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How Do You Define WHO You Are?

December 20, 2010

How Do You Define WHO You Are?

This past week my son raised the subject of “dual identities,” which was a key topic in one of his college classes. The concept originated with W.E.B. Dois, the African-American historian and sociologist who wrote and spoke about the dual consciousness of Black Americans. This concept was first introduced in his 1897 Atlantic Monthly article, “Strivings of the Negro People.” He describes the double and irreconcilable identity they had as “Negros” and Americans. They could not change their skin color, it was immutable. They were American citizens and felt an allegiance to the country but, at the time were second class citizens and did not enjoy all the rights and privileges of white Americans. The pervasive discrimination, prejudice, and hostility in American society at the time resulted in private and public identities, neither of which was accepted by the predominant white American society.

To varying degrees this phenomena existed for other minorities in the United States, including Jews and European immigrants that entered the country during the heyday of Ellis Island or from Asian countries. Hyphenated identities were how people defined themselves and how others defined them as well: Jewish-American, Japanese-American, Irish-American, Italian-American and so forth. For their children, however, these issues and dual identities faded as they became fluent English speakers without foreign accents. For African-Americans, with their unchangeable skin color, their separation and ability to integrate was much more challenging. Japanese-Americans faced incarceration during World War II and experienced similar humiliation. Today, many others with distinct physical identities encounter dual identity issues, including Hispanics, Muslims, and Asians, even though our embrace of diversity is far greater.

When my son asked his professor about whether this existed for Jews in Germany and Nazi-invaded countries in World War II, even though they were Caucasian and spoke the native tongues fluently, the reply was, “In the eyes of the Germans, the Jews were like the Blacks in the U.S.” It was their inescapable identity and as irreconcilable as for African-Americans.  This got my son to reassess his own identity, even though outside of taunting in elementary school, he has not experienced overt discrimination or prejudice.

This discussion connected with my premise that there is a distinction between WHAT we are (e.g., our physical characteristics, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, educational designations, profession, age, marital and parental status) and WHO we are. I believe our personal identity should be as much or more about our values, beliefs, intentions, actions, and impact. Our values, beliefs, and intentions define our heart and the inner core of who we are. Our actions and impact reflect how we express and demonstrate our inner core in the world. A secure identity is bound up in this WHO component, which I believe is given too little attention and is poorly defined for most people. By rooting ourselves in WHO we are, we can progress in transcending the dual identity or consciousness that those with immutable physical characteristics or ethnicity experience.

Perhaps if we are all more sensitive of these phenomena, we can further enhance the lives of others in our society. I believe that we must move beyond the ethic of “tolerance.” Our ethic should be about embracing and valuing our differences.

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If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in “What’s Missing from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and Why It Matters”

We post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday’s post will be “The Great Debate and Balancing Act: Short vs. Medium vs. Long-term Needs”

Steve Weitzenkorn

Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D., is a learning innovator, organizational advisor, experienced facilitator, and lead author of Find-Fulfill-Flourish: Discover Your Purpose with LifePath GPS – a book, website, and workshop series focused on guiding people toward more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Korman permalink
    December 21, 2010 3:18 pm

    The “dual identity” issue is an interesting one. The “luxury” of mitigation of the dichotomy is much easier for members of a “majority culture.” Indeed, members of the majority culture (and to an extent, persons simply perceived as being within the majority culture) have difficulty understanding and appreciating the “dual identity” often thrust (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) upon the minority culture.

    Cross-culturally, surveying of persons about their self-perceptions show that people in the majority culture are more likely to define themselves by character traits than persons within the minority culture (who are likely to define themselves utilizing their minority identification).

    The propensity might even be hardwired into us by evolution. That is not to say that it is still “evolutionarily advantageous,” or unchangeable.

    Gestalt psychology provides some insights into our perceptual prejudices toward giving greater attention to differences than to “sameness.”

    To the extent we can mitigate it- and simply being aware of the predisposition is helpful- I say “amen.”

    • December 21, 2010 4:50 pm

      Thanks for expanding the discussion, adding new insights, and offering a cross-cultural perspective.

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