There are questions, which require short, conventional answers. These questions are introductory rituals.

“How are you?”

requires the answer


possibly followed by

“Thank you and how are you?”

“Who are you?”

requires your name and possibly your place of birth. Then usually the conversation moves to other things. Sometimes though, establishing your identity becomes the conversation instead of a casual introduction to the conversation. At that point you should realise you may be dealing with the identity police.  

Identity police are best avoided. They aren’t speaking to you so much as they are looking for a box to put you in. The most popular boxes are race, nationality, gender, and sexuality.  The identity policing process works like the magical sorting hat in “Harry Potter”. After a few questions, the sorting hat knows what characteristics students have: cunning for Slytherins, bravery for Gryffindors, and so on. No moving houses, no changing character.

However, people like me are unable to provide short answers. Like Elsa Mbala’s character in the short story “December Rain*,” I have “many versions of [my]self.”  Lets start with my names. I have a name that white people can pronounce and a name for anyone who listens carefully.  The “easy” name is Christian; the “difficult” name is not. There were things inside the box marked female that were entirely foreign to me: docile, nurturing, soft-spoken, weak. Females kept their knees together and didn’t swear or whistle. The sexuality box opened when I realized there was more love in the world than boy-girl love could cover. The skin color box appeared after when I came into contact with white people and found out there was a box for white and a box for non-white. After that, I stopped being the norm.

When faced with the identity police I often think to ask: Who they are expecting: sassy, angry, or exotic me? The most important information about me is not my appearance.  Without my name,  skin colour, gender, sexuality, I am still me.

Clementine Burnley
Clementine Burnley was born and raised in Cameroon. At the moment, she lives and writes in Berlin, Germany.
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2 Comments on "Identity Box"

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Deana Bolumbu

“Identity police are best avoided. They aren’t speaking to you so much as they are looking for a box to put you in.” this is a reminder even to myself, no to ask for information as a means to simplify someone to a concept.

Catherine Johnson

Well put.

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