Who are we? What does that question even mean? Depending on who you ask, they would come up with different parameters for the question I feel. What parameters would you choose? Who is “we”?
Are “we”, you and I, the writer and the reader, a very personal question? I, a white trans woman. You? This personal question could allow us to find common ground, and places where we oppose each other. It could lead us to discuss our common struggles, or for us to find ways to lift each other to betterment. On an individualistic level, we are collections of experiences that inform the person that we embody. If perhaps you and I are already acquainted, would we use our shared personal experiences to define who we are? I think that’s quite likely. That is the heart of the question; perhaps “we” are our shared experiences. No matter who the question is aimed at, shared experience will define us.
What about a larger group: let “we” be all who read this, rather than just you and I. Shared experiences still seem like a good method of answering, “Who are we?” What shared experiences would we be able to discuss? What oppressions, exchanges, moments, might we all share on some level? I know with certainty that my experience is unique, as is everyone else’s. That is not to say that everything is unique to myself, I would be very surprised if no-one could identify with myself on the progression of my life. If I were to generalise my life to being born in the home counties, C of E primary school, “good” state secondary school, Russell group university to study engineering, and then realising my trans identity. That not only gives you a window into my life, but, through shared experiences, have a greater understanding of my perspective.
Perhaps rather than experiences, however, it would be a set of beliefs that unify is as “we”. What beliefs might we all share? Comrade? I would hope that we all believe in equality. Trans liberation now. Black Lives Matter. We understand what those calls to action mean, more than just the words behind them, but the meaning and history that has led to them. But is “we” merely the belief itself, or rather the method through which to achieve equity in society? Because much as I stand against racism, I will never have the experience of being discriminated against for the colour of my skin. I am oppressed in other ways, in the way the system of government discriminates and litigates against trans people in the UK, and the archaic system the NHS is bound to follow. This oppression lets me empathise with other oppressed groups, but I will never know many particular flavours of bigotry.
Let’s make “we” larger still: the UK. What makes someone British? While I understand that Great Britain is the island, I’m taking British to mean anyone in the UK. Is citizenship the thing that unites us as a collective? Because there are people all over the world with that claim, not just in this country. What about if we were to take a geographic standpoint? There are many people here who don’t have the right to vote, because they aren’t citizens. Surely, they could be considered part of the collective, but they couldn’t be considered equal because they don’t have the same rights as citizens. I think you would agree that we don’t all share the same beliefs, exemplified in the need for movements like Black Lives Matter, and the fact that trans and non-binary people aren’t equal under the law. What if we apply our framework of shared experience? Is there a universally British experience? I would argue not. How many experiences does a fisherman from St Ives share with a banker from Richmond, or with an unemployed single parent from Nottingham? They might all have a passport, or they might not have even that in common. They’re unlikely to have the same beliefs either, so what would unite them in a greater collective? Is it arbitrary, much like the size of the collective? Something that I’ve been changing throughout to explore different meanings of a group.
John Donne said that, “No man is an island” in the eponymous poem published in 1624. That any loss from the whole is a loss to the individual, ending the short work such:
He posited that the “we” are a collective of different people, and that that is the point. It should not matter who is lost when someone dies, for their death is loss to us all. That every individual adds something to the world and has value within it. I like this view, because in my opinion, it is itself the justification for the question perhaps. The differences make us the collective, a wealthy tapestry of experiences and opinions. Interpreting life, the world, and our place within; through each other. I can never know what racism feels like, on a visceral level, but through reading what black authors, poets, and philosophers have written bout their experiences I can understand the world a little better.
I can learn who we are.
Image courtesy of Timon Studler.