18 December 2011

The Fluidity of Identity

Here's Rice Nelson's Identification Project!

The Fluidity of Identity

If someone asked you to explain your identity to them, how would you begin?  You would probably, naturally, start by giving your name.  What would you tell them next?  The type of ethnic blood that runs through your veins?  Do you tell them that you have nothing but Italian blood in your veins and you are proud of it?  But blood does not matter much, at least it shouldn’t, because your blood is the same as the person asking you about your identity.  Maybe you would then say, well, I have skin that is this or that color.  They would probably blink at you, because unless they are blind, they already know what color your skin is.  That does not matter either, though.  Defining your identity by the color of your skin is like pointing out the living room wall to the north is green, while the one to the south is blue; they are both walls, so it doesn’t do much to differentiate.  At the same time, though, these are some aspects that are used to categorize people so that they are easily identified.  An unfortunate side effect of naturally categorizing--it’s human nature to do this--as well as socially categorizing people is that in the process stereotypes tend to formulate.  The problem with generalized stereotypes is that on an individual-by-individual basis there are a lot of fallacies; everyone is different in some way.

This is a reason why I find identity to be a funny subject.  Now, I don’t mean funny as in “let’s make a joke about this or that group of people” because they are different from what we know and consider to be normal; this attitude only creates negativity that, if left to flourish, can create some pretty nasty situations of discrimination.  No, the reason I find it funny is because of my own personal identity.  When looking back on my life I have realized that over the years my identity has not been one that is constant, and I think if you stop and look at your own past you would realize that yours hasn’t been either.  Nonetheless, when identity is discussed it seems to me that it often is spoken about as some concrete idea, some thing that is a permanent marker of who or what a person is.  That’s not the case, though.  So there is something amusing, for me at least, in the realization that, when looking back over my life, whenever I found myself identifying my person as this or that, at various points in my history on this planet, I never had conceived of being anything different than what I was at that moment in time.

What I’m trying to get at is that identity is not so easily defined, but that doesn’t stop us from creating categories as a means of identifying people so that we can quickly come to a conclusion about who they are and how we should interact with them.  But despite the fluidity that I find being involved with the concept of identity, there have always been two categories that I place myself in: a reader and a gamer.  Some of you may find this as a strange way to begin identifying who I am as a person; others of you will completely understand why I use these two qualities to start with.  The ones that find this strange might be the people who would typically start off with what race or nationality or ethnicity they are or religion they follow; this isn’t uncommon.  For a long time now, probably since the first semblance of civilization, those qualities were the ones that people most readily acknowledged--on a primal nature, recognizing these descriptors could be used to determine safety or hostility.  Those that understand why I started with those interests are probably the same kind of people that would identify themselves first as sports players, or cooking enthusiasts, or engineers, etc.  That, I think, is a shift from previous ways of determining identity, because for me identity is more useful when utilized as means of figuring out interests.  I find it much more amiable to figure out interests and passions rather than figuring out whether or not the next person over believes in the same deity as I do or if our ancestors are from the same mother country.  To that end, let me tell you a little about myself and how I have identified who I was over the years.

            As I said, I have always had at least the two identifiers of being a reader and a gamer.  They have been hobbies of mine that have been consistent within my life since I was old enough to read and able enough to handle a controller of some sort.  When it came time to start making friends it would typically be the people who either were gamers and/or readers.  Even these two things could be broken down into subcategories; for example, I would have more to talk about with those readers that enjoyed fantasy fiction like I did.  The reason I like to identify myself with my interests first, if it wasn’t already obvious, is because it makes meeting people and creating friendships easier, and probably in the long run stronger.  Back in the late '80s and early '90s, though, these means of identifying myself for others didn’t seem like the most popular way of doing so; at the time, being anything resembling a geeky kid felt like instant social estrangement.  This is just one reason that I do my best not to look at differences and mentally, or verbally, degrade my view of a person.  Relief came as the years went on, though, and I met more and more individuals who were like-minded.  And as great as these two big interests are, they did keep me in a somewhat sheltered state until after graduating high school, although a large part of that was probably due to my shyness.

