Are we in control of our identity? Do we have any control over it at all; or are there different aspects to our identity, some that we can control and others that we can’t? This is a difficult question to answer because there is not one solid answer. Nor is our identity something that we can try to pull apart and look at each individual part. Our identities are constantly growing, changing, and adapting to our everyday lives. Our everyday lives are constantly changing too. Nothing stays the same for long so our identity shouldn’t be any different. How much of our identity do we really have control over? “The issue of identity is a complex one. More fluid than fixed our identity is comprised of a myriad of inner qualities and outer representations of self. It consists of innumerable defining characteristics that make up the whole of who we are in any given moment. These fragments of self include our sexuality, gender, and sense of belonging to a particular culture, nation, religion, family, or some other group. Our identity includes our looks, personality, beliefs and fears and is an unfolding story…continually recast in the course of experience” (Dana Mrkich).
Let’s start by simply looking at an id card. It usually has your race, gender, date of birth, hair color, eye color, height, and weight. Most of this stuff is permanent or really hard to change. Your gender is a huge identification factor. Many people, without meaning to or realizing it, will treat you differently depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. Your race is also another huge factor; sadly, people will make assumptions about you based on your race and nothing else. Your age is also a very important factor, people make judgment calls about you every day and your age is always a factor. Hair color and eye color can be changed with dyes and contacts, but they are just used to help physically identify a person. Your height and weight can indicate what kind of lifestyle you live. All these things contribute to your identity, but they are not everything.
Where you are born and where you are raised contribute to your identity too. Even if you are born somewhere different then where you are raised, they still can both influence you. An example of this is my younger cousin; he was born in Brazil but is being raised here in Utah. Even though he has lived in Utah since he was old enough to remember, he still shows aspects of the Brazilian culture. That’s another part of your identity; your culture. In psychology, there is a topic known as nature vs. nurture. This comes into play a lot with our identity; what are we raised to have, and what are we born with?
Gender is the first topic I would like to talk about. This has an obvious role on a person’s identity. People have no say in whether they are a male or female. Depending on the situation, a person could get treated better or with more respect depending on whether they are male or female. In most work environments with big companies or jobs requiring more physical skill, the male will get more respect because that is the social norm. But in a hair salon or babysitting business, it’s hard to imagine a male in these environments, so clearly the female dominates those environments. So one’s gender will lead people to make assumptions about a person’s identity. Sometimes those assumptions can be right, and sometimes they are wrong. This is clearly an aspect of your identity that you don’t control.
The next one is race; race is a very strong influence on one’s identity. This can cause issues with racism; people affiliating themselves, therefore their identity, with groups that feel a certain way about another race or group. Just as with gender, people will make assumption about a person based on their race. If one is white people might assume they listen to country music or rock n roll; or if one is black people might assume they listen to rap or hip hop. These tie in with stereo types, which sadly, are a part of our community today. There are a higher number of certain races in certain places, with also leads to how culture affects one’s identity. Gender and race are the very first things anyone will notice about a person, making them very important to the overall product of a person’s ‘identity’. People have no control over either of those things. Something that relates closely with race is language. A person’s language is part of their identity too. It can show where they were raised because of the slang you use. For example, there is the Spanish language, and off of that original Spanish language there is branches of adjusted languages. These include Mexican Spanish, North Mexican Spanish, Chicano Spanish, (which comes from American states along the Mexico border) Tex-Mex, and Pachuco (Gloria Anzaldua; How to Tame a Wild tongue). All of these are based off the standard Spanish language, but depending on where one was raised they may speak one of these different variations of Spanish. This helps us identify people too, based on which one they speak, shows where they are from which is part of your identity.
A hot topic in psychology is nature vs. nurture. Many traits of a person’s identity are inherited from their parents such as, race, gender, and other physical traits. But do we inherit our personalities? Some aspects of it we might, such as our temper or athletic skills. But we develop this part of our identity. Many things influence our personality. We develop our interests on our own. My mom and dad both listen to rock n roll and country but I listen to reggae. There is no similarities there, so I don’t think that can be an inherited trait. But if we are born into a certain religion and raised in this religion, is that nature or nurture? Mrkich brings up a good point: “Is something really a choice if it has been chosen unconsciously? Is it a choice if you don’t know all the options available to you, or have been taught that other options are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? If one is born into a certain religion, is their identity as Christian or Jew a choice? Even once they grow into adulthood and can make their own decisions, the power of constant indoctrination, family and community pressure and ingrained beliefs can make one continue to wear a piece of identity that doesn’t actually fit with their ‘authentic’ identity” (Dana Mrkich). The choices we make would fall into the category of nurture. But like she said; what about the choices that are made unconsciously? What category does this fall into, nature or nurture?
The people we choose to associate with and call our friends play a big role on our personality too. We don’t inherit our friends’ from our parents; who we choose as our friends is completely up to us. Our friends influence our identity a lot. The activities a person enjoys doing with their friends can lead to people giving them a label. For example; if they like to surf with their friends, people will identify them as a surfer; or if they are on an athletic team, people will see them as an athlete. So the activities we do can affect how people view our identity; and our body type and size can affect what activities we do. Pro athletes are usually easily identified by their size and strength, while other body types may suggest a different preferred activity such as video games or skating. Our activities suggest what kind of person we are; therefore, it contributes to our identity.
Recently there was a breakthrough in science. They discovered something known as epigenetics. Epigenetics has changed everything we knew about the inheritance of genes. Mrkich explains them to us: “The discovery of epigenetics – hidden influences upon the genes – could affect every aspect of our lives. Research has proven that if we had grandparents who went through a war or famine, our genes carry that energy. A ‘memory’ of an event could be passed through generations. Our cells act as if we have been through that same trauma, affecting everything from our life expectancy to emotional fears of poverty or survival based not on our present day reality, but on the reality experienced decades before by our ancestors. This raises fascinating questions about what consequences epigenetics have on not only our individual identities but also on national, religious and cultural identities. Is something really a choice if you were born with a certain identity trait already existing in your genes?” (Dana Mrkich) That is the biggest point of all. Our traits are shaped by what our ancestors in the past and what experiences they had to go through. Traits are something one is born with, therefore saying that most of one’s identity they are born with.
So how much of our identities do we control? I believe there is still small part of it we can control, such as what we enjoy doing and what kind of music we like; but I have come to the decision that the bulk of our identity is passed down through the generations to us. Many studies of identical twins separated at birth have shown very similar results. They all showed that no matter how different of circumstances they were raised in, they still share many similarities in their identities. Through the discovery of Epigenetics and the study of the identical twins, science has proved that the majority of our identity is passed down to us. Whether we like it or not, we will always share similarities with our parents and the generations before them too. Epigenetics is not something we can control. We still have some control though; while the bulk of our identity is given to us, we can choose what to make out of our identity.
Anzaldua, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Remix, Reading Plus Composing Culture.
Ed Catherine, G., Latterell. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. (77-83)
Mrkich, Dana. “Dana | Essays – Do You Choose Your Identity or Is It Chosen for You?” .2006 Dana | Visioning The Dream Awake. Web. 15 Sept. 2011. .