My son has a nice sense of identity at the moment.
For the past year or so he has been going to a community music class for preschoolers with his Grandma, aunt and cousin. One of the things they do is go around in a group singing that great song that used to be on Play School when I was growing up… “Can you tell me what your name is I wonder if you know” and each kid has their turn at saying “my name is X” and everyone sings back “hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello”.
We were very proud the first time we heard about our shy 3 year old stepping up to say his name to the group for the first time instead of hiding behind Grandma’s shoulder.
Later he went on to set a trend amongst the kids by saying not only his first name but his surname as well. From that day forward all the kids had to pipe up with both their names.
Identity seems simple when you’re little.
You’re defined by being a boy or a girl. You’re defined by your name. You’re defined by your age (it’s great when holding up three little fingers cuts it!). And you’re confident in telling people, this is who I am.
As we get older the question of our identity gets more complex.
How do we establish it? Is it something we make ourselves and thus have control over? Or is it something that others make for us? Does society define it for us? Or does our culture define us?
One of the most basic ways to explore identity is to think about how you introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met.
Aboriginal people often identify themselves to others by where their Country is and who their relatives are, defining themselves by place and family. By contrast, non-indigenous Australian’s have a tendency to define themselves by their profession.
But of course our identity goes deeper than what we can say in an introduction.
Sometimes I feel like society tries to establish my identity for me. I’m a ‘white westerner’, and therefore I am stereotypically labelled as a consumer. But that’s an identity that I reject. It’s something I actively work against being.
Christian Lander has made some really great (and funny) observations about contemporary white middleclass identity. But whilst I certainly see myself in some of his observations (if I had a decent local farmer’s market to attend I’d be in there before you could say boo) I just can’t see myself in many of them.
Most of the trends that Lander is observing (apart from some environmental ones like reusable shopping bags) don’t apply to me. They’re around me, for sure, and probably if I was in some ways a little ‘cooler’ I’d be all over it. But at the moment, whilst I sometimes sit at the edges of his descriptions and find them kind of appealing to look at, I just don’t make it there.
I don’t do yoga, I haven’t lived abroad (though I do harbour secret white person desires to live in NYC), I haven’t really travelled the world, I don’t own any apple products, I haven’t tried Buddhism and I don’t like Indie music.
I can’t find myself in his description of a ‘white person’, small pieces perhaps, but not me.
His book seems to describe what many white middle class people want others to see them as. The things that they want to have around them and the causes that they want to support that will establish this desired identity for them. But it feels like this is all about doing these things to be part of a clique. To be a part of white middle class society, because that’s just what white people do.
I’m not, and never have been ‘hip’. I’ve never aimed to be. That’s not to say I’m anti establishment or am actually trying to hard to set up an identity as an ‘alternative’ and ‘different’ kind of person. I’m not.
I’m just pottering along trying to be genuine to who I am. Not doing things that don’t feel right or genuine for me.
But sometimes I struggle to define who I am.
I look for me in things like Lander’s book, Stuff White People Like. But apart from odd bits and pieces that I can grab a hold of here and there, I feel like I don’t have some group identity that I am a part of. I’m not a white western consumerist. I’m not a white middle class hipster.
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
Where do I find my people?
Sometimes I find myself wishing that I had a more defined culture to hang my identity on: that if I was Greek, Italian, or Aboriginal I’d have some roots on which to rest.
Maybe it’s a product of being part of the dominant culture that you can’t see the woods for the trees? Perhaps because I’m immersed in white middle class society I can’t really step back and see my culture.
How should we define ourselves? How should we shape our identity? What role should we let others have in it? What role does culture have?
Are we wasting time trying to define ourselves? Is life the journey that establishes who you are?
I think a certain amount of ‘navel gazing’ is OK around this. Certainly I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately, particularly around the idea of a ‘career’ and what I want to ‘be’.
This has led me into thinking about whether the real question ought to be not ‘what’ but ‘who’ I want to be.
What are your thoughts on identity?
Are you as confident as a three year old in knowing who you are?
Maybe it’s easier to find out who you are by thinking about what you’re not?
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/kiki-follettosa/381507083/sizes/l/in/photostream/with thanks to kiki follettosa.