Identity Politics & Human Rights
The phenomena of identity politics has led to a sharp departure from the ideal that human rights are universal, not particular. That is, that all human beings possess the same rights, which are not determined by differences such as sex, ethnicity or race. However, such basic rights must be accepted by societies as universal truths before they can truly be effectively realized through the realm of international human rights law.
“There is a mistaken impression that all we need to have is a rights paradigm or a system of rights. The issue is not simply a question of rights; it is a question of ability to use rights, to the extent that rights can make any difference.” (Corinne Packer, 2003).
The inability of individuals to look outside cultural norms and see race and ethnicity as social constructs has led to the current prevalence of identity politics. While individuals are allowed the possibilities to fully participate in cultures and ethnic traditions under human rights law, culturally speaking the progression has been much slower. In order for human rights to truly be effective, it must be culturally accepted and realized that identity is not intrinsically linked with birthplace, appearance, or given surnames, but is instead socially constructed. Only then can individuals be free to create their identities and have real personal autonomy.
“Human rights, or basic rights, are the norms that would undergird and enable the exercise of your personal autonomy.” (Seyla Benhabib, 2004). The cultural rights that are protected within this include the right to freedom of expression, the right of every person to participate in the cultural life of the community, the right to develop a culture, and the right to respect of cultural identity.
Human rights law also protects on the basis of nationality, stating that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” (Lyndel V Prott, 1988). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also grants individuals the right to self determination and to “found a family that shall be recognized.”
While human rights laws recognize “the right of everyone to take part in cultural life,” constructed societal barriers on identity do not allow for “the equal right to participation.” Under the United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Organization document on the Recommendation on Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and their contribution to It (1976), individuals such as Pari Chang, author of “Wait, You’re Not Chinese,” should have “the concrete opportunities guaranteed for all to express themselves freely, to communicate, act and engage in creative activities with a view to the full development of their personalities.” (Pari Chang, 2002).
However, these rights are not always respected from a societal standpoint if the individual was not born into the nationality, ethnicity, racial group or gender that they come to identify with later in life.
“The concept of cultural identity is difficult for precisely the same reason as the concept of a people is difficult: it is hard to think of any satisfactory definition of people which would not use some form of cultural criteria.” From the moment we are born we are categorized and sets of roles are enforced to ensure a child follows the accepted norms. But complex gender, race and ethnicity issues cannot be defined as being intrinsically tied up with birth. Issues arise when individuals attempt to link ethnicity with inherent characteristics that are present from birth.
There has been great uncertainty as to what makes someone part of an ethnic group such as “Japanese” or “Chinese,” specifically because appearances and names have proven to be arbitrary factors in determining what culture one will subscribe to later in life. The right to create your own identity without discrimination is important to recognize. While International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination states that “no state shall tolerate any discrimination based on race, color, or national or ethnic origins, that would prevent the equal right to participation in cultural activities,” this does not in fact say one must be born into a culture in order to participate in it.
In fact, an individual such as Pari Chang should not be discriminated based upon her ethnic origins, which happen to be Jewish, from participating and incorporating herself into cultural activities that are deemed “Chinese.” To exclude her from such activities would thereby be discrimination based upon her ethnic origin. This brings to the forefront the question, what does it mean to be authentically Chinese?
Is it defined “by virtue of their race, their religion, or their language?” In Pari Chang’s case, she has immersed herself in Chinese culture after having married a Chinese man and taken on his last name as his wife. However, despite her best efforts it is not yet in her power to completely define herself. In the human rights sense, she has the freedom to participate and immerse herself in Chinese culture, but socially she is not accepted as Chinese by those around her who hold fast to constructed boundaries of what it means to be ‘Chinese.’
“People take offense when they discover I’m not Chinese, as if I had engaged in a form of false advertising.” This brings up the fact that individuals who may be considered ethnically Chinese may look otherwise. Pari Chang may or may not look the part of “Chinese,” but physical appearance in and of itself can be misleading. Appearance also changes with time and therefore cannot possibly be an insight to the true identity of a person. “Collective identities are formed by strands of competing and contentious narratives in which universalizing aspirations and particularistic memories compete with one another to create temporary narrative synthesis, which are then subsequently challenged and driven by new divisions and debates.” Similarly, our own identities are created and always evolving as well. In this way, identity can be viewed as a spectrum, always changing and being changed. The cultural mechanisms used to delineate what is authentically Chinese are ultimately created by society.
