Eileen Kern

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I encountered two identity conversations this past weekend via social media:
First of all, a college friend of mine posted a picture to Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #NPRCensus. NPR published an article titled “Millennials, Put A Face On Your Generation With Our #NPRCensus“:

The standard check boxes for identity on the U.S. Census — race, ethnic origin and sex — leave out much about who we are and how we see ourselves. But if you could create your own check boxes to describe your identity, what would they be?

Show us with a selfie: Write on a mirror or hold up a sign with your Census categories on one side and your preferred categories on the other. Tag it with #NPRCensus.

Here’s an example (not of my friend) via Morning Edition:

Secondly, this past Saturday was National Coming Out day, which I encountered through posts by two other acquaintances from college. One was celebrating an identity she has publicly embodied for quite some time, and one–at the age of 30–was coming out for the first time as an identity other than straight. I was moved by her bravery, particularly because even today it is easier for those who are attracted to the opposite gender to simply “pass” as straight until and unless the issue becomes directly relevant–for example, if down the line the person wishes to pursue someone of the same gender.

(Writing this, I cannot help but think of the Salon article I read a bit ago titled “I’m a lesbian marrying a man.” Here is a salient quote:

I know plenty of people who identify as bisexual; I am not. The term simply doesn’t apply. I am not, as a rule, attracted to men. I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him. That won’t change because of our vows, any more than my eye color will. My fundamental coordinates are unaltered.

There’s more in the article, for those who are interested in reading more.)

All of this makes me think about which aspects of my identity feel most important to me, and which are incidental or more transmutable.

While there are many examples I could write about, it might be simplest to compare how I feel about being a “writer” and how I feel about being a “musician.” The idea that I am a writer is one that I hold as extremely important–and is something that I honor about myself even during periods in which I am not actively writing. However, as I’ve alluded to before, I don’t self-identify as a musician, even having studied music for a number of years and participated in a number of choruses, a cappella concerts, karaoke nights, and open mics with friends. (I don’t specifically identify as not-a-musician either; I suppose more than anything else I see myself as a friend-of-musicians or an amateur singer.)

This particular train of thought reminds me of that lovely comic “Quest for a Passion” that I wrote about some time ago because it reminds me that some aspects of our identity–sometimes the most powerful ones–sneak up on us. They’re the aspect of ourselves that is waiting for us when we take a step back to breathe.

I guess what it comes down to, thinking of the NPR Millenial selfies for a moment:

  • Some things you write on the mirror. These are the aspects of your identity that are so important to you that you want to make sure they are shared and understood the way you want them to be.
  • Some things appear in the mirror, captured in your visible demographic, your surroundings, your personal brand. While some of these things may be important to you, and some may be important to how others behave toward you, these are not the things you choose to pre-define for others but they still impact your place in the greater world.
  • Some things you understand to be true about yourself but you can choose whether to share them or not. They won’t appear in your reflection; they will only be available to the greater world if you yourself write them on that mirror.

My final thought for this post, then, is that it is fine for these categories to be changing. Even the things you write on the mirror, even the aspects of your personality captured in your reflection–not everything needs to be permanent or unchanging. Our identity should be more than just a habit–it should reflect who we are and want to be.