What Are You?

By Jeff Levy

Over the weekend, my partner and I were meeting with a man who was going to do some work on our home.  After we talked more specifically about the work, we engaged in some casual conversation. This man shared he is in therapy (before he even knew I was a social worker!) and went on to share that his therapist is Jewish.  In the same conversation, he said that when his office manager scheduled his appointment with us, she told him “you know they’re gay?”  “I don’t care who they are,” he said he told her.  “As long as they pay their bills!”  And then he smiled and continued the conversation.

After he left, I looked at my partner, half amused and half incredulous.  “What did you think of that?” I asked him.  “Eh,” my partner replied, rather nonplussed.  As I’ve gotten older and as some things have changed around accepting difference, I tend to be more surprised when someone makes statements like this.  In some ways, I have been lulled into a place of comfort.  I’m not as vigilant about how others may perceive me.  I forget that aspects of who I am may carry judgment.

Holding Multiple Identities

There was a time when I was much more aware of my differences and less accepting of them.  I remember when I was called a “kike” as a freshman in high school.  Despite what I had learned about persecution of Jews in religious school, it wasn’t until I directly experienced this prejudice that I had any sense of its power.  And when I was relentlessly teased for being a “fag” in middle school, I remember crying many mornings, begging my parents to let me stay home.  I couldn’t tell them why I didn’t want to go to school, which only made me feel more different and more alone.

Being able to forget about some of the identities I hold also implies a sense of privilege.  Even though at some point, these identities caused me much pain, I have come to a place in my life and the world has come to a place in its evolution, that the pain that once existed has been eclipsed by broader acceptance.  There is the caveat, of course, that geography and class, among other factors, influence this acceptance.  If I lived in Iran or Sudan, for instance, being Jewish and being gay would be far less privileged, and the pain that comes from oppression and secrecy would be more obvious.

During my years in practice as a social worker and the years that I have been teaching graduate students in social work, I’ve continued to hone my awareness of the multiple, complex, and intersecting identities that all of us hold.  While many of us strive to neatly explain who we are, the fact remains that who we are is dependent upon where we are, when we are, the parts of us that are visible to others, the parts that are invisible to others, and the parts that are defined based on those with whom we have relationships.  These intersectionalities have potential to enrich the way we experience the world, but might also be confusing as we try to explain ourselves to others in a world that pushes for tidiness.

The Power of Intersectionalities

Allen was 26 and a graduate from The University of Chicago.  He was struggling with what he wanted to do professionally and had “drifted” (his word) from one job to another.  He’d done everything from waiting tables to selling cars, though he had an undergraduate degree in molecular engineering.  “I feel like I need to make decisions in my life before decisions just get made for me,” he explained one day.  In short, Allen was uncertain of who he was professionally.  As our work continued, it became clear that he was struggling with many identities in his life.

Allen shared that his father was Caucasian and his mother was from Nigeria.  His parents met while his father was working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) following Nigeria’s civil war.  They married while in Nigeria, and moved to the United States shortly after Allen was born in 1976.  They returned to southern Illinois where Allen and his sister, born in 1980, were raised.  His father’s family lived not too far away.  Some of his mother’s family had eventually immigrated to the states and were living in Chicago.

At the time Allen was growing up, he and his sister were the only biracial children in his school.  “What are you?” people frequently asked him.  This may seem like an odd question to some, but for Allen, he knew it meant “what race are you and where are you from?”.  His teachers were also confused by him.  He was clearly exceptionally smart, but struggled in school. It wasn’t until he was in college that he was diagnosed with ADHD and began taking medication.

Allen described himself “of indeterminate ethnicity.”  Some people thought he was Latino, others thought he was African American, while others thought he might be of east Indian descent.  His skin was a caramel color and his dark brown hair was wavy, though he kept it short so the waves were barely discernable.  To complicate things further, he was attracted to both men and women, having had romantic relationships with both.  “I’m attracted to a person, not a gender,” he explained.  “I love who someone is and feel frustrated and angry when people push me for more explanation.  Even my friends want me to say I’m bisexual, but that just doesn’t feel like a label I identify with.”

