The Complexity of Identity:
“Who Am I?”
Beverly Daniel Tatum
The concept of identity is a complex one, shaped by individual characteristics, family
dynamics, historical factors, and social and political contexts. Who am I? The answer
depends in large part on who the world around me says I am. Who do my parents say I
am? Who do my peers say I am? What message is reflected back to me in the faces and
voices of my teachers, my neighbors, store clerks? What do I learn from the media about
myself? How am I represented in the cultural images around me? Or am I missing from
the picture altogether? As social scientist Charles Cooley pointed out long ago, other
people are the mirror in which we see ourselves.1
This "looking glass self" is not a flat one-dimensional reflection, but multidimensional. How one's racial identity is experienced will be mediated by other dimensions of oneself: male or female; young or old; wealthy, middle-class, or poor; gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgender, or heterosexual; able-bodied or with disabilities; Christian, Muslim, Jewish,
Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist. ...
What has my social context been? Was I surrounded by people like myself, or was I
part of a minority in my community? Did I grow up speaking standard English at home or
another language or dialect? Did I live in a rural county, an urban neighborhood, a
sprawling suburb, or on a reservation?
Who I am (or say I am) is a product of these and many other factors. Erik Erikson,
the psychoanalytic theorist who coined the term identity crisis, introduced the notion that
the social, cultural, and historical context is the ground in which individual identity is
embedded. Acknowledging the complexity of identity as a concept, Erikson writes,
We deal with a process "located" in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture…. In psychological terms, identity formation employs a process of simultaneous
reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental functioning, by
which the individual judges himself in the light of what he perceives to be the way in which
others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to them.2
Triggered by the biological changes associated with puberty, the maturation of cognitive abilities, and changing societal expectations, this process of simultaneous reflection
and observation, the self-creation of one's identity, is commonly experienced in the
United States and other Western societies during the period of adolescence.' Though the
foundation of identity is laid in the experiences of childhood, younger children lack the
physical and cognitive development needed to reflect on the self in this abstract way. The
adolescent capacity for self-reflection (and resulting self-consciousness) allows one to
ask, "Who am I now?" "Who was I before?" "Who will I become?" The answers to these
questions will influence choices about who one's romantic partners will be, what type of
work one will do, where one will live, and what belief system one will embrace. Choices
made in adolescence ripple throughout the lifespan.
Who Am I? Multiple Identities
Integrating one’s past, present, and future into a cohesive, unified sense of self is a
complex task that begins in adolescence and continues for a lifetime.... The salience of
particular aspects of our identity varies at different moments in our lives. The process of
integrating the component parts of our self-definition is indeed a lifelong journey.
Which parts of our identity capture our attention first? While there are surely
idiosyncratic responses to this question, a classroom exercise I regularly use with my
psychology students reveals a telling pattern. I ask my students to complete the sentence,
"I am____________," using as many descriptors as they can think of in sixty seconds. All
kinds of trait descriptions are used-friendly, shy, assertive, intelligent, honest, and so onbut over the years I have noticed something else. Students of color usually mention their
racial or ethnic group: for instance. I am Black, Puerto Rican, Korean American. White
students who have grown up in strong ethnic enclaves occasionally mention being Irish
or Italian. But in general, White students rarely mention being White. When I use this
exercise in coeducational settings, I notice a similar pattern in terms of gender, religion,
and sexuality. Women usually mention being female, while men don't usually mention
their maleness. Jewish students often say they are Jews. while mainline Protestants rarely
mention their religious identification. A student who is comfortable revealing it publicly
may mention being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Though I know most of my students are
heterosexual, it is very unusual for anyone to include their heterosexuality on their list.
Common across these examples is that in the areas where a person is a member of the
dominant or advantaged social group, the category is usually not mentioned. That
element of their identity is so taken for granted by them that it goes without comment. It
is taken for granted by them because it is taken for granted by the dominant culture. In
Eriksonian terms, their inner experience and outer circumstance are in harmony with me
another, and the image reflected by others is similar to the image within. In the absence
of dissonance, this dimension of identity escapes conscious attention.
The parts of our identity that do capture our attention are those that other people
notice, and that reflect back to us. The aspect of identity that is the target of others'
attention, and subsequently of our own, often is that which sets us apart as exceptional or
"other" in their eyes. In my life I have been perceived as both. A precocious child who
began to read at age three, I stood out among my peers because of my reading ability.
This "gifted" dimension of my identity was regularly commented upon by teachers and
classmates alike, and quickly became part of my self-definition. But I was also distinguished by being the only Black student in the class, an "other," a fact I grew increasingly
aware of as I got older.
