Fractured Identities

22 January 2018

What does it mean to have a fractured identity? At a first pass, we might say it means having many parts to one’s personality, many sources of ideals, many drivers of action. Take our good friend Ken, for example. He’s a philosopher, but also a sports fan, a parent, a some-time foodie, and all kinds of other things. That might not seem like a problem, but there are going to be times when those identities come into conflict—when he might have to choose between, say, watching a World Series game and going to a meeting in the philosophy department.

Still, Ken might say that there’s no real conflict there. (I know what I would do if the Champions League final were on during a Comp Lit faculty meeting. Sorry, colleagues!) All Ken has to do make a hierarchy out of these parts. Being a philosopher is going to trump being a foodie, being a parent is going to trump being a philosopher, and so on. So it seems as though there’s still no problem.

But what if you’re someone who grew up in one country and now lives in another? Suppose—just to take an example, ahem, entirely at random—you’re a Brit who now lives in the States, who likes Earl Grey tea with his Eggs Benedict, and who has an accent that makes no sense?

You might argue that this, ahem, totally hypothetical person doesn’t seem in great distress about being both a Brit and an American. Our expat Brit doesn’t have to choose between cricket and baseball; he can enjoy them both. Maybe his life is even richer as a result. Ralph Ellison’s narrator put this sentiment beautifully in Invisible Man: “Now I know… that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.” Being two things, on this account, is better than being one thing. You’ve got many strings to your bow, many facets to your character.

Of course, you might think that a person like this is deprived of a sense of identity thanks to the multiplicity within. But in fact that very multiplicity can serve as a kind of identity. The hypothetical person I’m thinking of has a hyphenate identity; he’s a “British-American.” Or maybe he’s what Anthony Appiah would call a cosmopolitan. He’s a person of many parts. That itself is an identity.

All of that seems promising, but something important is still missing: namely, belonging. We want our sense of identity to do many things for us. We want it not just to help us make choices, or to help us understand and accept ourselves, but also to help us feel like we’re part of a group, something larger than ourselves. And it’s not clear that cosmopolitanism can always do that.

Maybe the hyphenate identity could work, belonging-wise, for the British expat—he can hang out with his fellow British-Americans, and bring tea and scones to a baseball game—but I don’t think it’s going to work for all displaced individuals. Take, for example, someone of African descent living in Martinique. Her ancestors didn’t choose to go there; they were taken there. And they were taken there as slaves. She herself has been brought up speaking French and learning about French culture, the language and culture of her oppressors. Surely the fracturing is far more grievous in this case. And surely the issue of belonging is vastly more fraught.

Here’s where the philosopher Edouard Glissant—himself a Martiniquais—has something really important to add to the discussion. His proposal was that people in this situation seek for ways to synthesize their different identities. Just as the creole language spoken on Martinique is a beautiful mixture of French and African languages, so too, he wrote, a person living in Martinique can see herself as a beautiful mixture of French and African cultures. This “creolization” creates a new hybrid identity that, it might seem, can give us everything we could want from identity: a guide to conduct, a sense of belonging, and a feeling for who we are.

I think this is an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful idea. That said, I’ll end with one final caveat: what if it’s not entirely up to us? Throughout this post I’ve been speaking as though it’s entirely up to each of us to choose our identity, whether a unitary identity, a hyphenate identity, a paradoxical non-identity as cosmopolitan, or a creolized identity. But is that actually realistic?

Take the case of mixed-race individuals, like Barack Obama or Zadie Smith—or, for that matter, our guest, Julie Lythcott-Haims, who has written powerfully about her own experiences in a new memoir. However such individuals may see themselves, they also have to contend in one way or another with the categories other people put them in. Other people project things onto them, expect things from them, maybe even demand things at times. At times these demands may feel rejectable; at times they may feel impossible to overcome; and at times they may even feel morally right, as when, for example, we witness violence against the African-American community going repeatedly unpunished.

When racial division is combined with a long history of oppression, what Du Bois called “double-consciousness” is inevitable: the oppressed will see themselves through the eyes of the oppressors, as well as through their own. And this may be the worst kind of fracturing there is. I’m not sure it can be solved by unilaterally choosing a race, or synthesizing them, or being one thing one day and another the next. I think maybe we’re going to have to fix our society first.

