What Makes Up Your Identity?

Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality: in the past couple of decades, a great deal of attention has been paid to such collective identities. They clamor for recognition and respect, sometimes at the expense of other things we value. But to what extent do "identities" constrain our freedom, our ability to make an individual life, and to what extent do they enable our individuality?

That’s from the side jacket text of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Ethics of Identity, a tough, academic book on the intersection of cosmopolitanism and identity that I’m about to start on. It will be a bit of a project, so I wanted to start the conversation now.

For me, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality don’t play meaningful parts of my identity. I have Jewish friends who take a lot of pride in their Jewishness, or black friends who cultivate their African-American heritage, or women friends who see themselves as women. Not me. I’m just a tall, white, straight, male who’s not religious.

Where does that leave me? It leaves me with two primary categories:

1. Nationality — I’m American. This is a big part of who I am — mainly because I’ve lived here my whole life and I admire the ideals of the country, especially the "new frontier" of the West.

2. Ideas — My ideas animate my life. I spend most of my days thinking about ideas, coming up with new ideas, analyzing the ideas of others, and so forth.

What are the pieces of your pie and which slices are the biggest?

19 Responses to What Makes Up Your Identity?

  1. sasha says:

    “For me, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality don’t play meaningful parts of my identity. I have Jewish friends who take a lot of pride in their Jewishness, or black friends who cultivate their African-American heritage, or women friends who see themselves as women. Not me. I’m just a tall, white, straight, male who’s not religious.”

    Do you think that’s because you’re part of the “default” (priviledged) identity?

    What I mean is, I’m certainly more conscious of my jewishness around christmas when everyone’s putting up lights and singing carols. I’m more conscious of being female because I’m the only female software engineer at my company. I’m not that conscious of my whiteness, but I’d bet that black people are more aware of race when they’re in majority white situations.

    I think when you’re white, heterosexual, and male, you’re “normal”, so you don’t pay attention to being any of those things. But if some trait puts you outside of the norm, it plays a bigger part in your identity.

    Is it a problem that in the U.S. “normal” still means white, heterosexual, and male?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Absolutely — since I’m “normal” in this regard I don’t think about it. Is it a problem? Probably. White males still gain privileges in society; hopefully that intrinsic advantage evaporates over time.

  3. Jason says:

    It’s always funny when the notion of self-identity is brought into the mix — particularly when one has more than one ‘minority’ identity.

    My father is Jewish, my mother is Mexican-American (and Christian). Not being particularly religious, I don’t identify as ‘Jewish’, despite having a VERY Jewish last name.

    People always ask:
    “but isn’t Judiasm an ethnic idenity too?”

    Well, it depends on who you ask, but any notions of an ethnic idenity are quickly eroding as 50% of Jews are marrying outside the faith and raising “half-Jewish” children like me.

    The funny thing is, all the hooplah over race/ethnicity/nationality never was an issue until society made it one. I never thought of myself as “mixed” until I realized there was no bubble for me on the SAT, or that marking down “Hispanic” could boost my chances of college admission.

    That being said, I think race/ethnicity is just smoke and mirrors over the greater issue: economic disparities between whites and nonwhites and the conundrum over what to do about it.

    So yeah, I get the “Hispanic” card, but being upper-middle class, I reap no “benefits” since my parents’ annual income disqualifies me from any type of financial aid (grants, etc).

    In sum, I think our social standing is the most crucial part in how we’re to go through life and what to expect.

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    As an Asian-American heterosexual male, I too spend most of my days blissfully ignorant of what it means to be a minority.

    After all, does a fish realize that it’s swimming in water?

    But when race does rear its ugly head, it does amaze me how strongly I can feel about an issue that no one from the majority cares about in the least.

    link to chrisyeh.blogspot.com

    There is a useful concept I picked up from “The Nuture Assumption” that seems to apply here: salience. For non-minorities, the salience of race tends to be low–it simply doesn’t affect one’s life. For minorities, especially blacks, the salience tends to be high–impacting daily life.

    When whites think that blacks make too much of race, or are obssessed with race, the disconnect is as a result of the wildly divergent salience of race that the two groups experience.

    Things like race, ethnicity, and sexuality lack salience for you, Ben, so naturally they don’t matter. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter for others.

    Let me hasten to add that I don’t think that Ben is being insensitive; he’s simply stating his own view, based on the salience of certain characteristics to his life.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    As a side note, the characteristics that have the most salience in my daily life are:

    1) Being a Silicon Valley high tech entrepreneur

    2) Being intellectually curious

    3) Being a dad

  6. Maria says:

    I think a large part of your identity depends on where you are. If you were living in Asia, for instance, being white and male might have more of an influence on your identity, since it would become the number one factor in the way people relate to you. Also, you would not necessarily recieve positive treatment as a result of being white. I’ve heard some white people say that living in Japan has helped them to understand what it is like to be black in America (though I don’t think it is nearly as bad).

