Identities Chosen, Identities Assigned

Placing like with like (photo from PBS)

I borrowed yesterday’s post from two thinkers I admire, Kristen Renn and Masha Gessen, and their hopes that we could imagine our identities, and those of others, in ways that are more fluid and less fixed. That we are all invested with innumerable possibilities, some of which will be more fully expressed than others.

But that’s slow work, convincing people one at a time to imagine things like gender and sexuality and race and religious beliefs and politics to be blurry and mobile. Most of us, most of the time, still see and react quickly. We are all the products of a lifetime of living within a culture that has dyed us in particular ways. (Even when we work hard at being aware of ourselves, we mess up. I realized about an hour after I’d posted yesterday’s thoughts that I’d used an incorrect pronoun to describe one of the people I mentioned. I caught it myself and fixed it as soon as I saw it, but we’re all the products of long training and habit.)

We might all be free to imagine and to employ our own identity in a more deliberate way, but that individual work of liberty takes place within a culture that’s instantly ready to hold us to more rigid categories. I imagine us all with a clipboard, walking down the sidewalk and ticking off categories of race and gender and age, spending an extra second or two of study when we can’t easily “tell.”

And those determinations would be harmless enough, I suppose, except that the “observable designations” we apply also carry a whole galaxy of emotional tones that launch our encounters. The whole notion of racial profiling rests on the broad array of social and moral characteristics that we believe are associated with the visual characteristics of skin tone or facial structure or language use or naming conventions or clothing. We judge almost immediately who is an ally and who is a risk, and then act upon those unwarranted judgments.

We see the physical harassment of Asian Americans in response to COVID.

We see BLM participants labeled “dangerous,” and white supremacist rioters called “patriots.”

We see store owners and managers making immediate judgments about who’s a “customer” and who’s a “potential shoplifter.”

I do it, too. We all do.

I see a lifted pickup truck and I worry about its driver’s capacity for anger management.

I see a police officer and I fear that if we had an encounter, I wouldn’t be able to trust the honesty of his recounting of the event.

I see a political yard sign and I can create an entire opera about the family life behind the doors.

Our capacity for rapid and uninformed judgment is immense, and it carries decades of cultural messaging that we don’t even remember learning. We are all native storytellers, even when we’re not all that good at it.


The seven deadly sins are often paired with what are sometimes called the seven recuperative virtues. Greed is countered by charity; gluttony by temperance; sloth by diligence; and so on. But I think these may be mistaken, because they continue to focus on the individual. I’m lazy: I should be more motivated. I’m angry: I should be more patient. And as nice as it is to imagine ourselves capable of that level of moral self-correction, or insist upon it from others, I don’t think it’s likely to work very often. I think instead that the appropriate counter to each of those cardinal sins is to stop paying attention to ourselves and to turn our attention outward. To become attentive, to become curious, to become eager to see what every encounter might offer.

To imagine that we don’t already know the story.

To believe of others what we hope is true of ourselves: that we’re not done yet, that there’s still growth and opportunity and magic ahead.

To return to Masha Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? To which I will add, what if we saw everyone else that way as well?