Understanding identity

Posted on April 22, 2019 by Elsa Tuet-Rosenberg

Identity is complicated. Sometimes who you are can feel incredibly simple, other times really complicated, emotional or matter of fact, fluid or unchanging. Some parts of our identity we might feel strength and confidence in, and other parts might feel vulnerable. And for a lot of us, we’re still figuring it out!

There are many parts of my identity that I feel super comfortable sharing with the world, and that I have defined for myself. That I bask in and enjoy on a daily basis: I’m a cat person, an extravert, a musical theatre geek, a night owl, a tree hugger and a pizza lover.

Here’s a pic of these things personified:

Animated gif of Elsa with cartoons her interests layered over the top

But while all these fun parts of my personality are important to who I am, there are other parts of my identity that I’ve had a little less choice in that impact me in a pretty big way. These complicated parts of our identities play just as big of a role in shaping who we are and how we interact with the world. More than that, these parts of ourselves often determine how the world interacts with us.  Our identities shape the way we experience and move through the world so much! They can sometimes feel pretty political, but intensely personal at the same time. They can impact the things we’re passionate about, the causes we get behind, the challenges we face, the power we hold and even the ways we choose to create social change, without us even realising it.

Sometimes parts of our identity can be so influential in how we understand and navigate our lives, we can forget that other people experience things in a completely different way. Forgetting this can really limit our ability to empathise and to understand the challenges that someone else might be experiencing. And this can directly influence how we stand up for what we believe in and whether we support others to do the same. Following me so far?

An animated gif of a seal looking puzzled that reads "hmm, very interesting"

One exercise that helped me to better understand this was literally listing the things I noticed about my own identity under two categories: Visible, and Invisible. And now, you’re going to get a chance to do that too. First, grab a piece of paper and write down two headings: “Visible” and “Invisible.”

“Visible”

Under this heading, list parts of your identity that people might notice or assume immediately by looking at you or interacting with you. These assumptions might relate to the communities you’re perceived to be a part of, the identities you’re perceived to have, the experiences you might have, or judgements people might make just by looking at you. Some of these might not even be things you want people to see or notice about you, and they might not even be true!

“Invisible”

Under this heading, list things that matter to you, but may not easily be seen or recognised just by looking at you. When you share these parts of you, people might even be confused or surprised. At times, having these parts of our identity hidden may give us an element of safety, but at other times, people not recognising who we are may make us feel unseen or misunderstood. Sometimes when people don’t see these parts of identity, we might even feel erased.

Ok, so these definitions can be a little bit confusing, so let’s see how my friend Raph approached this task.

Visible:

  • Confident
  • Male
  • Able-bodied (this means not having a disability)
  • White

INVISIBLE:

  • Experiences anxiety
  • Bisexual
  • Lives with a single parent
  • Jewish

See Raph's list with comments

Now it’s your turn. Try making your own lists under the visible and invisible headings.

All done? Now try answering the following questions:

  • Which of your ‘visible’ list might give you an advantage over people with a different identity?
  • Which of your ‘invisible’ list might make you safer in some situations?
  • Do any parts of your identity relate to social issues you are passionate about?
  • What parts of your identity, do you spend the most time thinking about, and why?
  • How might the things you listed, advantage or disadvantage us at certain times?
  • How might the things you’ve named impact the kind of social change we’re passionate about making?
  • What things didn’t you name on this list, and why didn’t you name them?
  • How are your identities shaped by the way we make assumptions about what is “normal” or the “default”?
  • What can you do to support others who have different identities to yours?

Exploring and understanding who we are is a life-long journey and ultimately your identity should say more about you and who you are than the way that other people view you!

But when we try to create social change, it’s important to think about how we fit into the world around us. On the one hand, there are some parts of my identity that give me extra opportunities, extra power or a platform that other people don’t have. But there are also parts of my identity that give me a disadvantage or cause barriers to being seen for who I am.

Acknowledging these differences is a really important step in balancing out our power and making things more fair. With these understandings we can start to create change for ourselves and with those around us.

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