    I feel like my teenage years were vital in determining my identity. I have spent over half my life outside the US, but I was in the US between the ages of 9 and 20. If I’d spent ages 1-8 in the US and 9-20 in Asia, would I have felt as American as I do today? Then again, I meet some Japanese people who lived in the States when they were very young (like between 1 and 10) and who say they have a hard time identifying with Japanese culture as a result.

    No matter what changes externally, I’ll always think of myself as a geek.

  7. krishna says:

    Oh, Oh, Oh…I first read this post before the comments came in and never figured it would veer down that road and trigger the R debate. May be, it does when you live in the West where identity just means color of your skin and what your second name suggests. And I thought only India has its caste bias. Indeed it’s a flat world.

    Anyway I live in India and I am brown. So identity, for me is something which just means “what I think I am” and “what others think I am”. In a way, it’s just how you relate to yourself ( intuition ) and how the outside (perception) world relates to you. Where it both converge, you become a brand.

  8. I had a feeling that race would be the number one comment that people hold as an identity definer – especially in the US.

    I have been thinking alot about it and am interested to see where this conversation goes because I am also a part of what Ben refers to as “normal” (white, privledged male). As such I have never identified myself along racial lines. I think people that fall into the normal category tend to identify themselves along what they do for a living and the type of family life they have.

    Religion, I think, tends to play a minimal role in self definition especially if you identify with a religion that has become homonginized and commercialized for the masses (i.e., Christians and Christmas). The less mainstream something is, the more people use it as as a means to be different to the point where everyone adopts it and it becomes no longer a point of individuality, but a point of homoginization.

    For me, mainly, a point of idividual identity are my aspirations.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Delia — You are right that those categories are important for ALL of us, but they exist only “in the negative” for me. They play a role in the sense that they don’t play a role.

  10. maria says:

    What about being young? From reading other parts of your blog it seems like that is a big part of your identity.

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think age plays a role in everyone’s identity and it does for me too. I think it’s enlarged when you are especially young or especially old.

  12. Justin says:

    I think that what defines a person is thier individuality. That is to say that I think that people are defined by what makes them unique. Those that have found what they are naturally good at, such as yourself, dismiss religion, race, or ethnicity as encommpassing their identity, because those are factors which are in place regardless of who you are as an individual (you were born into your religion, but it’s not genetic/it’s a force in your environment). While, religion and ethnicity may play a role in how you approach particular things, I think that your natural thinking will prevail. For example, you can’t teach someone how to be an entrepreneur; you either are born with entrepreneurial abilities or you’re not. As such, my identity is defined by my natural abilities, interests, and way of thinking that ultimately is there regardless of my ethnic, religious, or racial, background.

  13. Justin says:


    “It would make more sense if you regarded things like being an entrepreneur or “way of thinking” as NOT a given but rather something you, as an individual, arrive to after not insignificant “work”-

    Einstien was born with his unique mind, he didn’t achieve it by working hard, but he developed it. This is similar to my example of an entrepreneur. You are born naturally being one and then you develope your natural abilities through hard work. I don’t define myself by what I have accomplished by means of hard work, but rather who I am naturally and what I’ve done with my natural abilities. If you find and follow what your naturally good at, you will find happiness utilizing it. You will in a sense fit perfectly into your puzzle.

    Also, race is superficial on a scientific level.(if you examine it genetically), whereas your natural way of thinking isn’t.

  14. krishna says:

    Justin / Delia,

    I think your debate centres on whether it’s the *inherited* trait which dominates *acquired* trait or vice versa in determination of one’s identity.

    Often you would notice our acquisitions become the inheritance for the succeeding generations. Nurturing it or discarding it is the inheritor’s prerogative – depending on how he is genetically programmed ( DNA has some role here ).

  15. me says:


  16. Star says:

    *Quick comment*
    In the past social class, race and gender played a large roll in people identity. Now thats changed but by how much? Women are still looked down upon in certain situations and the wage and social gap is larger than ever. Race still plays a part in people identity today but how much. So what I’m really asking is how much have our ideas of what our identity is changed?

  17. Mohammed says:

    The inherited identity eg sex, height, (often) sexual orientation, race, family/country history, culture and so on do NOT make my identity. We are not calves growing up into cows 🙂
    I MAKE my identity, eg I live an active life style, responsible, a good citizen, integrity and not political correctness and so on.
    Although my name is Mohammed and of middle eastern background, I do not feel uncomfortable around other races or genders and so on, although I agree that at times some might find me as an outsider at first. Often they change their mind when they get to know me and IF THEY understand that I do not have six toes 🙂 and that we should value each other for the choices we make. It is all a matter of education and exposure to the variety before we become more comfortable we the apparent and superficial differences we have.

  18. Gelson Nguni says:

    I think who I am can be easily found if I know who am not and the best way to know about me is through me. Although they may be some unique characteristics in ones Race , ethnicity , nationality , religion, gender , sexuality etc. And these can really help to identify me but not to the point that wound make me to stand out. I believe that every individual in this world is different although they may be some some attribute. When you go to work, you carry an ID that everyone as in your company with some particulars similar to others but they are some information on your card that are just for you. Therefore, any information about you in any area will identify you to that particular area but the information about you will identify just you.


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