Comments (4)

Hyena's picture


Tuesday, January 23, 2018 -- 1:35 PM

Hello! I enjoyed listening to

Hello! I enjoyed listening to your show on Fractured Identities today and thought I’d add a piece from my own experience. I believe it was Ken who brought up bisexuality (I was delighted to hear it). It’s a very contentious identity in the LGBTQ community, some say because we have “passing privilege” when we date someone of the opposite gender. There hasn’t been a ton of research on bisexual identity, and I always felt like there odd one out - like I might be kicked out of one community or another if my next partner was of one gender or another. I felt vindicated reading a 2011 SF Human Rights Commission report that details how bisexual invisibility undermines bisexual mental and physical health. For example, bisexuals have higher rates of suicidal ideation than their monosexual counterparts, both gay and straight of either of the two most commonly recognized genders. I link it here. Your guest Julie Lythcott Haims was great, although I did feel like she pushed the stress of fractured queer identity under the rug by saying we don’t wear it in public unless we intend to. There are many trans folks (and nonbinary, to speak to fractured identities specifically) who don’t pass and are absolutely persecuted because of their appearance. It’s also important to note (especially from the report above) that while being able to “pass” as straight or cis is indeed a privilege, it doesn’t invalidate the numerous ways that queer folks (visible and invisible) are harmed by the way that society views them. Thank you for your discussion today. I learned a lot and I hope this comment is useful to the discussion.

Josh Landy's picture

Josh Landy

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 -- 3:08 PM

Thank you so much for this

Thank you so much for this exceedingly thoughtful and illuminating response! As you say, Ken and I had similar thoughts: that is, we felt that identity fracturing can be painful for people who identify as bisexual, and for people who identify as non-binary, just as it can for people who identify as biracial or multiracial. (I'm not making a judgment as to which is more or less painful—just saying that there is real distress involved in all cases.) I do take Julie's point—and Fanon's—about race being, at least in many cases, more visible. (And I agree, Julie was a fantastic guest!) But I also take your point that invisibility is not universal, and that visibility is only one aspect of the issue. I had not seen the very sad statistics that you link to. We clearly have a lot of work to do as a society in this domain as well.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 -- 12:10 PM

Fractured identities? Well,

Fractured identities? Well, there could be many sorts of these. I do not relate well to the sexual identity issue, though I can see where it is one for those whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual. I'll throw another iron into the fire. My brother and I were both exiles in the late 1960s and 1970s. He happily and successfully remained in Canada and shed his US citizenship, becoming, husband, father and well-adjusted Canadian. He is retired now, and my nephews are grown men. My sister-in-law suffers from a debilitating disease. All of that might well have happened here, but for Viet Nam. But my brother never, to my knowledge, regretted any aspect of his decision to become a Canadian citizen. I, on the other hand, am sometimes embittered by the fact that I came back. I am neither American nor Canadian. I that sense, I suppose I too am fractured. Ultimately, we must learn to live with our choices. One man's epiphany is another's nightmare.

Joel57's picture


Sunday, April 12, 2020 -- 7:54 AM

Listening to a rebroadcast of

Listening to a rebroadcast of the "fractured identity," I have embraced the revolution of my own identity structure as that of an Earthling.

A casual observation of my phenotype would cast my heritage as a WASP, and I've lived mostly as a privileged white male. Although I now know that my mother's claim that our family's heritage was from the four-corners of the world (Heinz 57 - her words). The characteristics of my European ancestry are predominant, until I visit my dermatologist, and the initial statement includes "How much time do you spend in the sun?"

A small percentage of my mother's genealogy was traced back to the western shores of Africa, mixed with many parts of European and Spanish heritage. My Father's side is Deutsche (his parents were both first generation children of German parents).

There are many parts of this world that are not part of my genetic makeup, but the commonality of humanity contributes to my adopted belief that we are all Earthlings, and separating us into gender or color categories continues to pull civility apart.

I hope that someday we can see past the differences, and use our unique standings as humans to improve the world we live in.