The People in Me


‘So who are you?’ is probably one of the hardest and trickiest questions one can ask. It is because the query, although uncomplicated and brief in appearance, is complex and multifaceted. The answer can take any form and head in any direction because defining one’s identity is an intricate undertaking with multiple components. As Robin Kelley warns in his essay ‘The People in Me,’ if one asks another person to reveal their identity, they should be prepared for a lengthy answer. This paper interrogates the central arguments proposed by Robin Kelley in the aforementioned article delineating their effectiveness. The paper will start by providing brief biographical data of Robin Kelley before proceeding to analyze the arguments.


Author’s Biographical Information

Robin Davis Gibran Kelley is a distinguished professor of American history. He was born on March 14, 1962 in New York City. Currently, Robin Kelley teaches American history at UCLA. His areas of interest include American studies and ethnicity, the African American culture, jazz, and the hip-hop culture. Robin Kelley graduated with a B.A. from California State University in 1983. Within four years of his graduation, Kelley had completed his master’s in African history and doctorate in U.S. history at UCLA. Soon after that, Robin Kelley aged 32 became the youngest full professor to lecture at the New York University.  

Robin Kelley is also a distinguished author and historian. He has penned several books and a dozen articles which have appeared in scholarly journals, magazines, anthologies, and mass media. Some of the publications that have published his articles include the New York Times, Rolling Stones, Monthly Review, and the African Studies Review among others. Some of his works have received immense literary critical acclaim. All of his works have revolved around the intersection of culture and identity. He explores how culture influences radical social movements and how they, in turn, shape the political dynamics at work.

Polyculturalism versus Multiculturalism

Robin Kelley’s central argument in his piece is that the people in the Western world are polycultural rather than multicultural. Kelley asserts that, while the biological lines may be pure, cultural heritages are not. They are inadvertently affected and influenced by the other cultures. Every interaction with another culture prompts absorption and transfer of cultural practices. While the two conceptualizations appear identical, they are very dissimilar. The polycultural viewpoint conceptualizes a culture as the end product of a conglomeration of several other living cultures. Culture is thus fluid and in constant metamorphosis. A practice considered an integral part of a certain culture may, with time, change to a taboo as attitudes, values, and beliefs change owing to interactions with other cultures. The multicultural view, on the other hand, conceptualizes cultures as fixed and discrete entities. The proponents of this view explicate that human beings are born into a single culture and cannot assume any other. Hence, the various cultures they may choose to be assimilated into only constitute peripheral identities, and do not alter their core identity. If one is a black person and interacts with and borrows the Chinese culture he, according to this viewpoint, is multicultural, not polycultural. The self is informed by different cultures but does not transform into a being of cultural diversity.

Whether it is deliberate or not, the adoption of foreign cultural practices makes one polycultural. What is conceived as the “black culture” is barely the product of the black forefathers. When they arrived at the shores of America, they were not African Americans; they had distinct ethnicities. Some were Igbo, Yoruba, Mandigo, and Kongo. They did not perceive themselves as having a common black culture. However, their interactions with the Spanish, Britons, Dutch, Irish, and Italians created the unique culture that is now known as the black culture. The fact that the black culture is fluid and hybrid as opposed to being fixed and discreet further signifies that the people in the Western world are polycultural. The popular zoot suits, for instance, were borrowed from the pachuco culture of the Mexican youth. The black visual artistry also emanated from the interactions with the Mexican muralist while graffiti was acculturated from ancient Chinese and Latin American artists. 

The multicultural view has been discredited by many cultural scholars including Robin Kelley as being a zoological approach to culture. Its dichotomization cannot suit such a dynamic and fluid concept as culture. In fact, the conceptualization of people with borrowed cultures as multicultural deliberately ignores the self-effacing nature of cultures. Instead, the multiculturalism argument chooses to highlight the differences in cultures. One of its adverse impacts is that it exacerbates power relations based on gender, sexual, and race lines. As such, the native Indians who interacted with the Britons, Dutch, Italians, and Spanish would be considered superior to those whose cultures are a product of interaction with Asians or Africans. Even though both groups are amalgamations of cultures, multiculturalists choose to acknowledge only the visible characteristics, for instance, color, walk, or talk. It does not allow one to be viewed as a complete end product, but rather as an original contaminated by other cultures, which is incorrect. In reality, cultures live in and through people not on and without them. In fact, a person is barely conscious of the hierarchy and meaning of their culture; and that is how the black culture should be perceived: as polycultural as opposed to multicultural.

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Identity and Cultural Dynamism

Robin Kelley makes a persuasive argument on why the conceptualization and definition of identity should be expanded beyond its current meanings. Identity is a complex and complicated concept. As Kelley states, a person should not ask another person for his identity and expect a simple answer.  Identity transcends the skin color, the nature of one’s talk, or even geographical descent. Robin Kelley, himself of mixed descent, asserts that all people are of multiple heritages. According to Kelley, all the people in the world are interconnected. Kelley argues that all of them have traces of European, African, Native American, and Asian descent, and that is the core part of identity. However, while it is true that identity should not be informed by rigid and often subjective categorization, Kelley’s argument that all the people are inheritors of European, African, and Asian past is most probably unfounded. Kelley’s argument is not convincing enough because he does not substantiate it. In fact, he clearly argues for the presence of multiple heritages despite the fact that others cannot trace bloodlines to the aforementioned continents. This view may have been informed by his Pan-African ideologies. Robin Kelley wanted to prove that even Africans contributed to the Western civilization. 

