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A Meditation on the Importance of Identity in Interpersonal Connections

onewhowalks's picture

”And when these factors of race and class and gender absolutely collapse is whenever you try to use them as automatic concepts of connection. They may serve well as indicators of commonly felt conflict, bust as elements of connection they seem about as reliable as precipitation probability for the day after the night before the day.” June Jordan, Report from the Bahamas (1982)

­­­All human actions and feelings can be traced back through the limbic brain to three needs: to avoid pain, to feel pleasure, and to make connections with other humans[1]. Introvert or extrovert, shy or outgoing, we all have a rooted desire for connection, kinship, solidarity. Sometimes people are born into communities that instantly allow this: large, bustling families; schoolmates to grow up alongside; assigned hometowns full of like-minded people. As in many other situations, it’s easy to take these things for granted if you are born into them. I was not. My family was small, and I moved every few years, whenever my dad received new orders from the Navy. I’ve been “the new kid” more times than I can count, moving from country to country, state to state, city to city. Each place novel, each place different, each place a new situation to navigate. The first step is to find a community. But finding a community takes knowing who you are. The more obvious identitiesoften act as thresholds to certain groups: sexuality, gender, appearance/size, and race. They allow one to be slotted into a certain category, slapped with a specific label. Sometimes this works. There’s a supposed facility of conversation and interaction when one can, as Jordon points out, assume a similar common enemy (or common fraternity) through ones race, gender, or class. But people aren’t just their problems, or their complaints, or their oppression. My identity has affected my lens through which I view the world because it shapes how I act, react, and interact, and how others act, react, and interact with me. I have a higher opportunity for daily life-ease because I am white, for example. I am not discriminated against because I produce a lower percentage of melanin. I don’t worry for my life or wonder how I’ll be treated for those reasons. But you cannot see that I don’t have a hometown through the color of my skin. You can’t hear that I lived in rural Mississippi for four years through my voice. You don’t know what my taste in music is by seeing who I hold hands with as I walk down the hall. My identity cannot predict how we will interact. The easy labels and assumptions that obvious identities facilitate don’t necessitate connection. They can hint at a higher aptitude for connection, as identities can overlap with a communal culture, and therefore similar interests, but what makes you the person you are often requires more digging than that. I am often more comfortable with more diverse groups of people, because in the array of different experiences and identities I have often found more acceptance and commonality with my own disparate identity. My origin in Guam and time in Sicily mean that I don’t always think of myself as an American. My school years in non-white environments means that I am often drawn to people of non-American cultures, as I find there is a common sense of otherism and holding on to something that is not permeating every part of prevalent society.

In my globalization based political science class, there have been multiple excerpts of globalization experts who preach the reality of our world as a “single, integrated, open plain[2].” They say that our economies and politics and regulating organizations become more congruous and imply that differences between us as nations and peoples shrink as well. But bridging is as important as bonding in growing as a person and as a world. I don’t think it is possible to grow until one steps outside of their current situation and reflects on themselves. It is through interactions with people of identities and life experiences foreign to our own that we are able to more clearly see the world that we inhabit inside and outside of our bodies. I also believe that there is a genuine personality in each of us. That there’s some spark that is truly you, and that even when it gets covered up or hidden away through certain experiences or situations, it is always there and there is always a point at which the pretentious scum can be polished away. Often, I become so comfortable in a situation that I reach a point of stagnation. I don’t grow, I don’t reflect, I lose contact with that genuine piece of myself and withdraw. However, when I can re-find that genuine self, it becomes easier to lean into discomfort and step outside of whatever comfortable place we are staying in.  Taking myself out of the easy space I am given through my identity privilege is necessary for true bridging and true growth. That capacity for genuinity is what unites us as humans. We are all humans at core. What allows for true connection is seeing the humanity in another person. Recognizing that life spark. Remembering that they have experiences, and thoughts, and feelings. That they’re individuals, just like you are. Institutionalized identities can become translucent when we do that. Once we can recognize that we’re the same on that most basic level, a whole new world opens up.



[1] Paraphrase of neuroscientist Bonnie Martin’s presentation at the 2015 Students Opposing Slavery International Summit on 25 July 2015

[2] Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, 21 August 2011