A name, or identity, is a powerful thing. It is a descriptor that allows people to make quick judgments and assumptions about us. While we can understand the harm of assumptions, for the human mind it is a fast way to categorize a lot of information in a short amount of time. Assumptions also give us social context for the “rules” we need to interact with new and different people.
If you are at an event and you overhear someone talking about their upcoming church event, you might make an assumption about them. Based on that assumption you may speak differently to them. Perhaps you would avoid using curse words, for instance. Or, you may avoid interacting with them altogether.
Names and identities are our first impressions. How we dress, the way we wear our hair, how we behave, and even where we go all begins with our identity and what we call ourselves. Whether it is religion, sexuality, or gender, if it is part of an identity then it will influence how you present yourself to the world and how you interact with the world. The critical factors in creating an identity are that it describes who you are and it is self-chosen.
Identity Describes Who You Are
Our names and identities describe who we currently are. It is a present-day representation of how we perceive ourselves in this world. During my first day of high school, our gym teacher took attendance. She paused when she came to a girl who she had taught since kindergarten and asked, “Is it still Susie, or is it Susan now?” Upon the transition to high school and young adulthood the teacher recognized that the student may no longer see herself as a child and may prefer a different name to the one she previously used.
The name and identity that we have at 15 years old may be different than when we are 25 or 50 years old. As we grow, change, and have new experiences what we call ourselves may change as well.
Identity Is Self-Chosen
The second important point about our identity is that it is self-chosen. Other people may give us names (e.g. our parents) and labels (e.g. society) but an identity can only come from us. An identity represents how we perceive ourselves and how we want other people to perceive us. A label is a descriptor given to us by others based on their stereotypes of us.
My father is from Nigeria (African) and my mother is from Mississippi (African-American). I am truly African-American as a blend and product of them. There are many times when I publically call myself African-American, but I also call myself black, more privately, as that term resonates with me. For me, black describes the uniqueness of my culture: growing up American, but also as a first-generation American in many ways. Black describes the complexity of my experience in a way that African-American does not.
Depending on the situation and circumstance what we call ourselves may change. Perhaps our identity changes over time. What once resonated with us no longer does. Identity is a personal process and decision about what you call yourself. It is a process that is complex and full and fluid. It may change with time, or it may change with the environment or circumstance.
For example, I make a distinction between what I am comfortable with publicly versus privately. I am uncomfortable with some people calling me black and I use the term African-American publically. Similar to people who use familiar and formal names, different relationships have different ways of relating to each other.
Consider taking time to review your own identity. What names and identities do you have today? Is your identity based on your relationships (i.e. sister, partner, father, etc.)? Is it based on your work? Is it based on your religion? Or your sexuality?
What creates the identity that you have today? Is it different than it was 10 years ago? Do you think that it will be different 10 years from now? Share your thoughts and experiences with us; we want to hear from you!
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