Your Identity Matters.
This piece is part of Mental Health Week, hosted by The Political Revolution. Check it out over on reddit.
Tomboy. Ganjah Queen. Strong Woman. Glori-man. Yeah, the last one. High Schoolers aren’t incredibly creative.
When we are born we each have a unique identity that is ours and ours alone. As we grow up, we are assigned labels by our peers and by society. In my case, my strong will and intelligence had my peers trying to engender my inherent nature. This is a very typical form of identification that often leaves a non-gender conforming person with a whole plethora of mental formations to break through.
As a genderfluid individual, I’ve often reflected on the labels that were assigned to me by my peers. They caused me confusion, and identity oppression. What that means to me, is, that I didn’t feel that who I was was a valid ‘assignment’, or simply put, I just wasn’t identifying with what society was trying to impress upon me. I didn’t feel expressly female or feminine, nor expressly male or masculine. I felt a combination of both, and it caused me grief that my character traits were being confined to these engendered terms that really didn’t have any application or reflection on who I really was… who I really am. Beyond that, I felt the negative connotation surrounding the labels. Why were they necessary in the first place?
On top of that, when we are given these assignments, there is a connotation of expectation. That we are expected to act a certain way, or believe certain things in certain ways when we are assigned them. The very unfortunate part is that everyone uses these labels, even in every day speech when referring to certain groups of peoples. This is called object recognition, and it’s part of our brains natural tendency to identify and interact with objects in our environment.
Where does identity oppression come in? It’s when we are assigned these labels, and then invalidated when we act beyond the parameters of allowable behavior or thought. And in some cases, it goes way, way, way beyond invalidation. It goes to hate. It goes to killing.
Identity oppression is, unfortunately, an inherent part of our society.
I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I don’t have to be one to know that there’s a severe lack of knowledge in our educational system to cope with this identity breakdown that is happening in our society. Not only that, we aren’t given tools to be aware in ourselves to fight off this identity oppression. Many of us are ‘forged in the fire’, so to speak.
I’m not just talking about gender identity, either. Ethnic/Racial identity, Religious Identity, Spiritual Identity, Political Identity. Hell, your favorite sports team is a part of your identity.
And, very rarely are we told in this society, that all parts of our identity are valid, even sacred, pieces of the grander puzzle of ourselves.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” — Aristotle
How does identity oppression and break-down happen? First of all, we must be aware of the reality of intersectionality.
We have our brain’s natural tendency to break objects in our environment down; this process includes the understanding of its use, previous experience with the object, and how it relates to others. Now, add in to the mix, capitalism.
We have to look at capitalism within the context not only of its economic factors but its effect on ourselves, as humans. Capitalism requires society. In the context of western American society, we have put capitalism on a pedestal, and I would go as far as to say we have a caste system based on money.
How do we earn more money? We capitalize on other people. Other people’s interests, their security, even their health. And all of this is validated because ‘we’re all just trying to survive.’ Individualism is put on a pedestal, as well. ‘Every man for themselves.’ ‘You’re the only one who can help you.’ ‘Why should I care, why should I pay for public resources for other people to enjoy?’
We also have a lot of historical context here in America that causes certain identity groups or intersections to be empowered over other groups. White over black. Rich over poor. Christianity over any other religion.
Intersectionality is the idea that social identities, related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination, and multiple group identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities.
When certain groups are empowered over other groups, and combined with the natural tendency of the ego to inflate itself, certain intersections are even validated when they put down other groups. And, if these mentalities are never met with an equal and opposite force, many people continue these ways of thinking for their entire lives.
I tend to speak in abstracts so I will give a very specific example from my own life.
My mother is a conservative-leaning, Christian woman. We have a very close relationship but often is the time I’ve had to educate her on certain aspects of identity oppression, and let her know when she herself is the oppressor.
I hadn’t expressed to her anything about my own gender identity, until I heard her speak of a 16 year old cousin I have who is transgender.
I don’t remember exactly what my mother said, but I’ll paraphrase; ‘She’s too young to be thinking about these types of things. Schools shouldn’t be allowing this.’ ‘Why would you make that choice at that age? I think society is putting the wrong things in our kids heads these days.’
I then explained to my mother how I am genderfluid, and calmly explained that I never chose this, it is part of who I am. I don’t feel inherently male or female at any given time, but one or the other at different times or a combination of both. I told her how if I had been incorrectly assigned time and time again by my peer group and how terrible it made me feel. It made me feel terrible that my character traits were being boiled down to these engendered terms, which carried a certain stigma with them. And beyond that, terrible, terrible nick names.
She then said something interesting. She said, she, too had been assigned some of these terms, and often had her strength equated to being a man. So, I was able to find her common ground. She said, she didn’t like that and she was proud of being a woman. And I said, ‘Isn’t it nice to be proud of your identity?’
“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” — Thich Naht Hanh
How can we stop this vicious cycle? If it is in our nature to objectify, and if the very system that our society adheres to perpetuates these intersections, how can we stop it?
I offer an alternative school of thought, and I suggest the destruction or reform of these systems.
I believe in empowerment. I believe in the ability of anyone to harness their own self-awareness and give the gift of acceptance to others. Within our own mind, we can apply mindfulness techniques and begin to heal our own identity oppression, and find validity in our peer groups.
When we talk and interact other people, we must be mindful of objectification. We must not be embarassed to be incorrect about a new identity group and instead absorb as much knowledge as we can. No one is excluded from this. Just because I am genderfluid and have experienced an intersection doesn’t make my intersection greater than anyone else’s. Thinking that would be falling into the cycle again, and I would become the oppressor.
A simple example would be that I’m white. I’m privileged. I was born into a middle-class family and given most if not everything I ever wanted, though there were hard times. I’ve never been denied a job. I get decent wages. My life has never been threatened. I can objectively understand the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters because of my own suffering but I would never claim to fathom the true depths of the effect of racism on an individual.
Another example is mental health and disability stigma. Autism is an increasingly misunderstood mental condition. I actually have a brother with Asperger’s so I can speak to this intersection a little bit more clearly — very often Autism is viewed as maybe a lack of brain capacity or mental cognition. This is very very not true. I’ve often found autistic people to be incredibly more perceptive and intelligent on average because they were forced to learn normal social interactions instead of having them in their inherent tool set. My brother has gone through hell and high water being misunderstood his entire life. He’s an extremely loving person but had to learn personal boundaries. The rejection we might feel from having a loved one or friend misunderstand you, he felt a thousand fold by every person who treated him like a kid who ‘just didn’t get it,’ who called him mentally retarded, who told him he’d never be able to lead a normal life, who told him that the way he was feeling wasn’t valid.
To embark on our collective journey, and be able to do what I did for my mother — show her the truth of my identity, we must be calm, collected; we must be the teacher. We must view oppressors as just another product of an inherently unhealthy society. And we must accept ourselves. While we seek to be validated, do not rely upon other people’s validation as the anchor of your identity. You are already whole and beautiful.
We must be the change. If every one of us is empowered to express, to accept, and to broaden the horizons what it means to have an identity, we can begin to heal our society. We can create a new culture based on love, and not hate.