Our individual identity determines how we see ourselves, how others perceive us and how socio-cultural-economic-political institutions, structures and histories define and reflect us. Identity is our core. The concept was put forward in the late 50s by black American women who were ignored, marginalised and discriminated against because of being black and female.
The majority of us have aspects of our identity which change and are fluid and intersect*. For example, our view of ourselves may change with age, with grief, with bullying and discrimination, with a change to our external rights (e.g. change of status from citizen to refugee) or if we fall sick. Our sense of national identity may change if we relocate from our country of birth. A person’s identity as a parent, would intersect with identities related to gender in the workplace, age, sexuality, being a sibling, having a disability. Therefore, it is worth considering the cumulative and diverse nature of individual identities when you interact with others in society – in other words, reducing someone to a stereotype is especially unhelpful if you are genuinely trying to connect with another person.
* Intersectionality is defined as a concept to signify the complex, irreducible, diverse and variable effects that follow when multiple ‘axes of differentiation’ – such as the economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential – intersect in historically specific contexts (Brah and Phoenix, 2004).
In general, identity (our sense of self) develops and changes as we interact with the socio-economic-political structures and culture, and those who share our space. This is why it is crucial to ensure that we take an equitable human rights-based approach when we interact with others and when we represent each other. A flippant stereotype, for example, which may seem inconsequential to one person can cause hurt and pain with long-term consequences to another. A deliberate reworking or revisioning of a historical event which negates the contribution or lived experience of another, also has a detrimental effect on those affected and those who perpetrate the practice. In other words, our identities are also formed from what we know about our history.
The talk below by Helen Whitener demonstrates an example of the importance of identity in communicating with others with respect and recognising the intrinstic worth of everybody.