Our kitchen is filled with all manner of children’s supplies. Sippy cups, plastic cutlery, and a half dozen small, white plastic bowls with blue or pink rims. We fill them up with cereal and pretzels, fruit and popcorn; basically, anything edible. Sometimes, we find them around the house with a LEGO figure or a My Little Pony inside, taking a leisurely bath. Or a pile of flowers. I never followed the conventional rules of “pink is for girls and blue is for boys” with them. But at some point, out of nowhere, my children verbalized their demands for a specific color. And I gave in very quickly.
Our boys — mostly Desmond, but his younger brother Ozzie quickly followed suit — wanted the blue-rimmed bowl, protesting obnoxiously, as if the wrong color would curse them or curse their food. They threw full-on temper tantrums, so much so that I couldn’t tell if there was something deeper going on: Was he actually obsessed with the color, or was it the bowl itself? Our daughter, Anna — twins with Desmond, but their birthday is really the only thing they have in common — gravitated to pink, arguing that “the color was pretty” and, she said verbatim, pink is “for girls”.
I finally put the kibosh on the color preferences because I didn’t want them to think in terms of girls do this and boys do that, as if there were limitations on their desires because of some arbitrary associations between gender and color. First, it’s gender and colors, then it’s gender and toys, then clothes, then work, and suddenly we’re going down that proverbial slippery slope. Thankfully, they don’t care anymore.
Identity is deeply important. It’s how we see, how we color, how we move and breathe through this world. It’s the point of contact for others, and how we get under each other’s skin, and eventually, connect to one another. But, it’s mediated by generations, economic systems, and cultural processes, and imposed upon us by social, familial, political expectations. Identity is clothes and gestures, language and eye shape, hair length and skin color, body shape and genitalia. Identity is normalized and reiterated through language and images, and then regulated by structures of power and ideology from state agencies to religious institutions. We are all always constantly negotiating our identities in relation to each other and to what is happening in the world within the communities and networks we find ourselves.
And yet, the more I look around, it is clear a kind of revolution is happening around identity. People are recognizing the tenuous boundaries around their selves, whether it is the child who was assigned female at birth but verbalizes feeling like a boy, or the movement for Black lives that is resisting violence against Black bodies, or the Asian American woman who is regularly told that she is viewed as white by her white peers because they’re trying to make sense of her existence when in fact they are the cause of her erasure. It is happening as we see more and more representations of Jesus, not as the blue-eyed shepherd with flowy, shiny blond hair, creamy skin, and some kind of peach fuzz or goatee, but as an African man, as a man from the Middle East, as an Asian man, as a Black man, and even as a woman.
When I think about identity, my mind turns immediately to race and gender. Usually, to race, first, because of how it is experienced in the U.S. More than half a century before World War II, several racial exclusionary laws impacted those of Asian descent — banning Asian men from becoming U.S. citizens, yet using their labor in sugarcane plantations and their bodies to lay down railroads, while prohibiting marriage outside their race. The U.S. barred women from specific Asian countries, like India, China, and the Philippines, and then, Executive Order 9066 led to the detainment of those of Japanese descent in incarceration camps.
It wasn’t until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which removed the national-origin quotas established in 1921, that the number of Asian immigrants grew from 491,000 in 1960 to about 12.8 million in 2014.
When my parents and I immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s with one of the major waves from South Korea, we took the traditional path to citizenship through naturalization. Seven years later, when I was 8 years old, we were to be officially received and I had the opportunity to change my name to an American name. But somehow, we had forgotten the necessary paperwork or missed the deadline. Or, maybe my parents got cold feet, and didn’t want me to change my name. I recall being disappointed, but the moment passed quickly, and I soon forgot about it.
That is, until the teasing began. At first, it was fielding questions about whether I was Chinese or Japanese, and then guesses, like a game: Where did you come from? Then, all the variations and changes they did to “Mihee” — an easy target of a name. And, since it’s an Asian name, it was easily paired with ching-chong songs while pulling their eyes up: Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these. Which led to years of propagating the deep shame a person can feel calcifying that self-hatred until it becomes a part of her skin and bones, which is almost what happened to me.
