I admit that I often find it hard to understand the Identity thing. Intellectually, I understand why Identity is empowering when one is in an oppressed group, but beyond that, I don’t quite “get” it. I am a gestalt of all my aspects. Just to name a few aspects, I am a biological woman with some stereotypical male psychological characteristics, I am a white person in a multiracial family, I am Irish and German by birth but have a strong cultural component of Mexican American, I am a Roman Catholic in the sense of having been raised in that religion and culture but am a nontheist, I am a mother who has never been pregnant. I am spouse, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, American, person of high IQ, collector of __ (many things), Iowan (born), Californian (raised), Minnesotan (now), unfaithful Democrat, liberal…  I was born and grew up in the working class, but am now solidly middle class, maybe even upper middle class. I am a professional editor of scholarly books who has no college degree. I am who I am, in my entirety.

Identity is a slippery concept. Everyone has more than one identity. Though most people have their identities more or less integrated, there are usually primary identities and secondary identities, and maybe far more levels than that. Asked, “What are you?” a person usually picks one or two; asked “How do you describe yourself?” a person makes a list, and some items are mentioned immediately.

Think of this situation: A sharply dressed busy white woman executive is on her way to a meeting and pauses at a street corner for directions. She sees these people: a black man dressed in expensive business clothes, a young tattooed Asian woman in punk dress, and a white man in a ball cap and jersey. Imagine that all make similar eye contact with her and have similarly receptive body language. Whom does she ask for directions? If her primary identity is class, she may ask the black executive; if it’s gender, she may ask the Asian punker; if it’s race, she may ask the white sports fan. If you put three different white female executives in that situation, you may well get three different identity-responses.

Members of an organization, attendees at a conference, and people in other life activities, including activists for causes, are not random groups. They are self-selected groups. They have CHOSEN an organization, a conference, an activity based on their own particular identities. Since a person has time/energy/money/”spoons” for only so many organizations and activities, a person generally chooses those that most closely match or support his/her identities. A white person of German heritage who sees herself as a supporter of racial justice may join the NAACP, while another may choose to join the German Club. A Latino counterculture artist may join an artists’ co-op, while another may work for La Raz. An accountant whose career is a perfect fit for her isn’t likely to go to seminars on opening your own franchise restaurant, but another who doesn’t see himself staying in an office forever may pay to go to the seminar. And those for whom one aspect of their identity is completely self-defining or who feel that it has completely defined them for others are likely to see the whole world through that lens.

For some women, being a woman is the central fact of their lives. They identify solely with women, they pick only women as mentors and role models, they join support groups with other women, they read books about “women’s issues,” they major in women’s studies in college, they become psychologists who see exclusively women or directors of shelters for battered women or authors of books on women’s issues or teachers of women’s studies. But that isn’t the way it is for all women–certainly not for me. Some are spending so much time and energy being doctors, wives, teachers, parents, partners, school volunteers, whatever, that they don’t get around to their identities as women, because that’s not a primary identity.

If someone doesn’t immerse him/herself in one particular identity, it doesn’t have to mean that he/she is denying that identity or rejecting that identity. It can mean simply that he/she has other identities that are primary. And I think that no one else has the right to decide for another what her/his hierarchy of identity should be.

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