Julianna Conley | Thursday, February 28, 2019
Recently, a friend and I got into a recurring dispute. “I believe in equality,” she explained. “But I’m not angry. So I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a feminist.” While she believes in equal rights for men and women, she refuses to identify as a feminist because of “the implications.”
In high school, a good friend and I discussed racial identity. “I strongly identify with my mother’s Irish heritage, but I don’t want people to think of me as racist, so I don’t tell people I’m white,” a half-Ecuadorian, half-Irish friend explained to me senior year of high school.
I, too, find myself falling into the trap, answering people’s questions regarding my faith by explaining that “I’m religious, but I’m don’t shove it down other people’s throats.”
If you listen to people talk, they often justify their identities with qualifications. They explain that they’re different from the rest of the group. They add a clause to ensure that people understand what they mean, that people understand they are different, and special and unique. People qualify their identity to ensure their individual status remains unburdened by the sins of the group. And it needs to stop.
When we justify our complex identities, we allow others to consider us exceptions to their preconceived notions. If I say, “I’m liberal, but I’m not righteous,” I reinforce the assumption that all liberal people are strident. I differentiate myself from the main group, but I keep the stigma on the group. By explaining that I don’t fit the generalized notion of a group, I affirm the stereotype as true. By adding a but, I imply that one aspect of my identity nullifies another. That without the “but,” my identity would be invalid.
This justifying doesn’t help anyone. Instead, it forces people to exist in social constructs. It forces a belief, a religion, a gender, an interest: an identity to present itself in one expression.
My junior year of high school, my friend Shahmir was talking to his friends when the conversation turned to politics. Someone commented on how President Trump’s immigration ban was helpful because “Muslim immigrants are terrorists.” Awkwardly, Shahmir replied, “I’m an immigrant … and I’m Muslim.” “Oh, Shahmir, we don’t mean you. We mean regular Muslims. You’re an exception.” And that was that.
In a given day, we experience so much stimuli and information, it’s impossible for our brains to process all of it. If we had to stop and actively identify a pencil as a pencil or a teacher as a teacher, we would be paralyzed. So we bracket. We classify and group and generalize, and this, for the most part, helps us get through the day by streamlining our thinking.
But the problem is people are complex. They don’t necessarily fit into our streamlined brackets. They’re messy and dynamic and unpredictable. They are individuals. When we apply our brackets to them, we take away their individuality. We clean the messiness, but, in doing so, strip them of their unique person. We confine them to one definition. We look at a group of religious people, or immigrants or politically minded people and limit a massive, complex group of people to one expression. One way of existing.
As individuals, we recognize our own personal complexities, but we don’t want to realize that other people are complex, too, because that forces us to redefine the narrow brackets we have created for our perceptions of the world. If we recognize Shahmir as a “regular Muslim immigrant,” it means we must re-evaluate what it means to be a Muslim immigrant. It creates discord; it makes us uncomfortable. So we consider him an exception. We hold on to our definition and explain him away. Our limited perspectives make it easy to see others as one-dimensional and classify them as such.
However, when we look at ourselves, we remember our own complexities and thus don’t feel comfortable adhering to the one-dimensional groups we imposed on others. We look at other people and put them in that group, because that’s all they are to us. But when we consider ourselves, we realize we are more. So we justify. We add a “but” after claiming a group to explain that we’re more than that.
However, when we state who we are without qualification, we force the people around us to adjust their definitions of what it means to be a part of that group. We breach their realities, and thus, they must reconsider what is real. What it means to be a Christian. Who is a feminist. Why people are a part of a certain political group. We redefine the norm. We empower people to understand that one group contains a multitude of ideas and personalities and experiences. We allow people an opportunity to broaden their definitions of others and create a more accepting, inclusive world.
For groups with negative connotations, our unapologetic identification is even more important, because it allows us to dismantle the stigma. By being a positive member, you prove the negative association wrong. By being a religious Christian who also believes same-sex marriage should be legal, I make it impossible for someone to say that all Christian people oppose same-sex marriage. By being a gentle, kind feminist who believes in equal rights for men and women, I make it impossible for someone to say that all feminists hate men. By claiming these groups without adding a “but,” I serve as a non-example against the hateful rhetoric rather than an exception that upholds it. By being religious and liberal, by loving math and English, by being white and nondiscriminatory, I refute any insinuation that the character traits are mutually exclusive. I make clear they are not contradictory.
By existing without qualification, without apology, I allow myself to be everything and anything I feel called to be. I put aside my fear of people thinking of me a certain way and allow my actions to speak for who I am. I allow my impact to define me, rather than a word. By deleting the “but,” I make space for the “and.” I expand the limits of the classification to make space for other people who don’t fit perfectly into social labels. I set a precedent for the future.
We have the power to redefine the group. To change how people see one another. We are, by definition, society. We get to decide what that means.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.