            After graduation I figured my identity as a gamer and bookworm caused me to miss out on a lot of those “high school” experiences--which, at the time, I considered to be mostly partying.  So, one of the first things I started doing, in lieu of going off to college, was to start seeking out people that had similar interests in getting intoxicated in various ways and drowning myself in altered states of consciousness.  Wherever I was working I would do my best to ferret out those people that had that same urge to “get fucked up” that I did.  Those first few years after graduation consisted, then, of working and partying: I worked to pay for intoxication.  During this time I came to find myself forming a new identity to be categorized under: a pothead.

            There is a whole subculture to the lifestyle of a pothead, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s been around for quite some time.  Here, now, was another way to define identity, that is, what kind of lifestyle do you have?  Whereas before it was simply partying, now there was something more specific.  Again, wherever I was working, or whatever party I might have been at, the first thing I would figure out was who the other reefer smokers were.  That more or less detailed the next five or six years of my life, and at the time that is as far as I could see at the time, just being a smoker.  Who I was and identified myself as became intrinsically tied up with my lifestyle.  All the people I met, hung out with, and avoided, depended on whether or not they also smoked marijuana; sure, my identifiers of being a reader and gamer were still there, but they took a backseat to my then current habits.  This way of living lasted a good, or bad--depending on how you look at it--six years or so; then the next shift in identity started sneaking into my life.

            I didn’t realize it during the time, but those substance indulgences were serving a purpose, one that was no longer effective.  This purpose is, I think, more common than one might think: the use of a drug (be it alcohol, marijuana, or any of the numerous others) to cover up from ourselves a problem we have.  For me, this problem was depression.  At first, the trick worked great; I completely forgot about any kind of worries or issues I had.  But in fact, the post-high school lifestyle and identity I had chosen, at some point, were only worsening the depression and anxiety.  When I realized that, I took a good look at my life.  I looked at the way I was living, the friends I kept, and thought about what I was doing for myself in the long run.  I determined that the identity I had fallen into, or walked into, was not the one I wanted, and so I made a choice to escape the category I had placed myself in.  This is one of those things that is easier said than done.

            So, shortly before I came to Fredonia I made a choice to better myself in every way I could.  I started by separating myself from the people that still wanted that kind of lifestyle; this way it would be easier to change what I felt needed changing.  Once that was done I began seeking ways to provide self-healing so that I could escape the depression and anxiety that I had accompanying me for so long.  As a result I found myself becoming a fairly spiritual person--I say fairly because I know there are others that devote a lot more time to their spiritual practices than I do, but I will acknowledge that time commitments to school play a part in that.  I began my search for a different self-identity (although I didn’t think of it that way at the time), and through my meditations, the learning of various kinds of spiritual thought, and the modes of healing I participate in and with, I formed a different way of living.  These things have become a crucial aspect of who I am today.  I try to surround myself with people of a similar mind-set, but I am also open and aware to the differences of the people around me.

Think about a major aspect of your life.  Think about all the people associated with that aspect, think about all those things you have become comfortable with, and think about what they mean to you.  Now think about removing them all.  I’m not telling you that you should actually do this, but I want you to think about how difficult it would be to pull out of your life all those facets of your character.  It’s not easy.  These are characteristics that you have either grown up with or grown into.  Now I want you to think about those people that you find to have differences of their own that seemingly separate them from you.  While identity can help categorize people, as our human minds naturally want to do, there shouldn’t be a whole load of judgmental weight put behind those categorizations.

Identity is fluid, and to put only one generalized identifier on someone leaves out all the other things they may be.  When we confine people, it doesn’t do us any good.  As I have mentioned previously, I had lived a relatively sheltered life as a young child.  My experiences with those outside of my own family and friends, social class, and ways of living were rather limited, even up through high school.  I know I’m not the only one that has experienced this kind of personal history. Through this upbringing an idea of what people were like was formed, and there wasn’t much that changed my view until many years of my life had gone by.  Even going over the events of my life, it is hard to pinpoint some experience that was truly significant in its effect on my notion of identities, more specifically, the American Identity.  Not until I was twenty-six did I have an experience that was capable of showing me the differences in who we are, generally speaking, opposed to someone not from this country.  This happened when I was taking a Writing Tutors class and we had the opportunity to help tutor a group of Japanese students over the course of several weeks.

