Identity is a huge thing in my discipline, and many educational disciplines. But there's something that feels contradictory about the way identity is discussed in our field. In the theory and research, identity is very clearly rooted in a post-structuralist paradigm.
Identity is “how people view themselves in relation to the social world, how their view is constructed over time, and from that view, how they perceive their future possibilities.”
Identity here is almost an action; it can only by definition be something that shifts and changes from time to time. It's how we think of ourselves, it's the interplay between self-conception and social positioning, it's what we're able to stake out for ourselves in a social world that has certain written and unwritten rules about how to be.
Yet the way identity is talked about in popular discourse, even by scholars who ostensibly work within this more "fluid" paradigm, is much more fixed and rigid, and about categories: race/class/gender/sexual orientation/disability etc are treated like permanent, finite categories that have obvious major influences on people's "identities."
“... we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
The Breakfast Club
So on the one hand, we're told identity is an ever-changing discourse, a dynamic and shifting site at the nexus of the individual and society; on the other, it's an immutable and extremely socially pertinent set of boxes you check. Neither of these is satisfying. Most of us experience the world as coherent selves who, despite thinking about ourselves and our relationship to the world in different ways at different times in our lives, ultimately have what Christian Smith calls a "durable identity."
“By person I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who -- as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions -- exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”
On the other hand, we also experience jarring changes in our sense of ourselves; it is very common to say "I'm not the same person I once was." We've all heard the old chestnut about all our atoms rearranging or whatever, or the ship that is rebuilt piece by piece. Even the seemingly fixed identity categories are things that can change and that we may want to resist. A Japanese person who immigrates to the US may suddenly find he "is" "Asian American." A white American may move to an Asian country and suddenly find she "is" a "foreigner." We may resist being "labelled" and essentialized because we don't like being positioned by other people in ways that feel bad to us. We contain multitudes, often to the point that we can't even really "know ourselves" because we lack the capacity to understand "who we are" outside of our own subjective sense of self at any given time.
"One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all."
So we cannot know ourselves, we feel that we have a stable self even though we cannot really define it, and we are subject to constantly shifting self-conceptions and social positionings by others. How can we be said to "have" an identity? What is it that makes us coherently human?
You have an identity, not because you have invented one, or because you have a little hard core of selfhood that is unchanged, but because you have a witness of who you are. What you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love. You don’t have to work out and finalize who you are, and have been; you don’t have to settle the absolute truth of your history or story. In the eyes of the presence that never goes away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze.