do this without being burned to a crisp!?

Now I have a second story for you regarding the problem of a single identity. In real life—not fiction—a man named Amartya Sen describes a life-changing experience that he had as a boy growing up in Dhaka, an outpost of British India. One day a bleeding man came bursting into the Sen family garden. Sen shouted for his parents and ran to get the bleeding man some water. The family drove the man to the hospital, where he died of his knife wounds.

As an eleven-year-old boy, Amartya Sen never forgot this nightmarish experience. Sen went on to become a Nobel laureate in economics and a National Humanities Medal winner. Presently he is a professor at Harvard University. Beyond seeing a man murdered, here are the details that stayed with young Amartya and informed much of his life's work:

The man who died was a day laborer named Kader Mia. On this day his wife had begged him not to go into a hostile area during the communal riot, but he had to go in search of work because his family had nothing to eat.

At this time, political instigators convinced the people of Bengal to think of themselves in terms of only one identity: only as Muslims or only as Hindus. During this period, Muslims and Hindus were killed by each other, day after day.

Even though the riots did not last long, they left in their wake thousands of dead Muslims and Hindus, and most of them had much more in common than they realized. They were victims of the political instigators who convinced them to think of each other in terms of only one dividing characteristic rather than as fellow Bengalis, fellow Indians, poor people, or neighbors.

Amazingly—and I find this mind boggling—just a few years later Bengal was bursting with Bengali patriotism. By celebrating Bengali language, literature, music, and culture Muslims and Hindus united because they have Bengali culture in common. Rather than being divided by religious labels, they are joined by the language, art, and music of their culture.

Identity is powerful. It can prompt us to unite, to have feelings of sympathy and solidarity, and it can prompt us to divide and to have feelings of estrangement and hostility. The question of identity potentially breeds a lot of disquiet and conflict. For starters, we can think about the genocide of the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda or the age-old tribal struggle between the Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq or the horrid and violent conflict that is much in the news right now between the Dinka and the Nuer in Sudan.

Why is it that religion or nationality can act as a barrier? Why is it that we have an inclination to define ourselves in only one way? We are all hybrids in one way or another, but somehow we use reductive language which makes us and those around us single faceted. I am white (or Caucasian). Mr. Mitchell is black (or African-American). I am American. Mr. Kamil is Egyptian. The three of us are all more than these single modifiers. We all have much more in common than the dichotomies that spring from these single-word labels such as black versus white or Egyptian versus American. We are sons; we are fathers; we are husbands; we are educators—our similarities far outweigh our differences.

All of us in one way or another joke about our modifying gender, race, religious, nationality stereotypes. While it is very tricky to engage in banter about these labels, it also puts conversation about these potential barriers out into the open rather than having us anxiously stepping around any of these conversations. As Columbia University professor Jonathan Rieder claims: Identity politics are not static oppositions but dynamically evolving notions and not necessarily contradictory ones. How we talk about religion, race, and ethnicity is important.

Three years ago, two of our students created a powerful video that highlighted the diversity within this community. They shot images of members of the student body, faculty, and staff. Each portrait revealed something that we all know about that person and something that we may not know; something that added complexity to what we saw.

I have spoken a great deal about feeling good about being yourself. I have recommended that you surround yourself with friends who support who you are—who help you be your best self. A good leader and a good friend brings out the best in others.

I also believe that if you take the time to get to know each other, beyond the artificial labels of gender, class, ethnicity; if you get to know each other beyond what grade you are in, whether you are an athlete or artist, whether you are cool or a self-proclaimed nerd, you will find that you have much more in common than you may realize.

Imagine approaching each person in this Community as though they were the English patient, and you have to unwrap the person's identity by asking questions and getting to know them, not by their outward appearance, but by how they think, what they believe and what they care about.

If you do this, you will realize that we are all human, rich in complexities, and worthy of attention. If we truly get to know each other, if we are willing to cross potential barriers of race, religion, and ethnicity, we will realize that nothing human is foreign.

I would like to conclude by showing you the video that our MBS students, Elaina Aquila '12 and Rubana Islam '12 produced three years ago.


Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

Sen, Amartya. Identity and Violence, The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Rieder, Jonathan. The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr,. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.


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