While there may be countless ways one might be defined as exceptional, there are at
least seven categories of "otherness" commonly experienced in U.S. society. People are
commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual
orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/
anti-Semitism,4 heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. In each case,
there is a group considered dominant (systematically advantaged by the society because
of group membership) and a group considered subordinate or targeted (systematically
disadvantaged). When we think about our multiple identities, most of us will find that we
are both dominant and targeted at the same time. But it is the targeted identities that hold
our attention and the dominant identities that often go unexamined.
In her essay. "Age. Race. Class. and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Audre
Lorde captured the tensions between dominant and targeted identities co-existing in one
individual. This self-described "forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist
mother of two" wrote,
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each
one of us within our hearts knows "that is not me." In america, this norm is usually defined as
white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this
mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within society. Those of us who stand
outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be
the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of
which we ourselves may be practicing. 5
Even as I focus on race and racism in my own writing and teaching, it is helpful to
remind myself and my students of the other distortions around difference that I (and they)
may be practicing. It is an especially useful way of generating empathy for our mutual
learning process. If I am impatient with a White woman for not recognizing her White
privilege, it may be useful for me to remember how much of my life I spent oblivious to
the fact of the daily advantages I receive simply because I am heterosexual, or the ways
in which I may take my class privilege for granted.
Domination and Subordination
It is also helpful to consider the commonality found in the experience of being
dominant or subordinate even when the sources of dominance or subordination are
different. Jean Baker Miller, author of Toward a New Psychology of Women, has identified
some of these areas of commonality. 6
Dominant groups, by definition, set the parameters within which the subordinates
operate. The dominant group holds the power and authority in society relative to the
subordinates and determines how that power and authority may be acceptably used.
Whether it is reflected in determining who gets the best jobs, whose history will be taught
in school, or whose relationships will be validated by society, the dominant group has the
greatest influence in determining the structure of the society.
The relationship of the dominants to the subordinates is often one in which the targeted group is labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways. For example,
Blacks have historically been characterized as less intelligent than Whites, and women
have been viewed as less emotionally stable than men. The dominant group assigns roles
to the subordinate that reflect the latter's devalued status, reserving the most highly
valued roles in the society for themselves. Subordinates are usually said to be innately
incapable of performing the preferred roles. To the extent that those in the target group
internalize the images that the dominant group reflects back to them, they may find it
difficult to believe in their own ability.
When a subordinate demonstrates positive qualities believed to be more characteristic
of dominants, the individual is defined by dominants as an anomaly. Consider the following illustrative example. Following a presentation I gave to some educators, a White man
approached me and told me how much he liked my ideas and how articulate I was. "You
know," he concluded, "if I had had my eyes closed, I wouldn't have known it was a Black
woman speaking." (I replied, "This is what a Black Woman sounds like.")
The dominant group is seen as the norm for humanity. Jean Baker Miller also asserts
that inequitable social relations are seen as the model for "normal human relationships."
Consequently, it remains _perfectly acceptable in many circles to tell jokes that denigrate
a particular group, to exclude subordinates from one's neighborhood or work setting, or to
oppose initiatives that might change the power balance.
Miller points out that dominant groups generally do not like to be reminded of the
existence of inequality. Because rationalizations have been created to justify the social
arrangements, it is easy to believe everything is as it should be. Dominants "can avoid
awareness because their explanation of the relationship becomes so well integrated in
other terms; they can even believe both they and the subordinate group share the same
interests and, to some extent, a common experience.”7
The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experiences of the
subordinates is. In contrast, the subordinates are very well informed about the dominants.
Even when firsthand experience is limited by social segregation, the number and variety
of images of the dominant group available through television, magazines, books, and
newspapers provide subordinates with plenty of information about the dominants. The
dominant worldview has saturated the culture for all to learn. Even the Black or Latino
child living in a segregated community can enter White homes of many kinds daily via
the media. However, dominant access to information about the subordinates is often
limited to stereotypical depictions of the "other." For example, there are many images of
heterosexual relations on television, but very few images of gay or lesbian domestic partnerships beyond the caricatures of comedy shows. There are many images of White men
and women in all forms of media, but relatively few portrayals of people of color.
Not only is there greater opportunity for the subordinates to learn about the dominants, there is also greater need. Social psychologist Susan Fiske writes, "It is a simple
principle: People pay attention to those who can control their outcomes. In an effort to
predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information
about those with power."8
In a situation of unequal power, a subordinate group has to focus on survival. It
becomes very important for subordinates to become highly attuned to the dominants as a
way of protecting themselves. For example, women who have been battered by men often
talk about the heightened sensitivity they develop to their partners' moods. Being able to
anticipate and avoid the men's rage is important to survival.
