Put the word “identity” into Google images and you’ll see a lot of fingerprints. Like snowflakes or DNA, fingerprints represent individuality, as no two people have the same one. The very notion of having an identity, as one of Oxford’s definitions reads “what a person or thing is,” seems simple enough; yet, our society has trouble raising a mirror to its face and defining it. “Finding oneself” has become the popular refrain of Eat, Pray, Love style existential crises, movies, and even the subject of a four-step WikiHow instructional. Why are we struggling to find what is right in front of us? What could we possibly be closer to than ourselves?
Today, we are type-cast. You’re a hippie, or a Harvard-bound entrepreneur, or a “sassy black girl”. It makes things predictable, easier. There’s nothing we love more than fitting others into a box. The way we see others, and the way we see ourselves, can be predicated off of how well we can equate our subjects with something else. The word “identity” comes from the Latin “idem,” meaning same. A far cry from the inspirational special-little-snowflake spiel we feed kids, identity technically just means how much you look like something else. A mathematical identity is a set of equivalent expressions. Identity can mean repetition, a pattern, a similar condition or experience.
Yet in these overlaps of similarity, we can define ourselves as being unique. I’m female and I’m a policy debater, but I’m the only female policy debater at New Trier. Because identities meet and intersect like a highway map, things can get complicated. For example, first wave feminism is generally lauded for gaining women’s suffrage in the US, but the movement was led by middle upper class, white women. Marches were segregated by race. While women were granted the vote nationally in 1920, local obstacles virtually prohibited African-Americans from getting to the poll booths, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (passing forty-five years after white women crusaded voting rights) only slightly improved conditions. This is especially problematic for African-American women: how could they support a movement like the suffragettes’ that only encompassed part of their identity (gender), while being completely ignorant of another (race)?
Thus are the issues with identity politics—political arguments motivated by interests of an identity group—identity is so personal and individualized that it is difficult to create a perfectly intersectional movement to include everyone’s perspectives. This isn’t to say, however, that we shouldn’t try to understand different groups’ experiences, oppressions, and ideas. We have to educate ourselves to overcome our subconscious love for stereotypes, our tendency to create identities for others. If you are gay, you are “flamboyant”; if you are female, you are “passive”; if you are black, you are a “thug”. When identity means belonging to a group, we forget to see the whole person.
Identity, though, is far more than how society sees you; identity is how you see yourself. Identity means acknowledging that we are more than the boxes society has put us into. It means recognizing that we are powerful and complex. In redefining identity to denote how we are unique rather than how we are similar, we liberate ourselves. It’s time to hold up a mirror without shaking.
Celia is a sophomore at New Trier High School. She is passionate about human rights, gender equality, and service learning. Celia is a Teen Advisor for the United Nations Foundation campaign Girl Up, which empowers American girls to support their adolescent counterparts living in developing countries.
She is also an ambassador to UNICEF and volunTEEN nation, and has served on DoSomething.org's Youth Advisory Council. Celia's work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Teen Y!, and the volunTEEN nation blog. You can find her eating Mexican food, at policy debate tournaments, and on Twitter.