Monday, May 12, 2014

Owning My Voice: The Difficulty of Negotiating Multiple Identities


I have learned to downplay certain parts of my identity for the purpose of getting along with everyone.  This is something I pride myself on, and it has potentially contributed to my academic success.  I am good at school and I am good at making friends.  In order for this to work, I censor, filter, and second-guess most of the comments I make in conversation with others.  Often, I choose not to say what I’m thinking.  Sometimes it’s because I don’t want others to think of me a certain way, put me in a box I’d rather not inhabit, or engage me in a debate that I don’t have the energy to win. 

On the plus side, I  have good relationships with friends and colleagues who are of different races, religions, genders, sexualities, and political parties.  Further, sociological research suggests that there are material and social consequences for people who over-emphasize certain pieces of their identity.  For example, blacks who are vocal about race are labeled as “militant” and experience social isolation in majority white workplaces. The same is true for women who are vocal about gender in majority male workplaces.  Mothers are penalized in multiple sectors and are seen as less committed to their jobs.  So maybe it has helped me to be less political about “race issues”, assertive in maintaining working relationships with men and white women, and discreet with colleagues about the challenges of balancing work and family.

But the costly byproduct if this chameleon-like negotiation of identities is that I am unheard. People don’t know what I think and I am left questioning what my own voice really sounds like.

I second-guess my thoughts and opinions in the classroom.  I am never satisfied or confident enough in my work.  I am terrified of putting my scholarship “out there” because I have spent so much time cultivating my identity to be palatable that the fear of rejection is palpable.

So, what good am I? 

We can assume that in many circles (both professional and social), I may be the only black person/ woman/ parent/ sociologist/ liberal/ Christian/ “insert identity” in the room.  What good am I if my voice does not challenge assumptions in that room? What impact does my presence have?

Perhaps there are few spaces where I can be my whole self, all the time.  But isn’t interpersonal growth about learning from others?  I’m still getting used to this dance – put it all out there, put some of it out there, put none of it out there. My hope is that I can engage with others and also be true to all of my identities.

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