Dictionary.com chose “identity” as its word of the year for 2015. Explaining why this was “the perfect word of the year” Time Magazine wrote: “appears simple but defines the complex shifts in a world that feels less fixed now than it did a year ago: identity.”
They were inspired, in part, by a New York Times article “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.”
Most of these articles talk about gender identity and racial identity. But underneath both of those is an even deeper question– do I determine who I am, or do you? In fact, it is a dance. I an influenced by the world around me in the choices I make about myself. I take cues from you as to how to express what I feel I am. If I feel that I am a serious business-minded person I will dress a certain way in order to convey this to you. But that is only half of the picture– you must also accept this self.
There is a certain malleability, a certain amount of leeway you will give me. At a certain point, however, I transcend certain bounds and I become a fraud like Rachel Dolezal. I can’t claim an American identity without a passport that matches. Even then, if I become a naturalized citizen and speak with a foreign accent there are people who will never consider me to be a “real American.”
If I were to wake up and insist that I am a movie star and that my name is now an unpronounceable symbol there is a good chance I would be sent away for mental health care.
So identity depends on context. It is a relationship. I feel as though it is me, and yet I am constantly nudged by the people and culture around me. No wonder it is such a fascinating subject.