For months I’ve been collecting definitions for the word identity. So far, I have 22. Oddly, there’s little consensus among social scientists and psychologists around the concept. As a social system, the word identity is turning out to be a bigger story — one that pushes beyond the words and ideas I already know. As Katherine Dee recently wrote on her Substack “I think we need new language to describe identity.”
Last weekend, I was reminded of the need for new ways to talk about identity. My sister and I met up in New York. She lives in Rochester. I flew in from Chicago. The first day, we slogged through Manhattan in spitting rain. I saw only a few faces below the rim of my umbrella. Mostly it was feet. But the next day, the sun came out and opened up a new set wonders to behold — all variations of identity seemed to show up in Bryant Park.
Like many things, I suppose, a flamboyant identity is something New Yorkers seem to take for granted. Take for instance, the person seated at the next table wearing hot pink wig, go-go boots and llama fur coat. Gender, race, and age were all indistinguishable. Behind the privacy of my sunglasses, I watched enthralled. That coat, oh that coat! It was a vintage number with fur so long it formed elaborate tendrils like curly dread locks. Glorious!
At another table, two young women spoke French fluently. As one divided a scone, the other poured a single coffee into two cups to share. Their identity had a specific nationality attached to it. Saying you’re French in America implies something different about your lived experience.
After studying the topic of identity for a while now, I can see what’s changing, and what’s at the heart of this language inadequacy: Some of us are afraid of being wrong. Our intentions may be noble: not falling back on labels or stereotypes. Others in our world seem to feel far more confident defining it along gender and political lines, which overlooks important nuances.
We are in a void at the moment when it comes to talking about identity. It makes us feel anxious. The trigger for that anxiety is defining things, giving them words, that may reveal us to be wrong. And for that we might be judged. We can’t say, so we say little.
The scold we fear is anything that might draw us into the circle of judgement. In the meantime, I’m seeing categories like gender, religion, job titles, political affinity and the like, take on curious properties. It’s as if everyone wants an umbrella to hide under, or a pair of dark sunglasses to dodge the uncertainty around identity.
We’re so driven to be right. I’m coming to the conclusion that the need to be right is at the crux of many of our larger problems. What if this transitional period we’re in, the age between film + broadcast television vs internet + digital is moving faster than language can keep up? So, we’re left gasping and at a loss for words.
What if identity is having a creative moment? Like making art? I lived with an artist once. It made him anxious to show his work too soon. He wisely protected its fetal vulnerability.
Emily Dickenson’s poem, “I’m nobody, who are you?” is about the anonymity she needed to do her work. These days, we seem to crave anonymity to cloak ourselves from internet over exposure or to let our avatars speak the unspeakable.
Now, more than ever, I wish sounding right all the time weren’t such a thing. As if being less sure sounds weak. But being right is based on knowledge, which comes from the past. It’s safe. All the words are right there for you. Besides, I’m no longer interested in being so infallible.
Risks are a measure of who we are. Inventing a new language for identity is risky. But being right feels like walking backwards, describing all the stuff I already know.
It’s also boring.