Similarly, in Anil’s Ghost, Anil must work in order to create her own identity outside of her birthplace of Sri Lanka. Her identity begins to shift early on as she chooses to take on the name Anil, a boys name, against her parents wishes. It is “self-evident that the matter of choosing a person’s name is widely regarded, even by those who agree on little else, as within the realm of creating that person’s identity” and the choice to take on a name of one’s choosing later in life “should not be governed by law but by autonomous individuals in accordance with their personal taste.”
Anil works hard to redefine herself in her home place of Sri Lanka, but like Pari Chang, finds it to be difficult as individuals are unwilling to accept that her identity has changed over the years. The case of Anil and Pari Chang warn us to be wary of considering the subject of identity as if there are set attributes within us that create our identity.
The notion that there is a true and fixed identity within each person is a dangerous one, as Anil and Pari Chang have both proven to have multiple, sometimes conflicting identities. Anil’s UN passport, declaring her a citizen of everywhere and nowhere at once, begs the question of how much can our birthplace and passport define us. “New modalities of membership have emerged, with the result that the boundaries of the political community, as defined by the nation-state system, are no longer adequate to regulate membership.”
Governments and societies must begin to embrace the differences between nationality and individual identity. In today’s multicultural and multi-ethnic world, all nations should legally accept more than a “Jus soli-based mode of acquiring citizenship, that is the acquisition of citizenship rights through birth on the territory or through a citizen mother or father or Jus sanguinis…the acquisition of citizenship rights through ethnic lineage and descent alone.”
“Human beings become attached to the given. It becomes to them the ‘natural way’ to do things.” It is dangerous for cultural norms to dictate ethnicity and group memberships based on what explicitly is instead of what ought to be. While looking at an individual's skin color, birthplace or last name may allow individuals to be classified more easily in most cases, this leads to the blatant disregard of personal autonomy and allowing an individual to freely determine their own identity.
Pari Chang stated that “losing my birth name has been for me a matter of self-definition.” Therefore even if Pari Chang was not marrying a Chinese man, she should still have the right to participate in Chinese culture. “The individual’s right to define a personal identity by freely choosing among conscientious beliefs, personal nomenclature, gender, and occupation can only be realized when the political community relaxes its demand for absolute universal adherence to community standards.”
One solution to this complex issue lies in the idea of cosmopolitan and global civil societies, which suggest a world “grounded upon the common humanity of each and every person and his or her freedom of will which also includes the freedom to travel beyond the confines of one’s cultural, religious and ethnocentric walls.”
Such freedoms may be guaranteed by human rights, but solutions lay in the enforcement by cultural norms. It must be made clear that “the contradiction between human rights and sovereignty needs to be re-conceptualized as the inherently conflictual aspects of reflexive collective-identity formation in complex, and increasingly multicultural and multinational democracies.”
It must be remembered that the original source of what it means to be Chinese, can not be tied up in such arbitrary delineations as names and skin color, but has to do with a way of life and a cultural acceptance of norms and traditions with which one chooses to live their life.
“In the process of repeating a term or a concept, we never simply produce a replica of the first original usage and its intended meaning. Every iteration transforms meaning, adds to it, enriches it in ever-so-subtle ways. In fact, there really is no “original” source of meaning, or an “original” to which all subsequent forms must conform.” Only when ethnicity and race are viewed from this standpoint, will individuals like Pari Chang be able to overcome the cultural biases that prevent them from participating and being accepted within the identity of their choice.
Benhabib, Seyla, The Rights of Others (Cambridge, 2004).
Chang, Pari, “Wait, You’re Not Chinese?” (New York Times, 2002).
Franck, Thomas, The Empowered Self (Oxford, 1999).
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost (Vintage, 2000).
Packer, Corinee, Human Rights & Diversity (Nebraska: U of Nebraska, 2003).
Prott, Lyndel V., The Rights of Peoples (Cultural Rights as Peoples in International Law (Clarendon, 2003).