I am now a part of the self-help industry, and I have a lot of feelings I’d like to share! Particularly about our identities, and how important they are to decision-making and our general way of going about our days.
“But May,” you may say, “I don’t think about my ethnic/gender/whatever identity as I go about my day. Isn’t it irrelevant?” Well first of all, you are mispronouncing my name – it’s pronounced My. Second of all, no. So much of the current discourse, somewhat unwittingly, describes identity as something to overcome (Exhibit A, this article by Wesley Morris, <3 him tho), and I’m less into it. When you are secure in a certain identity, it’s way easier to contextualize all that happens throughout your day and make sense of it. Making sense of it = less anxiety for you.
You may also say “I already think about my identity when making every decision. It affects every facet of my life. Tell me something I don’t know!” I feel you. I’m talking more about the identities that confuse us and don’t feel “right.” Maybe for you it’s “being a professional,” or “being a daughter.” Any word that completes the sentence “I am ___.”
(And yes - fluid identities count.)
Here’s a lil story:
The other day, I was freaking out about my professional life, and I got a great challenge from a fellow student in my coaching program, Jasmine - she told me to simply look in the mirror and take in who I am professionally.
The same week, I spoke to my coach Damon and he asked me a few introductory questions. When I told him I’m half Ashkenazi (Polish) Jewish and half Iraqi/Egyptian Jewish, he asked if I identify as a woman of color. No one has ever asked me this question point-blank before. I said “no” but felt very uncomfortable and told him I’m “off-white.”
Later, when I took on Jasmine’s challenge of looking in the mirror, I ended up noticing not my professional self. Instead, I noticed my Middle Eastern features in the mirror – my olive skin, dark eyes, curly hair. I ended up spending all morning googling “am I white if I’m half-Egyptian?”
I went on a whole Internet binge and found a great resource for the racially confused: http://weareallmixedup.tumblr.com/. I read a lot of stories of mixed people, many of whom are white-passing. Long story short, I still do not identify as a woman of color, but I do identify as mixed / Middle Eastern. And I guess I’m not white. (Or rather, I am half-white.) (In the US.)
The coaches’ simple questions and challenges led me to more deeply explore who I am. I felt like Simba in the Lion King.
I know our identities are performed and dependent on our environments; I’ve read Judith Butler. (No I haven’t.) But when they feel good, they feel awesome. In the past, when people asked me “where are you from?” “where’s your accent from?” (I don’t have an accent) and “you look so exotic,” this led to a spiral of neuroses. I would think “OMG are people being racist toward me?” and “but people can’t be racist toward me because I’m white,” “how offended can I be?,” etc.
Now I have a place to put these conversations. I can tell myself “this person is stereotyping me because I am half-Middle Eastern,” and can move on with my day. The convos are still awkward and horrible - but my feelings are not.
(Hmmm should that be my slogan? “The situation is awkward and horrible. Your feelings are not.”)
Now I just want to shout out my identities Meredith Brooks-style.
And that’s the thing - once you “own” an identity, like “half-Middle Eastern,” it feels trite. It’s simple. But to me, it made all the difference. Identity FTW.
(Whoa, the answer was in Mean Girls all along.)