Not knowing a whole lot about Japanese culture, because undoubtedly culture is inherently tied into identity, just like lifestyle is, I was surprised by how proper, if that is the right word, the four initial students we met were.  Their posture was very straight--I am fairly certain, if memory serves me correctly, that there was not one sloucher among them.  Their manners were very polite, almost timid and apologetic.  Just these two things felt strikingly different than the idea of the usual American’s presentation of one’s self would be; unfortunately an image of an American slouching and entitlement comes to mind, rather than someone who is of a reserved nature. 

Reserved is a very good word to describe these girls from Japan, especially when comparing them to the usual American.  I never realized the sense of freedom of character that we have here until we--the group of us in the Writing Tutors class--began hanging out with the Japanese students.  One way this stuck out to me was when we all gathered at someone’s house for a pizza and movie night.  The group of us introduced them to the movie Superbad, since we all were in consensus about how funny the movie is.  This turned out to be an interesting ordeal since we had to explain to them a lot of the slang and idioms in the movie that we, as Americans, take for granted.  It gave me the feeling that, generally, Americans are somewhat “loose” in conduct; but, then, this is only a comparison to four young students from one country.  Nonetheless, the values they were taught were completely ignored in the movie we were showing them.

The experience as a whole was very interesting because I had an opportunity to compare my own ways of living and thinking to that of a group of individuals from another country.  On a surface level it was a comparison of two national identifiers: American and Japanese.  Once the initial introduction was done, and I had time to really converse with the visiting students, I found that they weren’t entirely too different from anyone here.  They still identified themselves in relation to their interests and what they wanted to do with their lives.  As it turns out, the identity of being American or Japanese was almost superficial, barring some cultural differences.  We were able to compare the kinds of music we liked, what kind of reading we enjoyed, movies we were most interested in, and even whether or not we had similar tastes in video games.

When we look at ourselves as a nation and try to compare us to another country in a negative way we lose opportunities to have a more universal understanding of being human.  We still have a tendency to think about ourselves as American and to use it as a base comparison.  But what it means to be an American has changed numerous times throughout history, no doubt.  We have had so many sources tell us what exactly it means and how to properly be an American that it almost seems impossible to figure out a way to define and understand that notion.  Honestly, there has been few times where I have actually thought about the idea of an American identity, so this will be an exploration for me of the understanding of what that should be.

From early on we are given the idea that we are this great nation under God--which seems to be the Christian sense of God, rather than what should appropriately be a universal understanding of what a higher power may be, if this notion is to be included at all, considering we are, or at least from my understanding should be, a nation that values freedom of choice in religion and thought rather than a direct link to one particular belief.  This acceptance that we are a part of a nation that is supported by God might be part of the reason why Americans believe that it is our duty to bring awareness to others in the world on how to properly conduct themselves, which usually involves bringing our ideas of capitalism and democracy to other areas of the globe. 

So it would seem that part of our identity would include a sort of light-bearer role to the rest of the world, a model for others to follow.  While this is a great idea in that, just as people, nations should have someone as a role model, the problem is that no one is perfect.  I believe that it might do well to no longer see ourselves as a shining example of all that a nation should be, because, let’s face it, as we’re currently seeing, the condition of things here is not exactly rosy.  Instead I think it would be prudent to identify ourselves not as perfection, but rather a nation that is a work in progress always seeking to better ourselves.  This may be tied up in my own personal values as an individual, but it is a notion that feels right.

That is a macro look at the identity of America and may be sidetracking the issue of what my beliefs/principles on how we ought to define and understand American identities.  As nationals of America we can define ourselves in a variety of ways.  After getting past the nation we are a part of, we can look at more individual aspects of ourselves.  A problem with looking at individual parts of our identity to create a larger group to identify with, though, is that these can create barriers between ourselves and other Americans that may not necessarily share those same traits.  Unfortunately it seems that we have always been led to create these barriers: are you black or are you white?  Are you a Republican or Democrat? What’s your gender preference? Yankees fan or Red Sox?  We have built this inherent tendency to side ourselves in unnecessary oppositions. 

Getting beyond the “sides” of how we identify ourselves would be difficult, but maybe it is possible.  Maybe we would be able, one day, to just say that our American identity is that we are human.  Then, maybe, we could just use those identity cues as categories, rather than a standpoint.  As I said earlier, though, identity is fluid to me.  For me personally, I am a gamer, a reader, a tai chi practitioner, a spiritual-minded person, and so much more at once.  I guess the reason that I find identity kind of funny, then, is because while it gets made out to be this concrete thing, I don’t think it can be.

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