Identity Essay


In life we have identities that you might want to hide and some you might want to display and some that aren’t your true identity. At times in history people were shamed, given less rights, beaten, and murdered for those identities that were not the societal norm. For example, Jews in the 30s and 40s in Nazi Germany were the main targets of genocide for just being Jewish. Having that Jewish identity would have gotten them killed and a lot of Jews hid from the Nazis where ever they could to survive. It was difficult for Jews to hide because leading up to the genocide they were identified with an arm band with the Star of David and then with a number tattooed on the arm. This is only one example where someone would want to hide their identity others could be African Americans, woman and gays throughout history were subjected to public shaming were thought to be less than a human being. Even Asian Americans were subjected to these acts of racism and hate because of their identity. Kenji Yoshino is an Asian American that has experience racism and hate first hand. Yoshino is a law professor that has taught at Yale and New York University he also graduated from Oxford and Harvard.  He has written multiple articles about civil rights and identities. He is also an openly gay man.

In his writing about “New Civil Rights” he uses the vocabulary of True Self and False Self to create a new way of thinking about civil rights. He wants to move away from “focusing on the old-fashioned group-based identity politics.” Yoshino believes that the civil rights that we must focus on is what pulls us together and what pushes us apart. Yoshino references D. W. Winnicott who is a psychoanalyst and they say that “True Self and false self that usefully tracks the distinctions between that uncovered and covered selves. The True Self is the self that gives and individual the feeling of being real, which is ‘more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as one oneself, and to have self into which retreat for relaxation.’ The true self is associated with human spontaneity and authenticity.” (13) This True Self is basically who you really are and how you really feel about your identity for example if you are gay that is your True Self. On the other hand, you might not want to have that identity as gay and you making your identity as straight is your False Self. Yoshino explains that the false self “gives an individual a sense of unreal, a sense of futility. It mediates the relationship between the true self and the world.” (13)
People use these False Selves to cover their identities because of things that aren’t desirable like being killed. Now in the United States it is widely accepted for people to be black, gay, or transgender but just 40 years ago it was not OK to have any of those identities openly. W. D. Winnicott explains that when the true self does overcome the false self becomes a “polite and mannered social attitude”(15). I think of this as now false self is hiding and comes out to protect when there is a threat from society, governments, or communities. When society threatens identity of an individual or a group it takes the uniqueness from that society.

Having different people in communities is good for people to embrace different cultures and ways of thinking. I’m from Vermont and I joke that Vermont is the one place where you can find liberals and rednecks living in the same neighborhood at peace. Even though Vermont is not diverse racially we are very diverse in politics, sexual orientation and identity. This is why if you go to Burlington and walk around you will see “keep VT weird” shirts and bumper stickers all over the place. It’s weird for outsiders but its normal for the people that live there. As I have started to grow up I have noticed the differences in people’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I see all of those people every day and I see how some people treat them differently because of the way they identify themselves. Me personally I have always looked at people for the values they hold not for what they look like. I personally don’t care what you think about politics or about me, I care about how you treat others and if you are a genuine person. Those are the identities people should judge people on. The thing that I think is difficult to find in these identities that people can display is discovering if it is their True Self or their False Self. For example, when you first meet someone, and they are super nice and seem interested in who you are. Then you start to get to know them a little more and that initial interaction is a whole different person than you remember meeting at first. That initial interaction is their False Self and as you get to know them a little more their True Self comes out and they are mean and rude and overall not a good person. But that is their identity and the interesting part about identities is that everyone has one, whether it is what they look like or what their name is it is who they are. The issue with having identities is that they can do one of two things: bring people together or push people away.

Identities in general can cause a lot of instances of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia and there is nothing we can do to stop having these identities that define us as humans because It is in human nature to categorize people and things. This is why we have names to things to identify what they are. We as humans can’t live without identities because it’s in our nature. But we can change the way we look at identity by being more accepting and caring of others. Martin Luther King in his I have dream speech he said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Until we stop using the color of people’s skin or religion as an identity, racism and hate will still exist. We can’t move forward until we stop using identities.  I discovered this idea of humans living with no identities from a philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah.

In a Vox article, Appiah is being interviewed by Sean Illing who is a writer for Vox, and Appiah implies in his new book that identities are a lie and we can’t live without them. When Illing ask Appiah what he means by identities are a lie Appiah explains that identities can bring people together, but they can also push people apart. “They do bring people together, as well as divide people, and I think that the lies, the untruths, are often a very important part of how they work. They’re important to how people are held together.” I can see how this happens, for example being on the football team I have 80 people I know pretty well since we all identify as football players it brings us together in a crowd but inside the football team we have the offense and the defense. In the camp on defense we would say FTO and on the offense they would say FTD. Those mean F the Offense and F the Defense and we were getting separated as a team because one person was on the offense and the other was on defense.  Kwame then explains that since life is so complex we need to have these identities to make sense of life and what is going on. “People — and when I say people I mean everybody — need these simple stories and labels to help them understand their place in the world. Life is complicated, and the social world is complicated, and identities simply all that for us. And yet these are often just constructs, artificial labels that we’ve created, and our attachment to them can blind us to that fact.” Identities are a lie because we as a human race made them up to make sense of the world around us. This is really interesting because if you think about not having a name for anything. How would you know if someone was asking for a water bottle or a gun? These are identities for objects and it would already wreak havoc on our minds that nothing has a name. The concept of not having a name for anything is crazy but all of the things in the world someone came up with that name for it.

Names for people are an identity and so is everything about someone. Everything that you wear, say, do and what you look like is your identity and so others can say “oh that’s Ryan the short tan kid that wears sweats and timberlands all the time.” Identities can give people a false sense of who they are and how they should act. For example, white people need to act a curtain way and black people need to act a curtain way. It’s having that False Self to find a way of fitting into the societal norm. With identities you can activate them, and you can then deactivate them and it all depends on the scenario. Kwame explains this when Illing asks “What determines which of these identities are activated at any given time?” Kwame explains in it pretty simple terms using his own identity of being a gay American, “So there’s an upcoming election and I’m very preoccupied with being an American and hoping that I can do something for my country and that my fellow citizens will go along. If I’m in a gay bar, then my gayness is salient and so is the fact that I’m male. When I’m teaching a philosophy class, I’m aware of the fact that the male and female students are male and female — I can’t ignore it. But it doesn’t seem very relevant to what we’re talking about, unless, of course, we’re talking about feminism, and then gender is very relevant.” It’s simple, all based on the what the scenario is, is when you show the identity you want.

We can conclude that with identities we find ourselves hiding who we really are because of what is considered OK by society. If we as a society shame people for who they really are we will never end the hate for minority groups and we will never find our true identify as a human race.

Word count:1811

Work cited

Illing, Sean. “Why Identity Is a Lie We Can’t Live without.” Vox Media, 02 Nov. 2018.


Yoshino, Kenji. “Preface, The New Civil Rights” Emerging: Contemporary Reading for

Writers,           Barclay Barrios, Bedford/St. Martins, 2010, 479-488.

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