By Carol S. Pearson
Western culture emphasizes individualism and, therefore, being authentic and true to who we are. Who we are, of course, is influenced by others, who also may be influenced by us. Social neuroscientists have posited that humans evolved through interactions, as each person, each group, and each region shared their stories with others. And, human evolution is still occurring, and what we say and do is one of the many factors that direct its trajectory.
The “I” and the “we” involved in identity formation are difficult to disentangle. Our sense of who we are starts in the family and the immediate community, where we inevitably gain our sense of what is real and how we should relate to it from what others tell us. In adolescence, we differentiate a bit, but often by identifying with a group that can form around what music the members like, who they follow on social media, or even what social media platform they use—or being in the popular crowd, the smart nerds, the athletes, the rebels, or the seeming misfits. Many in their adult years identify their “I” by their “we” as well, focusing on their class or ethnic identity, their race, the schools they went to, or what church or other religion they belong to. Increasingly, some also identify who they are with groups that share their ideas, including their political affiliations and the news sites they frequent.
Having boundaries helps protect such “we” identifications, especially if membership comes with some kind of status that differentiates us from others who we regard as alien, if not, by our lights, inferior. As individuals begin to feel confident enough that they have a self beyond such group identifications, they usually protect their boundaries by focusing on their differences from whatever we group they have been defined by. Some individuals today shock others when they question the assumption that everyone is either male or female. Identifying as non-binary or using a range of other terms that depart from traditional gender assumptions challenges any of us to view gender identity on a continuum. Such profound ways of differentiating can be liberating to those who do so and be part of their emerging sense of identity, which requires having a boundary that says, no, I’m not what you expect I should be. This can also be experienced as liberating by others through opening up new ways of thinking or, alternatively, as frightening, as if a fundamental sense of reality is being subverted, so that nothing seems certain anymore.
I remember when I was in my thirties working hard to develop better boundaries so that I could stand my ground. I was very involved in the feminist movement at a time of powerful backlash against these ideas, with people like me being described as compensating for being ugly and not being able to attract a man and/or lesbian (meant as an insult) as well as aggressive bitches, bra burners, and man haters. I needed to stand firm and resist the impulse to highlight the fact that I was married, a mom, decent enough looking, and loving. Plus, I also wanted not to give in to my desire to demonize those who were demonizing “us.” In fact, I needed to do this because my job was to be a women’s studies director in a major university. It was my responsibility to encourage the integration of research on women into the curriculum, which meant engaging with professors, most of whom were male and most of whom believed down deep in their souls that teaching what they considered to be inferior works and accomplishments would undermine the quality of the education they offered and render their lives and work meaningless.
Then I read a very useful piece of advice. I wish I remember where, but I don’t. Some wise person said that we do not have to jealously guard our boundaries if we know who we are. That means that if we have a firm enough center of identity, we will not feel a threat from those who think differently or want different things than we do.
I’m now aware of how important this lesson is for living in a diverse society, where we all live and work with people whose identities are formed in different “we” affiliations than ours have been.
Expanding my vision to take in the big picture, I realize that right now the entire world is experiencing massive migrations, most pressingly of refugees fleeing political oppression, violent gangs, environmental catastrophes, and/or grinding poverty. Some groups fear what an influx such as this will do to their country’s collective “we” and what that means for their sense of identity and self-esteem. Here at home, some wonder whether such immigrants will adopt “American values” so that they fit in without undermining who we are as a people, while others simply want to keep them out.
Insular societies are hothouses for the development of their own unique values and traditions. The fear of refugees and immigrants in America and elsewhere is not new. Earlier generations in the U.S. reviled the influx of the Irish and Italians and made fun of the Swedes, the immigrant group my ancestors were part of.
Yet, I know that, as individuals, the more we are centered in our own identities, the more open we can become to learning from others. I grew up in Houston when most everyone lived in homogeneous neighborhoods with their own ethnic groups. In my white, marginally middle-class neighborhood, most meals consisted of meat, potatoes, and a frozen vegetable; dances involved our feet, legs, and arms, definitely not shaking or swinging any part of our torsos; dressing nicely meant that our clothes had to match; and being a girl came with the requirement of wearing skirts or dresses to school, even in college. Yet, much of what I love in my country now comes from the influence of food, music, dance, fashion, and, over all, cultures resulting from our increased diversity and access to what these can offer to all of us.
In my conservative Christian family, major activities occurred in a sweet church where we were always contributing to support missionaries going off to save the souls of the “heathens” in Africa. As an adult, I fell in love with and married a wonderful man who is Jewish and from New York. We both initially found the other’s family alien to us, but now they are just family. One of my daughters-in-law is from Costa Rico and embodies much of the best of that culture in what she brings to our family.
