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What is identity?

Identity relates to self, person, individual: how you are what you are. Yet in our effort to define self-identity, we seem to call upon different kinds of labels based on sex, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, nationality, and religion, among others, and their intersections. Too often, in our prescription of these identities, we actually avoid wrestling with one necessary question: Who am I? In an attempt to label ourselves, we write over our identity—who we truly are.

I do not belittle identity labels or their influence. Your identities absolutely affect your lived experiences, your perspectives, and the opportunities made available to you. Factors like my cultural heritage, or how I grew up, absolutely color the way I think. For example, your particular religion and your relationship to it can impact the way you think about your sexuality, making your experience different from someone else’s. That is precisely what is interesting about intersectionality—different factors shape the way we think and experience.

Furthermore, to discount the influence of collective identity would be to ignore the fact that people are indeed oppressed and discriminated against because of their identities. Focusing on the struggles of particular identities is credible in that it supports marginalized groups and works to recognize and correct injustice.

The problem arises, though, when these identities divide us instead of promoting inclusivity. How do they divide? Identities become labels used to classify individuals based on arbitrary traits.

Labels serve two purposes: to separate us from the people who are unlike us, and to have solidarity with people we feel are likewise excluded. We seek self-definition by separating ourselves from others.

But here’s something worth considering: If we are constantly viewing ourselves through a lens of exclusion, aren’t we all judging and simplifying each other? When, if ever, do the labels identify you not as an identity but as who you are?

Labels do not express the complexity of what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be human. We use labels to hide, glorify, and victimize ourselves. Too often intersectionality involves quick and often simplistic identification, like drawing a Venn diagram. I can rattle off a list of my labels like checking off boxes on a form. It will include my race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, and what else? Such labels are variations of a more juvenile vocabulary for classification: popular, nerdy, smart, pretty, cool. Them versus us. But your intersectional experience is not the same as someone else’s, even though they might identify with the same groups as you.

Demographic identities are aspects, not definitions, of who we are. They do not mandate the dreams, sense of humor, favorite books, best friends—the nitty-gritty odds and ends of life. Owning your cultural heritage as part of your story is different from subscribing to a collective identity for the latter often excuses us from the harrowing process of figuring out who we really are. When we view each other through labels—through identities—we reduce and disrespect each other by valuing our affinity with an arbitrary collective over the person. Those labels don’t make up a person; they make a stereotype.

Classifying each other not only erases individuality, but also isolates people from one another. Yes, people are fundamentally different; however, we forget that we are also fundamentally alike. The only label that means anything is “human being.” I am endowed with the capacity to understand another human being, regardless of the circumstances of our birth, by simple fact that we are both human, and thus hold certain experiences in common. Our capacity for shared experience and understanding—for empathy and compassion—is one of the ultimate marks of what it means to be human. The impulse that dares us to care for a stranger, not related to us by blood, marriage, or clan, transcends the limitations we and our society create.

You might think, when the rest of the world chooses to judge us by our identities, why shouldn’t we go along with it and do the same? But actively seeking out what we have in common is more powerful than focusing on how we are different. Reducing ourselves to merely our identities wrongs us in two ways: As we subscribe to a collective we ignore individuality, and as we cling to what divides us we forget what we have in common.

I do not denounce identity. Rather, I wish that we would use it to celebrate who we are.

Identity does not mean an arbitrary label I am given by circumstance. That is not identity. Identity should be about who you are intrinsically—and no one gets to decide that for you except yourself. We cannot change most of the labels we are born into. But we can change how we engage with them. What someone needs to know to understand you—the reader—lies in your person, not in the group or demographic you most identify with. There is something more to your identity than the identities you hold.

College can be a high-intensity period of sudden change and growth, where you grapple with who you are and what you believe in. It demands honesty and humility—it’s not just about questioning the world around you, it’s about questioning yourself.

Defining our own individuality is our prerogative and ours alone. Arbitrary labels describe collectives, not individuals, and substituting who we are for such labels is a falsification of our persons. We are more than our labels, and we are more than our differences.

Luciana Siracusano is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. Interested in what makes us human, she explores introspective issues like identity in her column, Waking Dreams, which runs alternate Wednesdays.

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