Each of us embodies multiple identities. I hold an American passport, feel like a ‘local’ in Swaziland and Singapore, attend a prestigious university, and care deeply about issues that concern the entire planet.
These identities can clash and compete, or can collaborate and build upon one another. We can use each one when it benefits the moment most, calling upon different shades of our characters to back up an argument or make a point.
At COP-21 I felt like I was constantly asking myself the question, which identity today? Which identity fits this moment the best? Am I Kei, the Yale-NUS student? Or Kei, the American? Or Kei, the artist? Or Kei, the activist? Or Kei, the politically correct? Or Kei, the “Global Citizen”? Or Kei, the peacekeeper? Or Kei, the status-quo-defender?
We are privileged to simultaneously embody identities that give us access to so many different worlds. We are welcome in elite cocktail parties – where hands brush business cards. We are welcome in our national communities – of Singapore and the United States – which hold immense power and brand us with high status on the global stage. We are also welcome in protests, where thousands of throats chant and thousands of feet march. There, we are welcome simply because we are people – citizens of a world that shares a climate crisis.
Throughout the week of COP-21, I found myself flitting between spaces – trying on different identities for size. One moment I was discussing the relative merits of climate words with linguistic artists, and the next, I was listening to a very discouraged member of the Swaziland contingent lament about the uselessness of his country’s very presence at the COP. One day I was holding a sign saying “COP21 = 3°C = Crime Against Humanity”, and the next I was receiving the business card of a Yale professor who believes that COP-21 is the most effective thing we could be doing right now.
Is it hypocritical to embody these various identities from one day to the next? Or is it acceptable (perhaps even normal) because we are young and just learning what is what?
At what point does one have to choose a side, an identity that she will carry more willingly, more consistently, more boldly than any other? At what point does ‘middle ground’ become ‘cowardly’ or ‘unhelpful’ or does it ever?
When it comes to our current planetary environmental crisis – we have many choices. We are, undoubtedly, all part of the problem. If, however, we want to be involved in the solution – we can situate ourselves at various levels of involvement.
We can be politicians, researchers, financial advisors, professors, activists, negotiators, artists, CEOs, campaigners… Each of these positions will surely limit our mobility and exclude us from being involved in others.
We are, each one of us, inherently possessors of multiple identities. We are part of our schools, of our communities, of our political and religious affiliations, of our nations, and of the world. We have immense privilege when it comes to making choices about which identity to wear at which time.
I only hope that we each wear our privilege and our multiple identities with humility and toward greater planetary good.