2.6 Reflecting on identity
How would you describe your identity or identities? What kind of words would you use to describe yourself in terms of:
You may also want to describe other aspects of your identity that are important to you, such as nationality or regional identity, sexuality, religious or political beliefs, occupation or voluntary roles, family roles, interests and abilities, and so on. Use as many or as few terms as you like.
When you have made some notes in answer to this question, think about the following questions.
Which of these identities (one or more) is / are the most important to you at this point in your life – and has this changed overtime?
Would you have described your identity / identities differently 10 or 20 years ago? In what way?
We asked members of the course team, and some other people we know, to complete this activity. Here are some aspects of people’s identities as they saw them.
Male, white, middle-aged, working class
I get into difficulty when I try to describe my nationality. Being born in England of Irish parents, I was made to feel Irish when I was growing up – as a matter of pride from my parents and discrimination from others. It was an identity I didn’t talk about all through my 20s and 30s. Living in Ireland for three years confused my identity further since I could not relate to the culture ‘back home’. So now I’m London Irish or European and I’m happy with that.
I needed to think about this question for some time as there are so many different aspects to my identity. I would describe myself as an African/Caribbean woman born in the UK. In terms of age I am middle-aged and I guess in terms of my current profession and location I am middle class but my parents were working class and migrated from Jamaica to the UK in the 1950s. I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend – which are all important aspects of my identity. Professionally I am a senior lecturer with The Open University.
A woman, white (Northern Irish), born and brought up in the West Midlands, middle-aged, working-class background.
This is what people said about which identities were most important and the ways in which this had changed overtime.
The most important things to me are my job, and being good at it, coming from a working-class background in Birmingham, being a good cook, a vegetarian and an ethical consumer. On the negative side, I have a disability which affects my mobility, and I am single with no family.
Parent would be more out front 10 years ago.
All of these identities are important to me at this point in my life and the challenge I have is being able to give space and time to the competing demands that each aspect of my identity poses. My ideal would be to have a life that was completely balanced and allowed the opportunity for each identity to be fully expressed and actualised… Twenty years ago I didn’t have children and had a different occupation, working as a manager of health promotion services in the NHS, but I would have described my identities in the same way.
Ethnicity is an identity that has taken on new importance. Although I am a Canadian, I worked for many years in race relations in California. Because I am white and talked like many other white people, I was indistinguishable from the dominant group there. Now living in the UK, I can’t hide my ‘accent’, my different background, views and values. For the first time, I have a more real understanding of what it’s really like to be different in ways you can’t hide. Being different, I have found, often means ‘less than’, because of assumptions that I am an American, about my intelligence, education, values – especially right now.
Ten or 20 years ago I would have laid more emphasis on my role as a mother and nurse and midwife since those dominated my life. In 1990 I would also have called myself a full-time postgraduate student. As a younger mother after the birth of the second child, I would say that my identity was consumed by being a mother.
Although we cannot know the details of your answer, we would guess that your response reflected some of the complexities and tensions in the above examples. Some conclusions that we drew from this activity are discussed below.