June 6, 2023

In Defense of Identity | Psychology Today

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Owning our identity means recognizing and celebrating our culture.

Source: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Lately, it seems like a day doesn’t go by without some challenge to our identities as Black folk. States are passing laws to suppress the teaching of Black history, books featuring Black characters or stories are being pulled from school and library shelves, and Black scholars like Nicole Hannah Jones and Kimberlé Crenshaw are targets of attack.

This opposition to our culture and heritage is not new, but it seems to be intensifying and filled with more animus. Hard-fought gains are being eroded as affirmative action continues to be chipped away and diversity and inclusion programs are questioned or abandoned altogether. This onslaught of anti-blackness strikes at the very core of who we are — and our identities as Black people. It puts us on the defensive and threatens to undermine our sense of self. It’s a wake-up call to recognize what’s happening and clap back.

In an upcoming book I am co-authoring about Black women and resilience, we speak about the power of identity and its role in Black women’s lives. Black women can thrive in the face of racism if we know who we are – if we embrace our history, acknowledging the places of struggle while working to rise above our circumstances. Discovering the internal self is about embracing those qualities and characteristics uniquely ours and feeling safe enough to be our most authentic selves.

Our identity can serve as a shield against resurgent racism and misogyny.

Identity has become a loaded word associated with “identity politics,” “wokeness,” and other polarizing ideas. Owning our identity means recognizing and celebrating our culture, individual stories, collective stories, and values. All of that factors into what makes each of us unique. It also gives us common ground and a collective sense of purpose. Our identity can serve as a shield against resurgent racism and misogyny. Without a clear sense of identity, we may easily fall prey to stereotypes – how others view us and who they say we are.

As we reflect on this past Black History Month and celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to reflect on and celebrate all that makes us who we are. But how can you reaffirm your sense of self?

Ways to Reframe the Concept of Identity and Use It to Your Advantage

  • Name and claim who you are. Choose a word that describes something about you. It may be something that others do not know or see. Consider what makes you unique, and choose a positive word. Maybe you describe yourself as “playful,” “creative,” or “determined.” If you’re not sure, ask a close friend for suggestions. Once you settle on a word, write it down and describe at least three ways you live out that aspect of yourself. Then describe at least three ways you plan to express it more.
  • Explore your people’s history. Talk to an elder in your family or community to learn about your people, who they are, and how they came to be. Flip through old family photographs to start the conversation. Is there a story that has been passed down that you can learn more about? Does someone in your family have a name (or nickname) that you want to know more about? You can look into DNA testing for African Americans to go further back into your family tree. Who were your ancestors? What were they like? Where did they live? What did they do? Consider how they have contributed to who you are today.
  • Learn about your name. If you don’t already know the story behind your name, find out. If you were named after an ancestor or historical figure, do a little digging to discover more about them. Does your name have a meaning? Explore its significance.
  • Be clear about your values. In many ways, we are our values or the beliefs that guide and motivate us. To strengthen your identity, bring into focus what matters most to you. Maybe it’s family or community or social justice. Try this 10-minute values exercise. In what ways are you, or could you be, living these values more fully?
  • Express yourself. As Black people, we often talk about code-switching to adapt to the environment we’re in. There is a time and place for that, but we also owe it to ourselves to be ourselves wherever we are. Whether at work or home, fill it with family photos, artwork, and books that reflect your identity and values. Wear jewelry or clothing that expresses your true self. Share ethnic food at a work potluck or lunch. Surround yourself with elements that reflect your Black identity.

Explore your personal history and embrace your identity.

Write and reflect. Revisit Maya Angelou’s anthem to self-awareness and resilience, Still I Rise. Use the following prompts to explore your personal history and embrace your identity. Write to one, two, or all three prompts.

  1. In the poem, Angelou is letting someone know that it doesn’t matter how they perceive her – how she sees herself is what matters. Write a brief letter to someone describing how you see yourself and even how your perception might challenge theirs.
  2. Angelou writes, “I rise – Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave….” What gifts do you bring from your ancestors? How are you using them, or how do you intend to use them?
  3. What words or lines speak to you the most? Write about why.

Once you’re done, take a few minutes and review what you wrote. Write three feeling words reflecting how you feel when you read your words. How does your writing inform how you see yourself?

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