Habari gani, fam?
Today we focus on the principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. Any people that have struggled to throw off the legacy of slavery and institutional racism fundamentally struggle for the right to determine who they are themselves, instead of accepting the role the dominant culture pushes on them. As Black Americans, we deal with these false narratives all the time because we live in a country that has not been able to properly reckon with its own racism. We’re not human beings to many people; we’re an inscrutable other prone to behaviors that are impossible to understand. We’re not fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. We’re felons, welfare recipients, gang members, hoodrats. Our individuality is stripped from us every time one of us is pulled over because we “fit the description”, every time someone mispronounces our names, every time our accomplishments are overshadowed by our political reality.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
The basic power to define ourselves is under assault every day for black Americans. The dominant culture wants to put us in a box that absolves them of facing history one way or another. Our own culture demands us to be the perfect defiance of that narrative, tells us that there’s only one way to forge our own path. Within these twin pressures bearing down on us, it’s vital to remember that we get to say who we are — no one else. The power of self-determination can only be used, though, if we bear the responsibility of behaving in accordance with what we’ve named ourselves. These labels often only have the power of the will behind it.
There’s a diagnostic for this concept that I actually really like. In order to truly wield the power of self-determination, we must ask ourselves three questions.
Who am I?
We’re starting off with the most basic and difficult questions, right? In order to answer it honestly, we have to spend some time getting to know ourselves: not just the people we want to be, but the people we are right now, flaws and all. We have to have a sense of perspective about ourselves that might be humbling. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, of course, but no hero can be blind to the reality of their situation.
This year I turned 40 years old. I am not who I thought I would be at this age; nowhere near as successful or driven, nowhere near as much wealth as I thought I’d have. I don’t have the experience or talent I wanted to have cultivated by now. I’m a lot more naive than I thought I’d be, a lot less perceptive, a man frozen by fear far more often than I’d like.
I also know that I am incredibly resilient, and I am persistent towards the goals that really matter to me; it might take me a while, but if I want to do something I’ll eventually figure out a way to get there. I’m kind, and earnest, and care a great deal about doing the right thing well. I’m smart — in my way — and I have a natural aptitude for numbers, details that are easy to overlook, and maybe even social dynamics. I’m devoted to my loves, my friends, my chosen family.
It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned to be comfortable within my own skin, with its limitations and destructive loops and vast, unrealized potential. I know that the worst vices within myself are harder to fight because of where and when I was born, and what my culture has decided me to be. I have decided to accept this burden with as much equanimity as I can muster, hoping that the way I live my life can be a refutation of this grave social injustice. I am as decent a human being as I can be, and I am always striving to be more decent than that. I have chosen to tell you who I am by what I say, what I write, what I do.
Am I really who I say I am?
This is the reality check. How do we know we are who we say we are? It’s recommended that we have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign.
But what the hell does that mean?
It means that we must have a way other people can decide whether or not we’re being true to ourselves. Others, trusted within our communities, tell us if we’re actually resilient or if we’re just presenting the illusion of resilience. If we determine who we are as a culture, we have to agree what’s a part of it and what’s not; what others can participate in and what they can’t; how to tell someone “of the culture” and someone who’s not.
Self-determination, by nature, is an act of artifice. We decide how we want to present ourselves to the outside world, but we also have to back it up with action. We construct ourselves through our words, then by the deeds we perform to back up those words. The way we define ourselves is not how we find out who we really are; it’s merely using a common language to form an image others can relate to. This language is built on what we value and how we reflect those values. If there’s a gap between what we value in ourselves (decency) and how we define decency by our actions (being an all-purpose jerk), we mislead others and make it harder to truly know ourselves.
I love this check because it marries the theoretical (what we say) to the tangible (what we do). Once I’ve defined myself, it makes my choices a lot easier. If I’m, say, roasting someone online, and I think “Is this who I really am?” — I’m likely going to answer “No.” I am not the kind of dude that just roasts people online. If it’s fine for you, great, I’m sure you have your reasons. But that’s not me.
Am I all that I ought to be?
Now that you’ve taken care of who you are really, you have to take stock of who you want to be. If you’re exactly the person you want to be, keep on rocking! But what’s the next step in living your virtues? How can you make that happen? What would your life look like if you took the things you cared about to the next level?
This is an excellent time of the year to check in on that. If I’m not really who I say I am, I have to reckon with that and change what I’m doing. If I’m not all that I feel I ought to be, I have to take stock of why not and how that can be changed.
These three questions also force you to think about what’s within your control and what isn’t. Ultimately you can’t control how other people see you, or whether they accept you or not. But if they don’t see you the same way you see yourself, it helps to think about why that’s so. Are you invisible? Or do the effect of your deeds differ from your intentions?
It also provides you with a way to think about your ideal self with a built-in reality check. You look at where you are and where you want to be, and you think about how to bridge that gap. It may take time — years, decades — but just the progress is enough to make you feel better about yourself. When that happens, it’s easier to shrug off the pressure of being told who you are. Because you know. You’ve thought through it, and you’ve aligned your will and effort into being your best self. No one has your experience being you, except you. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know what’s true and what’s not.
At least, I hope so! Living with mental illness means living with the fact that my perspective may be distorted heavily, so I need to lean on the people I trust more than most to tell me when I’m not being who I want to be. For some reason, you may be in the same situation. But, at least for me, the more I check in with myself, the more I practice radical self-honesty and self-acceptance, the easier it is for me to just ken when I’m on my track and when I’m not.
That being said, I know I’m not all that I ought to be. But I’m happy with who I am, even as I take steps to be better. Being able to define myself, and hold myself to that standard, is a big reason why.