The Complexities of Identities

In an attempt to create sense and order from chaos, society tries to categorize and stereotype everything. Twenty years from now when your children are asking you about your high school experience, one of their first questions will undoubtedly be, “who were you in high school?” Now look back at your high school experience; were you a goth, nerd, prep, fashionista, jock, skater? The list is endless.

Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls

In discussion last week, we compiled a list of what factors determine a person’s identity. Things the class came up with were: religion, gender, ethnicity, values, socioeconomic status, stereotype, culture, etc. Then afterwards, we did an activity where we each had to say one way in which we identity ourselves. I was shocked at many of the things my classmates said—I just could never put A to B. I realized that I had formed judgments on students, without actually knowing their personalities; judgments that weren’t even valid. For example, before I had defined the big jocks in my class as the textbook version of an athlete. Sure they were big, strong, athletic, but after that class activity, I realized they were also readers, writers, and even shoppers! This made me think about the fundamental basis of stereotypes and identity. What is your identity? Is your identity how you view yourself—funny, loyal, intuitive, etc.? Or is your identity how others view you—the athlete, the princess, the basketcase, the criminal, the brain?

Flashback—November 2012

“Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?” Mr. Gottlieb scribbled on the chalkboard. One wisecrack shouted out, “Are you actually asking an AP class to differentiate between a noun and an adjective?” A content Mr. Gottlieb looked at the nine words and simply said, “Yes.”

What is a cat? A noun. What is good? An adjective. These are questions any second grader could easily ace. Yet somehow, I could not answer this question. Was I a Jew, with the added quality of being American? Or, was I an American with the added quality of being a Jew? This was not a question of grammar I came to realize, this was a question of identity.

My parents and I were in Barcelona, it was 7:15, and we were taking a twenty-minute train ride back to our hotel. My father, wearing a visible yarmulke, in crisp English said, “we miscalculated the time, we are going to be late for Shabbat.”

Throughout the entire train ride, a suave Spanish man sitting only a few feet away, shamelessly gaped at us. Was he judging us for being typical American tourists, always worried about deadlines? Or, was he judging us for being observant Jews, celebrating the Jewish day of rest? After fifteen minutes of relentless stares, he finally got off the train. As he left, he looked at us and said, “Shabbat Shalom!” — the Jewish greeting to have a peaceful Sabbath. There was my answer; I am an American Jew.

End Flashback

What I came to realize was that the source of one’s identity could not be answered by a multiple choice test. A person’s identity is not either:

1.) How one views him/herself


2.) How others view that person.

Rather, identity is all of the above. An individual puts in the input, and society puts in the output. Society may stereotype a person as a jock, prep, nerd, goth but those stereotypes can only be formed by the information an individual provides—the way you talk, act, and dress. My family and I were speaking in English, a language spoken in most countries. Therefore, he could not necessarily deduce that we were American. But, looking at us also, he couldn’t identity that we were Jews, either. The stranger identified us as “Jews” and not as “Americans” because we were the type of people whose choice of conversation was the Jewish Sabbath and not NYC or thanksgiving. And alas our identity was formed, given the choices we made.

Identity Mind Map
A quote from the Hebrew Talmud

One thought on “The Complexities of Identities

  1. This post was very thought-provoking! I find it interesting though, that you identify as an American Jew solely because someone else saw you as very Jewish. I don’t think you have to identify that way at all just because someone saw you a certain way. What if you really were talking about NYC in that moment? Does that mean that suddenly you are a Jewish American in that moment if he couldn’t identify you as Jewish? I think identity is more holistic than just that one conversation and I don’t think your identity is formed by others based on decisions you make, as you suggest. I think people have more agency than this.

    What if I identify as an American Jew because I feel more tied to the Jewish people than I do to Americans? My family emigrated from Israel and we speak Hebrew at home, but we aren’t religious at all. We celebrate holidays with family friends here who are also from Israel, so Thanksgiving, Passover, etc. all take place in Hebrew. That said, all we do in my family is celebrate holidays. Our religious views aren’t that solid/cohesive relative to our definite tie with Israel/Palestine. Strangers obviously rarely perceive me as Jewish unless they hear me speak Hebrew on the phone with my mom. Regardless, I still choose to identify as an American Jew because that’s how I feel. Other identities people place on me may be true, like being American, being white, etc. That doesn’t determine the strength or salience of the identities I hold though.


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