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On Identifying Identities

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I spend a lot of time thinking about identity (which makes sense seeing as I’m a social justice writer) and a major subtheme of that is the denial of those identities. This is a big thing for me personally because so much of how I relate to myself (my race in particular) is misidentified or erased. I'm also particularly concerned with identity because of the age I'm at. As we're all so often told, teenagerhood is a time of life in which there is lots of introspection and exploring and expanding, and that preoccupation with identity has certainly been the case with me. I want to talk about the significance of the teenager's social place during this time of coming into one's own, and how that process is thereby affected.

I want to talk about the ways in which identities are denied.

It's what happens when non-monoracial people are told they are really this, that or the other, rather than really being whoever they think of themselves as. It happens every time queer people are told their sexuality is a lifestyle choice. It happens when people are told they are faking being disabled. It happens when trans women are told they are really men - oh, all the time.

It takes some kind of extraordinary arrogance to declare an identity for someone else. This is an attitude that says, 'My perceptions are more important than your lived experience.' 'My comfort in my ability to correctly assess people overrides the truth.' It is extraordinary what lengths humans will go to in order to make the world in line with their screwy ideas about the people in it.

As for 'the truth,' that's the thing. The truth is that someone's identity is whatever they hold it to be.

Asserting your idea of what a person is over theirs says that it's okay for everyone to weigh in on and locate and decide it as an objective truth. And almost inevitably it's an "impartial" outside observer who has the right idea, and they locate the truth of someone's identity quite outside the grasp of the individual concerned. There is no good reason why your ideas about what a person is like, or what people with an identity are like, should trump the experience and history and, you know, understanding of their own being, of the person with said identity, no reason at all. Forcing your ideas about what a person is onto them is presumptuous and bizarre; how on earth do you think you know better about a person and their life than they do?

People are that which they understand themselves to be; one ought to respect that a person is what they say they are, accept that and move on from the urge to police. There is not some other real identity buried back there that you can grasp hold of irrespective of what the person concerned says. You cannot fix an identity or change it or correct it, it just is - and trying to do so is particularly problematic in terms of marginalised identities, because that's a continuation of what the whole world is making a good go of. Trying is undermining not just someone's experience within the world, but something of their being. It takes some kind of bizarre embarrassment or self-assurance – or higher social placement - to continue to insist on referring and relating to a person incorrectly once they've told you otherwise.

The denial and enforcement of identities functions in a unique way for younger people. To limit this to teenagers for the moment, this is a time during which one is reevaluating and changing and shaping and trying on identities. It's a delicate and extremely sensitive process. Interrupting that, trying to force that, can be extraordinarily damaging. And when those identities tie in with social oppression, there's a whole new level to negotiate and trying to alter the identity is that much worse. I'm hearing more and more from teenagers who are told they're too young to be disabled because they have their whole lives ahead of them and you surely can't be in that much pain and you haven't lived long enough to give up on life (which tells you a thing or two about what disability means to these people). Infotainment TV, in these parts at any rate, regularly features stories about trans teenagers asserting that they need therapy and are confused by this modern world and can't know if they're really trans yet, they're oh so young! There are seemingly endless stories about teenagers who are told that they can't really be gay, because, well, dear, you've never had a sexual experience with someone of the same sex, it's just a phase, you're too young to know what you're talking about. And again and again and again the narrative repeats itself.

What is it about youth that supposedly invalidates experience? No matter how long you've lived in the world, you've experience of your own being and your being in the world. That's experience no one else can possibly have. In order to build on and validate and explore that experience, teens need whatever advice and comfort and kindness we care to have. In going through the sensitive and overwhelming processes that make up the development and revealing of identities, teens should be allowed to do so peacefully and with support.

You haven't got a whole lot of tools to combat this kind of identity pressure when you've had little time in the world, a limited number of connections and you're meant to be able to trust the people telling you this rubbish, all the while you're still sorting things out inside. Teenagers are an extremely vulnerable group, often lacking sufficient (emotional, financial) support outside family, which can be pretty bad when your homophobic parents turn on you and you've nowhere to go.

Teenagerhood should be a time of dreams and expansion. We should be allowed to open our inner selves up and absorb as much light and life as we possibly can. We should be, but other people are often too often invested in what they think we should be to let us be what we are.

In order to accept people as people, you have to accept what makes a person a particular person. I think you've got to ask what makes it so important for you to have control over someone's identity. You've got to ask why your sense of control over what's what is so important as to invalidate that person's autonomy. Reassuring yourself that the world is a certain way, that those around you are a certain way: it's just not worth it where as a consequence someone's being dissolves under them - where they themselves are dissolved. That's what's important here, not your relatively unimportant wish to assert your own worldview.

Trust people to identify their own identities.

written 15 Feb 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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