Self (Imposed) Identity

What does identity mean to you and how is it defined? Is it defined by your gender, age, sexual preference, educational and professional qualifications/roles, your personal beliefs or causes you might advocate for or the many hats you wear during the course of a day? Is it a combination of all of the above – a multidimensional one or does it not comprise of any of the above? It might even be a particular way in which you view yourself and the way in which you would like the society to view yourself.

What is my identity?
                                       What is my identity?

For instance, the graphic above is all the various facets of my identity – a mix / a combination of all of these and if you notice closely, the language I speak, my beliefs and the issues I am passionate about and the ones I got through my parents such as my gender, my language, my nationality, and lest I forget – religion and class makes up this hodgepodge.

Now I know what many of you are thinking: where you are going with this girl? Is it not enough that you have signed up for a grad school, now why do you have to go and confuse yourself with a quest for your identity? As if your life is not complicated enough 🙂 Well, let me give you a little background and maybe then it will be clear.

As many of you might know, I am back in school @ The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University,  pursuing a MA in Sustainable International Development (SID). Now Heller is a pretty diverse school and when I say diverse, it really is. For instance, the class of 2017 alone has students from more than 37 countries. So as part of orientation, we went through an Anti-Oppression Workshop and talked about the “Intersectionality of Identity.” Short of going into a lecture on this topic, basically what we discussed was that our identities are not unidimensional but is actually very complicated and sometimes even vague. During the discussion, a peer from India raised the following question:

We are all referring to identity as a picture of how we view ourselves and most of them seem like choices one makes but what if my identity is based on the social (and sometimes) economic class I was born. Or how if I am undergoing hardship just cos of my fixed identity – say my nationality? I had no say in this identity but now I am stuck with it? How about if I do not want this identity? How do I get out? Or what if I do not want ANY identity?

Can you imagine the silence in the room then? I mean, we all realize at some level the difficulties that one undergoes based on nationality, religion or class. But how many of us ever thought about not wanting to be identified based on our nationality or class or religion? Yes, there are definitely a handful when compared to our fathers and forefathers but it is still not a lot when you look at it in a social context. For instance, yes I have faced difficulties due to my gender and the many gender-specific roles that come with it. But there is no way to not want this identity. For instance, I cannot NOT want to be a woman. Now imagine the same when you are identified with a certain class or belief system.

It was clearly apparent that our views were being challenged or questioned even and I think all of us are at a stage where our focus should not only be on self-identities but should be on understanding or at least making a sincere effort to  at least consider (not understand) the complex identities that are not our own, that belong to “others,”who might seem alien to us. The “other”can be someone of a different gender, sexual orientation, religion/class/ethnicity, even skin color and anything else that is not the dominant religion/gender etc. etc. Once we are able to make sense of this dichotomy, will we then be truly diverse and can make an attempt to answer the larger question:

How you choose to show up in the world despite all these self-impositions (or oppressions) and how you choose to view the “other” ?

Well I do hope I get a plausible understanding of this question in these 2 years here at Heller. But in the meantime, let me know if you have any thoughts or theories that might help answer these burning questions.

I leave you with this quote from Simone de Beauvoir, a writer and philosopher and her thoughts on the “other”gender – how the society views women as the “other”of man. That women are viewed as the “other”itself is incomprehensible. Imagine how it will be when you add the layers of race, religion, class and ethnicity.

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

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