Dear Freshman: Identity

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Dear Freshman,

This year, I've heard the phrase "identity politics" a lot. I guess the idea is that people let their identities dictate their political stances and alliances instead of grouping together by party. I've never understood why saying something like "hey, LGBTQ people deal with unique problems everyone else doesn't, and I'm part of an LGBTQ group trying to do something about that" is so horrible, but political talk makes everyone jumpy and irrational, I guess.

The concept of identity and how it shapes your opinions, worldview, lifestyle, and choices is nothing new, though. And it's a huge part of the college experience. Let's talk a little about some of the pieces that make up a person's identity, and how we think about them differently in a college environment.

This letter is going to be limited in what I can teach based on my own personal experience. Just warning you. So let's get personal.

I'm white, so I can only talk about my experience being white.

This is a "big one" right now, and as a white person in America I don't always feel qualified to talk about it. But that feeling, in and of itself, is part of the college identity struggle. I care about the problems non-white people face both at my school and in my country. As a white person, I often have an easier time talking and being heard than any non-white peers. But I spend so much time afraid of saying the wrong thing that I often fail to say the right thing. And I want very much to give my non-white friends the platform and the voice for their own struggles and not speak over them. Sometimes it's hard to figure out when I should be quiet and listen to someone else's story, and when I should speak up and use my privilege to help those who don't have that benefit.

I don't have any answers yet. I haven't found that balance. But I'm working on it. I admit when I screw up — when I'm unintentionally racist, when I've accidentally stereotyped someone, when something I did or said hurt someone else — and I try to ask questions and really listen to the answers. I try to accept what's said, even if it's not what I expected to hear. That's what's really important right now: learning and listening.

A lot of people on campus talk about this in tandem with race, but they are two different things. A Latinx student from Chicago has very different experiences from a Latinx student from Ecuador. As a child of the military, I have a vastly different relationship to nationality than most of the other 84% white student population.

I was born in Panama. Much of my early development took place in Germany. I started school in South Dakota and formed some of my strongest childhood friendships in rural New York. I experienced all the struggles of middle school, as well as my first depressive episode (I have bipolar), in Okinawa, Japan. I graduated high school in Georgia (the state, not the country). Now I'm finishing college in Indiana and preparing to move to Texas.

From Japan, I learned about collectivism and saw firsthand how Americans are viewed by other cultures. This had a deep, lasting impact on my opinions of and interactions with students at my school, many of whom grew up in Illinois, Indiana, or Michigan and have never left the country before their first study abroad.

Nationality can be a very difficult topic for people like me, called third culture kids. Externally, I am defined (as most people are) by appearance (race), language and accent, and the influences of my immediate family. Internally, I experience a constant struggle between my categorization as typical white American Christian and my global worldview and sometimes shockingly "un-American" ideas.

Whatever your nationality, whatever your background, whatever people think of you, remember: give yourself room to breathe and to think for yourself. Don't let others' opinions and labels limit you. Don't feel the need to label yourself immediately, either. Like with most parts of self and identity, the most important thing you can do is give yourself time (and grace).

I've had several people with minority gender identities on this blog for interviews and guest posts before. As a cisgender person (I identify with the gender assigned to me at birth), my experience has not been as difficult as that of my trans and agender and genderfluid friends. However, as a woman, especially one who grew up in a conservative complementarian religious sphere, I still deal with gender identity struggles. 

Freshman year, I felt like less of a woman because I didn't know how to do makeup or wear as much jewelry or own as many shoes as the other girls in my dorm. Every year, I still face the classic egalitarian vs complementarian debate that comes with living in a mixed-denomination Christian environment. I have transitioned from my desire to be a perfect little stay-at-home-mom homemaker/wife who makes all her clothes and food from scratch (ha) to... definitely not that. If you go far back enough on this blog, you can see that transition for yourself. It's definitely documented.

While I didn't challenge my gender as a woman in college, I faced a whole lot of questions about what my gender really looks like to me and how I want to live it out. My conclusions? Well, I still don't wear makeup. I wear heels and skirts far less often than I did in high school. I'm not a career woman like my classmates. And I'm a feminist who will defend every woman's right to make these choices — clothes, career, parenting — for herself.

My advice? Same as everything else: give yourself grace, give yourself time, think it through, and don't let anyone else define this for you or limit you.

In closing...
There are plenty of other aspects of identity I just don't have the knowledge or time to cover. The complexity of socioeconomic class is one identity-forming factor that is too often overlooked. A person's politics are heavily influenced by their college experiences, as well, and then play into their sense of self. Your faith, influenced by parents and location as much as your own mind, is a vastly personal and confusing thing to navigate. Educational background can bring people together or create distance depending on whether you feel more or less prepared for college compared to your classmates and peers. And I think I've written about sexuality enough on this blog to skip it for this particular letter. (You can read those posts here.)

Our lives are influenced by so many different things, but in all of these conversations, a few main principles are the same. Take time to consider these topics; you don't have to figure out the answers before you graduate. Be patient with yourself; self-exploration is messy and emotional and exhausting. You'll need to be kind and understanding and take care of yourself in the process. And don't let your professors or your parents or your background or your friends decide the answers for you. It's tempting to just let go of your own life and let someone else make choices for you. It can seem so much easier than learning to be yourself. But it's not worth it. Limiting yourself to someone else's box, or defining yourself by someone else's expectations, will only eventually lead to frustration and a lack of authenticity.

So go out there. Explore your identity. Have tough conversations with friends late at night. And eventually, along the way, you'll figure out the best, healthiest, most honest way to just be yourself.



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