Honoring every experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.
If I were to tell you that you have multiple identities, you’d probably think that I was insinuating you had some kind of mental disorder. The fact of the matter is American culture loves to put things in categories. The problem is once you’re in a box, you are assigned all sorts of labels with no room for exceptions. This is a process called generalization, and we take it to extremes.
What I mean by having multiple identities is that you, as a singular personality, have many categorical classifications, including: age, race, ethnicity, biological gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion/spirituality, socio-economic status, political affiliation, ability, language, and many more. You could even put occupation, parental status, relationship status, social/club affiliations, and more on that list. These classifications serve to form the foundation of how you frame this thing we call ‘identity’ or ‘sense of self’. They also profoundly impact how others view and react to you. The sticky thing about this system is its inherent lack of consideration for the complexity of each individual. Our identity is not a singular thing, but a combination of life experiences that directly relate to our classifications. Let me give you an example:
Susan would self-identify in the following ways:
Now Susan’s unique personality would be shaped by the unique intersections of ALL of those identities. The totality of our sense of self is not just which identities we have, but also how they have interacted in our unique life experience. It is because of the complexity of interaction between identities that we have a personality that is as unique to us as our fingerprints. To generalize about someone based on a single identity is to discount the vast majority of who that person is and the unique story they have to tell.
Furthermore, we owe it to ourselves to recognize our own unique identity fingerprint, to embrace the many facets of our being, and to examine how they have all worked together to shape our lives. It’s easiest to recognize those which have brought us pain or misfortune, or those for which we experience hardship and oppression, but we cannot discount the role of even the most minor-seeming ones. In fact, the identities which bring us privilege may not be among those we consciously identify with at all, but still work to influence our lives in subtle, but profound ways. Only by recognizing the multiple identity influences within ourselves can we hope to respect and recognize them within others.
We owe it to each new person we meet to hear their unique story, to learn their many identities, and to create a holistic view of that person rather than take a handful of their more obvious identities and begin making generalized assumptions about what kind of person they are. We all desire to be heard, respected, and understood. It’s only polite that we do the same for others.