Ghettoizing Identity

PARIS – Once, as I picked up the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen at his hotel, the receptionist asked me if I was his driver. After hesitating, I nodded yes. Among my various identities that day, that of driver was the most obvious to her.

This sense of multiple identities is something that Sen himself highlighted mischievously in his book Identity and Violence : “The same person can be, for example, a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God invented Darwin to test the gullible.”

Only a minimum of introspection shows that our difficulty in answering the question, Who am I?, arises from the complexity we face in distinguishing between our many identities and understanding their architecture. Who am I, indeed, and why should I accept people reducing me and the richness of my identity to only one of its dimensions?

Yet such reductionism lies behind one of today’s dominant concepts, multiculturalism, according to which one of our identities must prevail above all others, serving as the sole criterion for organizing society into distinct groups.