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Ask What Are You?

Identifying yourself

Discover what you could become

So, I wouldn’t want to repeat my high school years. I wouldn’t go back to that awkward stage when I was faking my way of talking, behaving and associating to pass as one of the in-crowd. Suppressing my interests, values and ideas so as not to stand out.

Actually, I’m amazed that any adolescent comes out of that tunnel with a solid sense of who they are. While most of us do, for some it takes many more years to attain a healthy level of self-comfort.

Developing a positive identity is the foundation for everything from how confidently we pursue our dreams to how well we engage and sustain healthy friendships, intimate partnerships and family ties. Even our business ventures, stress levels and health as we age depend, in part, on how secure and happy we are with ourselves.

Now back to high school. I recently visited my son’s school for a day. While I enjoyed nearly every one of his subjects and teachers, my favorite class was art. The students are replicating a fascinating exhibit created by California photographer Kip Fulbeck. He is multiracial – Chinese and other nationalities and ethnicities. Hawaiians call such people Hapas, persons of mixed racial heritage who have partial roots in Asia and/or Pacific Islander ancestry.

Kip recalls a difficult childhood, challenged by the ignorance, discomfort and hostility directed toward him by his Caucasian peers. Today, his diverse gene pool is a matter of personal pride. Kip invited Hapas from across the United States to have their picture taken and to compose up to a half-page of text in answer to the question, what are you? About 1,200 individuals participated. They were all photographed as bare-shouldered mug shots, without hats, eyeglasses, makeup or jewelry. The resulting exhibit and book is called “Part Asian, 100% Hapa.” It’s one of the most engrossing, affecting and provocative psychological art projects I have ever seen.

My son’s teacher encouraged the parents to get photographed, identify our ethnic heritage – Polish and Austrian – and answer the question, what are you? The students will try to match the answers to the parent’s picture. Some of my classmates-for-an-hour wrote long personal statements. I kept mine short. I am all that I am and all that I believe. I have dreams.

For the next two days, my thoughts kept returning to this simple and simply stunning exercise in self-revelation. I started thinking of all the possible ways people might choose to identify themselves and I realized that my point of reference could be completely different from my neighbor’s.

I started listing all the ways that people might use to identify themselves. Here, then, is a quick tour through the human race, one identity grouping at a time.

Ethnicity or race is an obvious category that sometimes unites, sometimes unties us. Families, communities and nations have organized in proud determination to honor and promote their ethnic identity. At the same time, wars have been fought between and within families, communities and nations intolerant of racial diversity and coexistence.

Religion is another of the more obvious group identifiers. How about place? Proud to be a Southerner, a Midwesterner, a New Yorker, an Alaskan Native? In this nation of immigrants, new citizens may find common ground with each other’s stories, language and cultural heritage.

Maybe you identify yourself first in your work role. My professional colleagues come from every race, place and religious faith on the planet. We all have abilities that mark our areas of strength. At the same time, most of us achieve despite a weakness or disability in one or more physical, intellectual, emotional or social skills.

How about some alternative identifications? School for example. I feel akin to anyone who attended my high school or college. Alumni networks are some of the most loyal associations I have ever observed. Membership affords everything from advantage in job hiring to shopping discounts to invitation into social networks.

Other folks may identify themselves most strongly with their military service, income level, marital status, parentage or birth order.

Don’t laugh too loudly when I list a few other possibilities for self-definition. Our friendships, for example. Oscar Wilde famously pronounced “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” Beliefs or ideologies may also join or separate principled folks from all walks of life. Persons who participated in the same life-or-earth-shattering experience feel joined forever by the memory of the moment they once shared – a hurricane, a battle, a depression, a fire, a Stanley Cup win. Our hobbies, our passions and our fetishes, whether for art, music, sports, shoes or community service, can give defining meaning to our lives and our sense of existence and purpose.

Sadly, there are those who try to erase their identity in hopes of finding, in anonymity, protection from past victimization at the hands of violence, abuse or psychological torture.

I encourage you to add to my list of things real and imagined that serve to give us a sense of personal and group identity. In the end, this exercise reminds me that every person is unique and all people are a lovely mixture of many influences. These traits that we share with others and declare as our own make us identifiable to those seeking our particular abilities, interests or history. Yet we are never just what we appear to be. We can be identified but we must never be labeled. Labels are boxes that limit people’s knowledge and understanding of us and can be used to prejudice, diminish and exclude. When we accept our labels, we risk limiting our dreams, expectations and opportunities.

What are you? Answering this question reinforces the importance of knowing yourself by acknowledging all the parts of your identity. With such personal insight securely tucked in your pocket, you will be able to fully engage with another person.


Dr. Peter A. Gorski is the director of research and innovation at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.

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