It’s a simple question in some ways, yet amazingly complex as well.
For some people it’s a matter of similarity – I could say, for example, that I “belong” to this group (Sicilian-Americans who grew up in Brooklyn, NY) so that is “who” I am. More specific than similarity, we have outright membership in a named group – a friend of mine is a Toastmaster. Or you might choose to identify yourself based on personal values – “I am a giver”. Examples abound, and are certainly not limited to: physical gender, hobby/pastime, race, creed, political viewpoint, political party, place of birth, place of residence, role (of any kind), job title, industry…take your pick!
There was a time in my life that my identity was wrapped up in my job, it was what I was and, I mistakenly believed, who I was. That “what” vs. “who” disparity is a tricky one. I know people who define themselves by a primary role. For example, I’ve known quite a few “Moms” would be hard-pressed to answer to anything else or see beyond their “Mom-ness”. I’ve known people who have introduced themselves as “John’s wife, Joan” as well as “Joan’s husband, John”, displacing their individuality for their partnership (and possibly a view of themselves as secondary or subordinate in that partnership). I believe we are many “whats”, that is, all of us have many roles throughout our lives and often many concurrently but no one role can truly define us.
While we may (arbitrarily) choose how we identify ourselves, we can easily be irked by how others identify us. I did indeed grow up in New York City, but when some people identify me as “a New Yorker”, despite my having lived in California for over 20 years, it just feels wrong. Likewise, it felt truly creepy when, during an episode of a TV show that aired a number of years ago focusing on the lives of Sicilian/Italian-American mobsters, a new acquaintance turned to me and asked “You’re Sicilian, aren’t you?”. An uneasiness became very evident, as if that one aspect of my identity (being Sicilian-American, not a mobster, in case you were wondering) linked me inexorably to the sociopaths on the screen, and filtered out whatever else might be part of my identity. Suddenly I was morally suspect!
If you’ve left the States, what does it mean to you if while you’re traveling someone asks “American, right?” or for that matter thinks you’re a local? Is it a point of pride? I suspect it depends upon how they decided, what it means to them, and what it means to you!
There is a huge difference between identity and labeling in my mind. I think most times when people are taking the shortcut to understanding identity they go for the quick hit of a label. It’s handy, it’s prepackaged, there’s no messy…uniqueness…to deal with. Obviously what we wear has labels both deliberate and judgmental, but so does where we live, how we speak, the very body language we employ. I have known a number of people (myself included) who have shed the most primary of labels – their birth name – to allow themselves to identify in a way oftentimes radically different from the way they were perceived up to that point in their life.
I’d like to spend some time exploring the importance of understanding who we are in my next post, as it it deserves more than we could spare here.
For now, I will ask you to share your thoughts through the comments below, which can be done anonymously. Right now, at this moment in your life, who are you?