I'm a Political Scientist by training (well, I'm still training, but all the same) and a Sociologist in my head, so to me identity is the way individuals label themselves as part of specific groups. Identity tells us what roles we're supposed to fill in our day to day life and they tell other people what to expect from us. In politics, identity seems to very heavily influence how we vote and what we believe. Identity can be so strong that people who identify with one party will continue to vote for that party even when it stops reflecting their best interests. Identity can also help politicians win voters by performing the identity of those whose votes they hope to influence, Republicans seem exceptionally good at this. George W. Bush gained popularity among many people in this country by identifying himself as a middle class mid-westerner, despite the fact that his family is very wealthy and from New England. People who identify as middle-class and from the mid-west (that's a lot of people, including many people who are actually decently wealthy and who don't actually live in the mid-west) saw that, and believed they knew something about the person Bush was based on what they assume about people who have that identity, people like them.
The role of identity in politics however is not what I mean to talk about right now.
What I want to talk about is what it means to have an identity, and what we do when we have an identity but don't fit what people expect of that identity.
I've been thinking about this since one day in a class on the Sociology of Sexuality we were discussing sexual subcultures and I realized that I belonged to all of the sexual subcultures listed in some way. That I identified with the label given to that sub culture, and that when we were talking about these sexual subcultures in the abstract we were talking about me, and lots of people who aren't me. Then, yesterday I read Essin-Em's post on Femme identity and the topic was even more ingrained in my thoughts. So, I discussed the whole thing with a few people, and after some kind of confusing conversations I think I have some thoughts.
On one side, identities are very important. For one thing, categorizing things helps us understand the world. But much more importantly having identities allows those of us who don't have the privilege of being default people to feel like we have a place. It's much more comfortable to be able to tell yourself that you're part of a group than it is to simply realize that you're not part of the dominant group.
Being able to name the things I am has always been very important to me. I was rather sheltered in my youth, so my world was totally rocked when my best friend informed me, in a very matter-of-fact way, that one of her friends at school was bisexual. I didn't even know that that was a thing, and it made me so excited to know that it wasn't just me who was attracted to boys and attracted to girls. Since then my sexual identity has progressed in to something a bit more complicated, but it remains important to me to know that there are other people like me.
Having an identity is, to me at least, having a place. And having words for what I am makes me feel less alone. However, it's important to realize that we still have identities that we don't necessarily embrace in the same way. I'm white, this is an identity I have, but because the rest of the culture expects and privileges whiteness, if I'm not paying attention it's very easy to not think about that identity. It isn't important to me, but I can't ignore the fact that the rest of the world sees that identity and treats me differently because of it. In fact, since I have a boyfriend I generally read as straight and as such enjoy much of straight privilege but since I embrace my not-straight identity it makes me uncomfortable when people assume that I'm straight. Whiteness however is just there. I think to some extent this is why people who are closer to the default person can have a hard time understanding why identity is important, but the fact that society expects something else is what's important about having identities.
On the other hand, identities can be dangerous. Trying to define what it means to have a specific identity for anyone but yourself lends itself to creating very specific boxes that just continue to leave other people out. Also, identifying as certain things and displaying that identity can cause people to think things that are very untrue about you. Of course, we can fight negative stereotypes, but what do we do when other people who share our identity decide that people who are like us can't be people like them? What do we do when people assume having one identity means you can't have another? I'm not really sure, but I think it's something to keep in mind. Identities are limiting if we use them as just a different paradigm to tell us what we have to be.
There's a lot more to say in here, but I think this is enough for now. Expect more later.