When making sense of one’s identity, questions include, “Who are you?” “Where do you belong?,” and the related question, “How do you treat others?” Is it possible to answer these questions in ways that satisfy our human need to belong, without the cost of dividing humanity into problematic categories?
Identity questions, and the identity crisis that comes with it, are new.
Yoel Inbar, a social psychology professor at the University of Toronto (U of T), says that until recent years, people inherited their parents’ occupations and lived in more ethnically homogenous communities. He says people did not question who they were and what they were supposed to do, because their futures were predetermined.
Now, as the global community diversifies, Inbar says, “there’s a universe of choices that you might feel obliged to optimize that in the past you didn’t even have to worry about.”
The freedom of forming our own identity, suggests Inbar, can have a cost on our mental health. Anxiety and depression increase without a strong sense of who you are and what you should do.
Children of immigrant and multicultural families feel the effects of inconsistent identity most strongly.
Kimia Sedig, a student at Western University, only started having identity crises in her teens. She says this is because she did not understand the complexity of the world as a child.
“I was like, ‘I am Kimia, and that’s all there is to it,’” she says.
It did not occur to her that her parents’ Jewish and Iranian cultures would have a significant impact on her identity.
As adults, simple personality identities do not cut it anymore. When Shakib Mohsin, a student at U of T, is asked where he is from, he feels answering “Canada” is insufficient. To those asking, he is different, and they are looking for classification.
“It felt like you had to be a part of something that you didn’t really identify with,” Mohsin says.
Though Mohsin’s parents are from Bangladesh, his relatives would mock him for not speaking Bengali. He also did not identify with Bengali norms, like loving the taste of fish.
Sedig describes a similar dilemma. She says it felt like she was “hanging in a limbo between two nicely boxed cultures” because she did not have a strong sense of belonging to either one.
Sedig experienced subtle discrimination for not being a typical Canadian. At the same time, because she was not fluent in Farsi and did not know enough of her cultural history and its traditions, she felt she was not “enough” to wholly identify with her parents’ Jewish and Iranian cultures.
Not only did Mohsin and Sedig feel torn between their cultures, Mohsin says he likes learning and feeling a connection with many things, including cultures that he did not inherit by genetics or circumstance.
“The world isn’t just one thing so why should I be,” he says.
Mohsin describes this fluid identity as a “wanderer.” This is similar to what Sedig says is part of growing up: you realize there are parts of you predetermined to have specific social connotations – like the way you look and where you come from – that shape the way you experience the world.
Having had a culturally mixed experience growing up, she realized that she had to maneuver through cultural aspects and figure out what elements she really wanted to keep and which elements may or may not have been appropriate to incorporate into her life.
Maneuvering is different from wandering. Though flexible and evolving, maneuvering implies structure and method. It means following, and building, a framework of expectations about the world and how you should be.
According to the identity development model from the book Counselling American Minorities, people have a fulfilled identity when they can objectively view cultural values, and have the internal knowledge and skills to navigate their personal freedom. This internal value system, or framework, allows us to navigate the world and relates to social identities. Humans need the structure and connection that group identity gives.
“The stronger your group, the happier you will be, all else (being) equal,” Inbar says.
He says a superseding group identity that unites diverse people “should be a group that really has some punch to it in terms of a strong goal, a strong sense of group identity, a strong set of group norms that we care about.”
Sedig says she found this in the Bahá’í Faith, a world religion founded by Bahá’u’lláh. Its basic principles and core values include the oneness of humankind and universal education. Its activities, the aim of which is the social transformation of the world, are global, and applied locally through a systematic learning culture. It promotes the belief that we are of one human body and that diversity is to be celebrated.
By fitting cultural aspects of her life within the encompassing framework of her primary identity, Sedig says she has found a degree of peace.
“I don’t feel like I constantly need to be defining myself with these secondary identities and, as such, I don’t feel like a fraud laying claim to any of them,” she says.
The elements that makeup who she is – like her Persian, Jewish, and Canadian cultures – are still being put together, but the framework of universal humanity makes it whole.
Whatever your primary identity, the qualities and aspirations that unite us need to be prioritized over cultural differences. Socially constructed categorizations can be messy and incompatible and there is more to life than can be defined by the labels that will always fall short of fully encompassing who we are.
“We’re not titles, we’re not labels. We’re people. We’re human beings,” says Mohsin.
This is the heart of the human framework, our primary identity.