What my country’s policies should be is beyond the theme of this blog. But what I know is that human evolution, and that of cultures that define who we are collectively, has always been fed by each learning from the beliefs and practices of others. And cultural mixing is caused by many different influences coming together to create something new.
I recently studied the history of Christianity, learning that the rise of the imperialist Roman Empire brought together many diverse regions, resulting in cultural exchanges that previously had occurred mainly through trade. True, the Roman occupations were cruel and dehumanizing. Yet, the richness of intercultural knowledge of that time greatly influenced the initial development of the Christian faith and Hebrew ideas. The cruelty of the Romans also caused the diaspora of the Hebrew people, spreading their wisdom throughout the world and requiring a shift from temple-based to a scriptural-focused practice. Christianity then ended up influencing Rome itself when it became its official religion. Of course, Christianity subsequently took on new forms to fit into Roman institutions, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Cultures evolve through interconnection with others as a result of all kinds of human motivation, not all of it very pretty, though some is very well meant: one country invades another and conquers its people; one group captures people from another and enslaves them to exploit their labor; religious groups send their missionaries to try to help people in other countries and to proselytize for their faith; corporations open factories and other businesses where it makes financial sense to do so to enhance profits; refugees fleeing horrible circumstances emigrate to places where they hope to be safe and have chance for a better life; and now the Internet streams news and entertainment from one country into another as commerce helps bring great products to us that can enrich our lives. All these exchanges influence everyone involved in them. Even the missionaries sometimes go native, as it is called, adopting many of the practices of the people they went to save.
The richness of what is available to us in today’s global society can be overwhelming. However, the better we know who we are—as individuals, groups, and whole societies—the more open we can be to learning from others without being threatened by them. Every immigrant group coming to America tends to hold on to the traditions of its ancestors, but in a generation or two, this can come down to the token food served on special holidays and some values that are passed on, often unconsciously, through that heritage, except where prejudice limits access to assimilation. My own family’s tradition is honored with Swedish pancakes and, on Christmas Eve, meatballs and rice pudding, but also retained by some of us who may not even know that our belief that Americans should care for one another comes from the Caregiver values of Swedish culture.
So, the task for our major cultures and each of their subgroups mirrors the work cut out for each one of us as individuals. Right now, in my country, power dynamics are being worked out as historically underrepresented groups seek full equality. In response, some Americans of European ancestry support these efforts because of a belief in “liberty and justice for all,” while others oppose them, because of a fear that they will be displaced and aspects of their values and lifestyles will be undermined.
Sure, these power dynamics doneed to be faced and worked out at the level of national policy. However, as individuals we can recognize that positive cultural evolution can be furthered if everyone concerned focuses on identifying what their own group has to offer to the whole and sharing it. Out of this conversation, a consensus about our shared national identity might emerge, powerful enough to include us all and to forge a slightly amended sense of our collective center.
And as individuals? I do not know what is true for you. However, I can share that, for me, my identity was formed initially in my parents’ home, but it has been enhanced by changing times and more diverse experiences. I see that much of who I am comes from the Christian injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” from my upbringing and the love and care I received as a child. Some of it comes from rebelling as an adolescent, questioning the parts of this faith that seemed wrong to me. Other parts come from celebrating the Passover with my Jewish in-laws and embracing the idea that I should fight oppression in all its forms and also leave behind my own ill-advised habits and assumptions.
As an academic, I learned to be comfortable in a secular and inclusive environment and care about getting my facts right and testing out my theories before subscribing to them. As someone who loves to dance as my preferred form of exercise, I am well aware that the freedom I can now express in my body comes from the influences of cultures different from the body-shaming one I was brought up in, including African-American and Latino-American forms. As a busy contemporary professional who is somewhat driven, especially when a publishing deadline looms, I calm my stress utilizing meditation and mindfulness practices that have come to America from Asian and Indian cultures.
Part of who I am came from each of these “we's,” and none has to keep me defended against integrating something else that is wonderful into my identity just because “my kind” did not think of it.
Of course, boundaries are essential in support of a strong identity center, when we are tempted to do things that would harm us because others are doing them. When I was a child, we said the Lord’s prayer all the time, with its refrain of “lead us not into temptation.” If we know who we are, we can learn and grow through interaction with the world without adopting behaviors and values that do not serve the development of our best selves. We can also share what we know and value with others without attachment, trusting that they have the same right to make decisions based on what is right for them as you or I do.