Hybrid Identity: Dictionaries, Identities and “Are we all hybrids”?
By Tony Sandset
Hybrid identity seems to be the new, hot topic in the academic world. Its usage has flourished and spread across a multitude of disciplines. You can find it in everything from cultural studies to literature, gender studies, postcolonialism and beyond. However, despite academia’s cross-examination of it and its immense popularity, the term can be highly vague. When linked to concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘identity,’ the line becomes even more blurred. In this text, I won’t try to give an account of what hybrid identity is or isn’t; I would rather like to focus on two things: (1) the ways in which it can be linked from its dictionary definition to the concept of ‘identity’ and (2) try to make the term problematic by asking: ‘are we all then in the end hybrids?’
Allow me to start by citing the Oxford and Webster Online Dictionaries at length in regards to the term ‘hybrid.’ The Oxford Dictionary states the following:
1. Biology the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule.
2. thing made by combining two different elements: a word formed from elements taken from different languages, for example television (tele- from Greek, vision from Latin).
(Adjective): of mixed character; composed of different elements
(Origin): early 17th century: from Latin hybrida ‘offspring of a tame sow and wild boar, child of a freeman and slave, etc.
Here it seems clear that the term ‘hybrid’ belongs to or derives from a biological discourse. It seems as though it is a fusing of different elements or a mixture of different species that form an element of its own. It is also a linguistic phenomenon that emerges when one fuses or merges two different languages (for instance, English has hybrid elements in that we often “steal” words from other languages and adapt them to our own, such as the Japanese words “sushi” or “katana.”). By merely looking at this short quote, we see that ‘hybrid’ refers to a myriad of things. Let us look at the next quote, this time from the Webster Online Dictionary:
an offspring of two animals or plants of different races, breeds, varieties, species, or genera
person whose background is a blend of two diverse cultures or traditions
something heterogeneous in origin or composition : composite hybrids of complementary DNA and RNA strands; a hybrid of medieval and Renaissance styles
Once again we see that the biological discourse of the word ‘hybrid’ is at the top of the list. However, in the Webster Online Dictionary we also encounter the use of the word ‘hybrid’ in terms of ‘culture’ or ‘tradition.’ It is in this instance that hybridity becomes problematic. For if we see hybrid identity as forming on both the level of biology (ethnicity or race) and culture, then we must also look into the term ‘culture.’ Without going too deep into the complex term ‘culture,’ allow me to form a link between the issues that emerge when we link hybridity, culture, and biology to identity.
If hybrid identity is seen as formed at both the biological and cultural level, an important question arises: are we then all hybrids? After all, doesn’t the majority of the world’s population encounter several ‘cultures’ on some level, be they sub-cultures or two or more “pure” cultures? I’m not trying to debunk hybridity as a marker for identity, but rather would like to point to the aspects of hybridity that seem the most troublesome. If a hybrid position is formed between two or more cultures, then it would seem that hybridity is not just a term reserved for postcolonialism (as it has often been associated with), nor for that matter a multicultural paradigm. The problem might not lie with hybridity per se, but with the term ‘culture.’ Where do you draw the line? At what point are you a ‘cultural’ hybrid? Is there a line between cultures? And if so, how do you locate that line? The difficulties of gaining hold of a ‘true’ hybrid becomes even more difficult if we throw racial and ethnic markers in there as well. Is a person who solely identifies with “black aesthetics and culture,” but is of both Native American and African American descent a hybrid or “just” African American? Can a person be said to have a hybrid identity if they only identify with one culture? What exactly defines a hybrid in such a case?
It isn’t always easy to draw the line, but perhaps that is not the issue. The real issue may be whether or not hybrid identity is seen as a new entity that challenges and subverts hegemonic identities, or if it is just another subject position that will in time be shored up by the hegemonic ways of ‘being’ and living out our identities. If hybridity is said to be subversive, I would like to think that its subversive potential lies within its ability to “see” from different perspectives. Hybrid identity shouldn’t be romanticized, nor claim to understand everything – it isn’t infallible. Yet I believe that at times, the hybrid is better equipped to understand different points of view. The ‘between and betwixt’ position could possible be a partial double view that in some instances makes an understanding of different cultural, racial and other perspectives easier. It is this ‘double consciousness’ which W.E.B DuBois speaks of, that I believe is where the hybrid moment is articulated. No one can be a hybrid all the time, but at certain points hybridity, or a ‘double consciousness,’ emerges. Perhaps it is a contextual identity that, when pressed or nurtured, emerges and makes the two or more parts that the hybrid consists of fuse into a third entity. It is a breaking of the two, yet also a merger at the same time, as the postcolonial scholar Robert Young once said. Homi Bhabha also referred to this phenomenon as the “third space” – a space where a new position that is not only the sum of two parts but something more. In my opinion, such an identity is much more contextual. Feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti links to a theory on nomadic subjectivities; an identity position that travels across several levels, but is not fused with anyone in particular and is much more contextually fluid.
I would like to point out that I am not arguing for a hybrid hero, or icon of fluidity. We must remember that the hybrid position must also be analyzed along gender, racial and last but not least, class modalities. Let’s not forget that many scholars who focus on hybridity and within literature hail from upper class, or at least a middle class background that in turn may not see the ways in which our material basis also influences the ways in which we can afford to be nomadic or hybrid.
If we are to make sense of what hybrid identity means, we should perhaps remove ourselves from the dictionaries and mono casual analysis of what hybridity is, and instead focus on the ways in which class, race/ethnicity, gender and other modalities form, open up, and foreclose ways of being hybrid. Some can afford the luxuries of being between and betwixt. Yet a large number of people who shuttle between cultures, such as migrant workers, might not have the means or desire to view the world from a hybrid position. This is not to say that matters that have to do with class and materiality close down the possibility for a hybrid identity to emerge from such a position in any way; rather that we need to acknowledge the need to not only celebrate the subversive, new and exotic side of hybridity. We also need to focus on the modalities that may not be easily submerged into a hybrid paradigm. A way to achieve this could be to focus on praxis – the ways in which we engage in cultural ways of being that represent a new and hybrid way of acting. A praxis that both breaks with the old and at the same time is a merger of the old; a contextual space that is filled with creative ways of being and acting that at the same time points forward and yet retains some of its old parts.
To round off this short text, I would like to conclude with some tentative words: not as an end, but rather as a beginning. I started out with two dictionary excerpts, then moved on to some of the issues that confront us in regard to hybridity and identity. I have perhaps not said explicitly what a hybrid identity is, but that is because I don’t believe that such a concept can be tied down to a simple definition, i.e. the dictionary. It will take and has taken a plurality of theoretical and empirical endeavors to try and pin down the hybrid, and this is what is so great and at the same time disturbing about hybrid identity: it moves and fluctuates, pulses and moves around. But as I have warned you, we must try to avoid glorifying and hailing hybridity as a groundless form – for even though they move around, they do eventually settle down, if only for an instance, to then freeze into a moment of contextual performativity, only to move again. And as we know, movement involves friction, and that is perhaps when the hybrid can be seen as positive with a “double” view, without being hailed as a hero. The friction within and between cultures can be utilized as something that generates a positive force. Once again, I’m suggesting that a turn toward hybrid praxis is the way to go about this – to see those instances where praxis is composed of several parts and yet functions as something more; at the same time drawing on the old and recognizable.
Hybrid identity is then perhaps a contextual entity that is partially fluid and partially solid; composed of several parts that could be recognized as ‘almost the same, but not quite.’ It is a cultural entity that one may view as the same, and yet is hard to pin down at times. This is perhaps a good place to start this hybrid text, in a place that is ‘almost the same, but not quite.’