It is worthwhile to note that the concept of identity is a social construct and not a biological phenomenon. One’s identity can, therefore, change depending on circumstances and should not be boxed into inflexible classifications. The society has shaped the perception of identity on sex, gender, income, and race for a long time. It determines the powers possessed by different identities, their levels of expression, and the receptivity of their expression. Although identity permeates every sphere of human lives, it is experienced differently. Robin Kelley, for instance, espouses that there are distinct levels of blackness in the black communities. Some are perceived as legitimate and genuine blacks, while others are perceived as not being black enough. Robin Kelley struggled with his identity because he is of a mixed racial descent. He was neither white enough, nor black enough. Had his blackness not been rigidly pegged on his skin color and the way he comported himself, Kelley would have felt like an authentic black person who belongs in his immediate black community. 

Robin Kelley and his brother’s struggles to assert their identities and cultural orientation further illustrate that identity is shaped by structural forces. According to the proponents of the structuralist perspective such as Muszynski, identity is a product of structural forces. The prevailing structures of capitalism dictate the expression and receptivity of identity. Among the white communities, those of mixed race have more freedom to express their identity and experience receptivity. However, in black communities, it is essential that one demonstrates their blackness either via skin color, the way they walk and talk, or the way they communicate with the whites. If a black person does not look “authentically” black or behaves in what the majority of black people would perceive as an unconventional manner, the person is not fully accepted in the community. Kelley’s brother did not fit in his Los Angeles and Pasadena black neighborhoods. He was not black enough and could not demonstrate that he was genuinely black in an alternative way. Ultimately, he had to move to Tokyo where he got married to a Korean lady who also struggled with identity issues. He had fought his way into blackness, yet could not achieve the ultimate one. His is a perfect example of the plight of mulattoes in black communities. In most instances, as Kelley noted, they are perceived as black people trapped in white bodies and have to work harder to be accepted as genuine blacks.

To address the problems of rigid categorization, the concept of identity should be conceptualized from a poststructuralist and postmodernist standpoints. Robin Kelley, himself a poststructuralist, favors the definition of identity as a not only a biological endowment but also a product of social structures. Therefore, identity should be conceptualized as a creation of a complex and comprehensive interaction between biological and social influences, including personal interpretation. Identity should not be based on race, origin, or color alone but on all the characteristics that define an individual. The answer to the question ‘who are you?’ should incorporate not only one’s gender, racial, geographical, and ideological identities, but also social and cultural inclinations. The postmodernist view is even more liberal. It dispels with the fundamental assumptions, for instance, that being black is defined by one’s skin color. The postmodernist view of identity challenges the factuality of the dichotomy of blacks and whites. Appropriating this line of thinking, whiteness and blackness are not perceived as opposites but rather as two distinct points on a protracted continuum of racial identity. Identity is thus a social construct and should be treated as not only a complex but also as a dynamic and fluid phenomenon.

Perpetuation of Stereotypes 

Another major argument in Robin Kelley’s piece is that the media creates and reinforces racial stereotypes. If it has the power to create and advance such stereotypes, then it also has the power and mandate to eliminate them to create a harmonious society. Robin Kelley gives a very compelling example of how his family was identified as “exotics,” because they all had ‘good hair’ and a strange accent. His mother could not fit in as a black woman because she did not behave like the typical black woman portrayed by the media. For instance, she did not smoke, curse frequently, or say “Hallelujah” among other things that made one a uniquely black woman. 

The media has an obligation to advance social justice. The media’s reinforcement of negative stereotypes defeats social justice. It highlights the differences, exacerbating inter-racial and inter-ethnic conflicts in the process. Kelley gives an apt analogy of how his sister was mistreated by a Sikh driver who mistook her for a Sri Lankan woman based on her looks. As Kelley’s sister’s plight demonstrates, the stereotypes, if unmitigated, eventually mutate into real identities. Ultimately, even the blacks themselves judge their blackness based on the stereotypes advanced by the media. 


It is evident that Robin Kelley’s article “The People in Me” makes a compelling case on why people are polycultural rather than multicultural. There are diverse people in a single person, creating an individual of multiple heritages. Cultural identity should not be pegged on rigid categorizations according to skin color, class, gender, or the nature of walk and talk. Crucially, Kelley posits that identity should be conceptualized and defined in broader terms. It should be understood not only as a product of biological phenomena but also as a social construct. Hence, one should not be expected to give a simple answer to a complex identity question. Critically, the media should use its powers to defeat negative stereotypes and promote the image of polycultural people. Ultimately, though, cultural identity will be shaped by a complex interplay of social, cultural, and personal influences.

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