When Worlds Collide
Navigating and Integrating One’s Own Racial, Sexual and Social Identities
Darrell P. Wheeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work
When asked to write a short piece for Currents on the intersection of multiple identities, I quickly said yes. It seemed like tahe right thing to do and I felt confident that I could accomplish the task in short order. Well, as reality and time took over, I soon realized that this simple task would require more of me than I had initially thought. In preparing this entry, I was asked to examine my multiple identities and the ways in which they operate in my own life. To begin, I had to ask myself, what is identity and what are my many identities. Webster’s dictionary includes the following definitions of identity, “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances” and “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/identity).
Miehls and Hall (2001) emphasize that the ability to dialogue about issues of identity is a reflection of the degree of complex identity(ies) development. In developing this dialogue (internally or with others), one would necessarily need to take account of the many identities held. Such an inventory would be voluminous for most of us as identities change with time, circumstances, and sometimes due to external forces. In this brief examination, three identities are selected for their relevance to the theme of this month’s Currents – race, sexual orientation and social class. It should also be pointed out that, the author claims no exceptional authority on understanding anyone else’s identity dialogue, but rather, offers this framework as a way of considering the complexities of dealing with the intersection of race, sexual orientation and social class in American society.
One perspective for examining this complex dialogue would be to dissect and examine each identity separately. In this model, one would consider for example, race as a factor in one’s life separate and distinct from any other identity. There is undoubtedly validity and import to doing this. Such an examination in the American context should produce a critical examination of the application of racial categories in the American experience. This examination, if honest and critical would require considerable examination of the meanings of race and ways that race has been used to exclude some and include others. Such an examination would require an examination of racism in all of its forms and the realization that while it hurts some, it benefits others. This duality is part of an uncomfortable but very real portrait of the “American racial identity.” While not just a Black and White issue, racial identity in America has to be examined against the presumptive normalness of being “white” and the “otherness” of being anything but White.
Similarly, when we consider sexual orientation and other forms of gender expression, these have to be examined in a context of the prevailing heterosexual and compartmentalized views of man and woman, male and female, straight and gay. These compartmentalized, and mutually exclusive constructs create an environment where being in one box automatically excludes you from the other, even if the lived and felt reality is far from this simplistic construction of the perfect order. Social class, like race and sexual orientation is a construct that has to be examined in context. For Americans the belief that one can move along the social continuum (i.e., from a have-not to a have position) based solely on his or her desire, commitment and hard work is part of the very fragile and very American dream. A closer examination of these factors reveals that social class is highly influenced by one’s starting place in the game. If you are well resourced, well positioned and “well-birthed”, your chances for success are greater than those without these benefits. While this framework of examining the identities separately has utility, it undermines the very complexity of the multiple identities, specifically, that these identities are co-occurring and influence each other in ways that cannot be explained by any one identity.
So, back to the purpose of this article, namely, examining the intersection of multiple identities. When I started this project, I thought I would be writing about being Black, gay or of a particular social class, and the ways these identities play out in my life. As I looked at the issue more closely, I realized that the more appropriate, and possibly more important approach, was to promote individual and collective dialogues about the meaning of these identities in each of our lives. The issue of intersecting identities is not only complex because of the identities themselves, but when we try to explain this to someone else; we have to consider the other person’s identities and their influence on the interpretation. What I am really getting at is that while we might like to have a simple answer for understanding how these identities work in our lives, the reality is that we have to work hard to unravel the meanings at an individual level. It is just too easy to assume that by knowing a person’s sexual orientation, race and social class you know or understand the person. You may have some insight, but it is very likely that that insight is as much a product of your own identity integration and development as it is of your knowledge of the other. As social workers, we like to say we start where the client is, but to this, we have to add, we can only do that based on where we are. The work of understanding the intersection of identities for the other requires investment in a dialogical process, not a snapshot.