Actually, it did happen to me. When I got to college, I decided to finish the process we began at my naturalization. A few signed documents along with a certificate of naturalization and a social security card would do it. My official name became: Rachel Mihee Kim. Why Rachel? A few reasons: I didn’t know many Korean Americans with that name, it was biblical (to appease my parents), and I’m embarrassed to say: I loved the show “Friends”.
The thing is, I hardly used it. I continued to go by Mihee with friends and acquaintances, and people in my program. The university had officially changed my name and given me a new email address, but even in class, whenever I was called on for attendance that first week, I asked to be called Mihee. My new name became a useful mode of categorizing interactions with people. I called Rachel my Panera-name. I would use it for convenience because I could avoid the tedium of repeating my name at least a handful of times, spelling it, explaining it, only to get the meal or the cup with my name spelled incorrectly. Or yelled out incorrectly.
This is what we might call an identity crisis.
Yet names are not meant to be exhaustive of who a person is. Rachel or Mihee or even pastor, mother, student, writer. We get caught up in names because we see them as a way to extend ourselves, to know and be known, fully and completely. When I legally took on Rachel as my first name, it was my way of saying, “I’m one of you.” It was my way of saying, “I’m human. I’m like you.” But that’s not how it works. Even with the name Rachel, people would often show shock and surprise when they hear me speak perfect English or tell them I was from Colorado.
Did I expect my name to signal something clear to the world? Names only matter if we believe they point us to some coherent and absolute sense of self, and that this sense of self can be captured in this thing called identity, which we try to express through labels and categories. In scripture, we read that Moses encountered God in the wilderness, engulfing a tree in flames without totally consuming it. God identifies God’s self as the “God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Of course, Moses asked God to prove God’s self, and it was a sly way to say, “What am I supposed to tell the people when they ask who sent me?” And then, God offered something vaguely ... definitive:
I am who I am.
Perhaps, what is more truthful is not that we are meant to have this system of consistent desires and steady ambitions — as if each person is a metaphysical being totally aware of oneself at all times. Unless, maybe the person is a bodhisattva. Or Gandhi. The rest of us are each an amalgamation of stories and dreams, histories and genetics, easily affected by lunar cycles, barometric pressure, and sunshine. We’re made of stardust, and each of us is a complicated mashup of ancestors, cultures, ideologies, and time periods. We are created in the image of the one who is named “I am who I am” and somehow called to the same work of creation, of imagining, of redeeming, of calling-out, of sanctifying, of living and moving throughout this world.
So, naming is more helpfully understood as descriptive rather than defining. In Genesis 1-3, we’re able to read two accounts of creation. We call each other into existence, into new life when we are given the power to name each other, and this is a gift and a privilege. Naming is powerful. And yet, that power is often wielded to hurt, to decimate, to erase, to cause life to shrivel up, especially when the naming is not true, when the naming is rooted in greed, when the naming is connected to oppression and destruction. Savage. Foreigner. 3/5ths. Illegal. Second-class. Naming is sometimes problematic when we demand that people make an account of themselves, to explain and legitimize their existence.
But the work of naming, when enacted openly and genuinely, is sanctifying. It’s calling-out, it’s lifting up, and in that work, it’s resurrecting. Jesus calls Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, out of the grave, after four days, after a stench began to seep out between the cracks of the tomb. Jesus calls him by name, calls him to new life. Jesus gives life, life-back and life-again to the little girl who lay dead in her cot, to blind Bartimeus, whose days were wasting away on the side of the road, to the woman hemorrhaging blood. To the lepers, to the hungry, to the possessed, to the tax collectors and sex workers, and to lowly fishermen.
Then when Jesus calls the first disciples — in particular Simon — he calls him something new: Cephas, in Aramaic, and Peter, in the Greek meaning “rock”. Not, rock-head, knuckle-head, or future-cornerstone, but Peter, simply, the rock. As if it were less a prophecy and more of a promise. A promise though not about his life, as in he would have a life of smooth sailing and life would make sense every single day, but a promise that God was already his rock. God was his foundation. Jesus loved him, and named him, and that relationship meant something, it was sealed by the name. No explanations necessary, no definitions, no labels mattered as much as the promise of the reality of God’s steadfast love to him.
That’s the kind of identity that resonates with me. Being one who is loved — that identity is wide enough for me to play, to live, to breathe.