Survival sometimes means not responding to oppressive behavior directly. To do so
could result in physical harm to oneself, even death. In his essay "The Ethics of Living
Jim Crow" Richard Wright describes eloquently the various strategies he learned to use to
avoid the violence of Whites who would brutalize a Black person who did not "stay in his
place."9 Though it is tempting to think that the need for such strategies disappeared with
Jim Crow laws, their legacy lives on in the frequent and sometimes fatal harassment
Black men experience at the hands of White police officers.10
Because of the risks inherent in unequal relationships, subordinates often develop
covert ways of resisting or undermining the power of the dominant group. As Miller
points out, popular culture is full of folktales, jokes, and stories about how the
subordinate - whether the woman, the peasant, or the sharecropper - outwitted the
"boss."11 In his essay "I Won't Learn from You," Herbert Kohl identifies one form of
resistance, "not learning," demonstrated by targeted students who are too often seen by
their dominant teachers as "others":
Not-learning tends to take place when someone has to deal with unavoidable challenges to her
or his personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity. In such situations, there are forced
choices and no apparent middle ground. To agree to learn from a stranger who does not
respect your integrity causes a major loss of self. The only alternative is to not-learn and reject
The use of either strategy, attending very closely to the dominants or not attending at
all, is costly to members of the targeted group. "Not-learning" may mean there are needed
skills that are not acquired. Attending Closely to the dominant group may leave little time
or energy to attend to one's self. Worse yet, the negative messages of the dominant group
about the subordinates may be internalized, leading to self-doubt or, in its extreme form,
self-hate. There are many examples of subordinates attempting to make themselves over
in the image of the dominant group-Jewish people who want to change the Semitic look
of their noses, Asians who have cosmetic surgery to alter the shapes of their eyes, Blacks
who seek to lighten their skin with bleaching creams, women who want to smoke and
drink "like a man." Whether one succumbs to the devaluing pressures of the dominant
culture or successfully resists them, the fact is that dealing with oppressive systems from
the underside, regardless of the strategy, is physically and psychologically taxing.
Breaking beyond the structural and psychological limitations imposed on one's group
is possible, but not easy. To the extent that members of targeted groups do push societal
limits-achieving unexpected success, protesting injustice, being "uppity"-by their actions
they call the whole system into question. Miller writes that they "expose the inequality,
and throw into question the basis for its existence. And they will make the inherent
conflict an open conflict. They will then have to bear the burden and take the risks that go
with being defined as ‘troublemakers.’”13
The history of subordinate groups is filled with so-called troublemakers, yet their
names are often unknown. Preserving the record of those subordinates and their dominant
allies who have challenged the status quo is usually of little interest to the dominant
culture, but it is of great interest to subordinates who search for an empowering reflection
in the societal mirror.
Many of us are both dominant and subordinate. As Audre Lorde said, from her
vantage point as a Black lesbian, “there is no hierarchy of oppressions.” The thread and
threat of violence runs through all of the isms. There is a need to acknowledge each
other’s pain, even as we attend to our own.
For those readers who are in the dominant racial category, it may sometimes be
difficult to take in what is being said by and about those who are targeted by racism.
When the perspective of the subordinate is shared directly, an image is reflected to
members of the dominant group that is disconcerting. To the extent that one can draw on
one's own experience of subordination - as a young person, as a person with a disability,
as someone who grew up poor, as a woman - it may be easier to make meaning of
another targeted group’s experience. For those readers who are targeted by racism and are
angered by the obliviousness of Whites, it may be useful to attend to your experience of
dominance where you may find it-as a heterosexual, as an able-bodied person, as a
Christian, as a man-and consider what systems of privilege you may be overlooking. The
task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of
acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.
Our ongoing examination of who we are in our full humanity, embracing all of our
identities, creates the possibility of building alliances that may ultimately free us all.
1. See C. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Scribner, 1922). George
H. Mead expanded on this idea in his book Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1934).
2. E. H. Erikson, Identity, Youth, and Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 22: emphasis
in the original.
3. For a discussion of the Western biases in the concept of the self and individual
identity. see A. Roland, "Identity, Self, and Individualism in a Multicultural
Perspective," in E. P. Salett and D. R. Koslow, eds., Race, Ethnicity, and Self: Identity in
Multicultural Perspective (Washington, D.C.: National MultiCultural Institute, 1994).
4. Anti-Semitism is a term commonly used to describe the oppression of Jewish people.
However, other Semitic peoples (Arab Muslims, for example) are also subject to
oppressive treatment on the basis of ethnicity as well as religion. For that reason, the
terms Jewish oppression and Arab oppression are sometimes used to specify the particular
form of oppression under discussion.
5. A. Lorde, "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference," in P. S.
Rothenberg, ed., Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, 3d ed.
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995),446; emphasis in the original.
6. J. B. Miller, "Domination and Subordination," in Toward a New Psychology of Women
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).
7. Ibid., 8; emphasis in the original.
8. S. T. Fiske, "Controlling Other People: The Impact of Power on Stereotyping,"
American Psychologist 48, no. 6 (1993), 621-28.
9. R. Wright, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" (1937), reprinted in P. S. Rothenberg,
ed., Race, C ...
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