The theme that seemed most salient for Allen was that of identity.  He felt constrained by the pressure from family, friends, work, and even the English language, to be able to clearly articulate who he is.  This didn’t just relate to his professional identity but was much more diffuse—permeating almost all the ways in which he thought about who he was.  As we explored this overarching theme of identity, Allen’s goal was to gain clarity around who he was in order to be able to explain himself to others.  As our work progressed, his goal gradually shifted to being more comfortable with ambiguity, and feeling less concerned about being able to use others’ language in order to fit into predetermined and often binary identities (of which none felt exactly right).

As we concluded our work together, he joked with me about his process in therapy.  “I came to get clearer about who I am and where I’m going and I’m leaving feeling better about not being clear!” For Allen, we worked less on helping him decide what categories or identities best described him and more on letting go of the need to categorize, even when he experienced pressure to do so from others.

Prioritizing One Identity Over Another

Allen isn’t the only person with whom I’ve worked who has struggled with holding multiple identities that may, at times, feel incongruent, invisible, stigmatized, and/or privileged.  It would be much easier to compartmentalize identity, examining one at a time with the hope that this would facilitate increased self-awareness.  For better or for worse, however, our identities don’t exist in silos.  They overlap, intersect, circumnavigate, magnify, and at times, even diminish one another.  We can only understand ourselves as these multiple identifies manifest over time and location as they have potential to change sometimes almost instantaneously.

I was having a conversation with a few of my Live Oak colleagues recently about this very topic.  As an organization that values and affirms difference, we were thinking about how we can communicate this to our clients, even from the time someone contacts us for a first appointment.  We have an intake specialist who talks with most of our first time callers to gather preliminary information.  We’ve been thoughtful and intentional about what kinds of information we gather as part of our intake, and just recently have re-examined the questions we ask.

For example, in an effort to affirm and support people who may identify as transgender, genderqueer, or are gender non-conforming, asking for a preferred pronoun seemed like one way to establish us as a supportive organization.  As I’ve continued to think about this however, I wonder if in some way asking about one specific identity without asking about others does the opposite of what we intend.  If we only ask about preferred pronoun but don’t ask about race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, ability, military service….or an infinite number of other identities, are we, in some way, communicating that we value one identity over another?

Another important thing to consider is the extent to which any of us feels comfortable or less comfortable with one or more of our identities.  If we are still struggling with negotiating an identity, or we feel shame around an identity, being asked about it too soon, or not in the context of a related conversation can feel intrusive or unsafe.  For instance, when I was coming to terms with my sexual orientation and was still struggling with disclosure, if I saw a therapist at that time in my life and one of the first questions s/he asked was about my sexual orientation, I would have definitely felt uncomfortable at best, and possibly even unsafe and not willing to return for therapy at worst.

Affirming All Identities

We all hold multiple, complex, and intersecting identities that influence how we see ourselves, how we see our relationships, and how we see the world.  Allen demonstrated how these intersectionalities are interdependent.  We could not address one identity without considering the many other identities he held.  This is true for all of us—and if we are truly going to demonstrate we value difference and the uniqueness of each individual, it’s important to avoid prioritizing one identity over another.

There is no perfect way to address multiple identities in a way that is 100% inclusive.  I do hope, however, that we can be sensitive to not prioritizing one identity over another, and to be thoughtful about how and when we gather information.

One question I’d like to begin asking is something like this:  Is there anything about any of your visible or invisible identities that you would like for me to know?  I hope that in some way, that communicates an understanding and acceptance of the multiple identities we carry as we move through the world.

I sometimes think that I’m too many people, too many people, too many people.  I sometimes think that I’m too many people, too many people, too many people at once.
—The Pet Shop Boys

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 9, 2017