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?

23 comments on “What Makes Up Your Identity?
  • “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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


    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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Delia,

    “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.

  • 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 ).

  • *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?

  • 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 ๐Ÿ™‚
    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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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.

  • 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.

  • I believe it comes down to the body and the mind. However, both have their problems. Let’s look at this with a bigger picture and play the “what if” game. Let’s say it is causally possible to take a human brain of an African-American and place it into the head of a body of an American Caucasian male. Ask yourself now, Would the Caucasian male still able to function as indeed an Caucasian male and or would the Caucasian male have the cultural ideals of the African-American male? Other-words, what makes up personal identity? It takes a mind to understand ones own culture, but a body to help out with the actions supporting that culture.
    You can ask the same question about trans-genders. Are they still a male with the same mind but a different body. Has their identity truly changed? You need to also keep in mind is it the body, the mind, or even the soul that makes a persons identity or, is it all an illusion and there is nothing in us that remains the same and we are always constantly changing.

  • Forgot to mention. If we change our belief system but, hold the same body. Do we become a different person?

  • Identity:

    Identity is my race, ethnicity, culture, religion/spirituality, gender, occupation and sexuality.

    Except identity does not end there, in my opinion, identity isn’t just what makes up my physical body, where I live and how I was raised. My identity runs deeper than my skin. It is my values/morals, aspirations, it is my ego, my hobbies and my interests. It is also my thought processes, my ideas, my IQ and my personality as a whole.

    Take away my physical body, and take a look inside. This is my true identity.

  • Wow, awesome post and lost of interesting comments!

    Many of them make me think that identity is dynamic and that’s partly why it’s difficult to define. Different things will go in different people’s identities, or in the same person’s identities at different times in their lives. Across times and cultures also, what makes identities can change.

    Sounds like there are at least two broad categories though, what characteristics makes you similar to others (GROUP IDENTITY), and what characteristics make you unique (PERSONAL IDENTITY).

    GROUP IDENTITY; Race, religion, etc. can grant me membership in certain social groups. I can say “I am one of us”. How much weight that group identity has can vary between people, but everyone will have some form of group identity. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if “in the west” and “in the modern world” group identities were much less important than personal identities.

    PERSONAL IDENTITY; I believe everyone has a narrative about themselves, that they curate over the years. It includes most significant events they were a part of (whether it’s something they’ve done, an accomplishment, or something that happened to them). It also includes personal characteristics (strengths, weaknesses, other) that help “explain” these events, on some level. “There was a competition and I finished last because I’m stupid” VS “… I finished last because it was rigged”.

    So to go BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION, I would have to say that the “biggest slices of the pie” for me are a combination of shared values and personal characteristics. I like to see myself as someone who’s compassionate, insightful, open-minded, and who cares/works for the greater good as opposed to a small in-group. Throughout the years I have connected with people relatively deeply in relatively short times because we shared at least some of the same values and mindset. (that includes authors of books that are now long dead) These are the people that I identify with the most, even though that “group” of people is very ill-defined and I can’t put a name or label on it. But that’s the identity that I curate; I’m certain an outside observer could point to a lot of different things I do or say that doesn’t appear to fit with that identity.

    I don’t want to digress too much, but if I try to think “why do people maintain an identity” the reason that comes to mind is safety: knowing that you have certain, stable characteristics, and knowing that you belong in certain groups, allows you be more confident in what’s going to happen in the future, thus reducing anxiety and tension that comes with “not knowing”. I know that if I lost my job, my family will help me out (group identity). I know that if I get attacked on the street I can defend myself (personal identity). I know that I can hang out with my group of friends and have a good time (group identity). I know that I can perform well at work and earn a big cash bonus (personal identity).

    Again, great topic of conversation (clearly it inspired me)

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