When Identity Gets In The Way
“As a queer person, I feel…”
The other night, I was talking with someone who said something along these lines and although I’ve heard that kind of thing many times (with substitutions where it says “queer”), I finally figured out what it is about that phrase that bothers me.
I had a teacher once who pointed out that in English, we tend to say things like “I am hungry” while other languages approach it differently. In French or Spanish, for example, the literal translation is “I have hunger”. While this might seem like a trivial difference at first glance, it’s pretty profound. If I say “I’m feeling anger” instead of “I am angry”, then I’m also leaving room to feel sadness, boredom, excitement, or an itch on my foot. Rather than claiming “angry” as everything I am, I’m acknowledging both its presence in that moment AND creating room for feeling additional things.
Many people who have meditated regularly will be familiar with this- human beings are terrible at doing only one thing. No matter how much anger or joy or sadness or anxiety you feel, if you sit still for a few minutes, odds are you’ll notice yourself feeling something else, often to the point of forgetting whatever was originally going on. Meditation practices can help us pay attention to these constant shifts, while also training us to be able to stay focused on one thing for longer periods of time without getting lost in distraction. The thoughts and feelings will still keep coming up- we just get more skilled at not letting htem take over.
In my own life, I’ve been practicing saying things like “I’m feeling a lot of stress/joy/anger/sadness/etc.” instead of “I am stressed/happy/angry/sad/etc.” and I’ve noticed that it’s helped me stay more centered. I think it’s because my identity doesn’t change from moment to moment, even as what I’m feeling is constantly shifting. This change has also given me more room to address anything going on that’s contributing to the situation. When there’s an event or a relationship that’s leading me to feel anger, I usually find that it’s easier to address the root cause, in part because my not taking “angry” on as an identity makes room for the problem-solving part to step up.
This shift in my language also serves as a reminder. As I’ve developed the habit of saying “I feel…” or even “I’m feeling a lot of…”, I’ve been more able to hold onto the awareness that I am always feeling multiple things. That makes it less likely that I’ll get lost in whatever is making the most noise and helps me stay centered.
This comes back to things like “As a queer person, I feel…” in a couple of ways. When I take adjectives on as an identity, I find that it’s easier to lose touch with all of the other things that I am. That limits what choices I think are available to me because I can only look at the world through that one lens.
This kind of language also assumes that everyone who identifies in a certain way will have the same experiences, which is simply not how things work. Whether the key word is man, sex worker, student, transgender person, person of color, Jew, construction worker, feminist, lawyer, or anything else, everyone within that category has different experiences. And when we say things like “As [fill in the blank], I think/feel…”, we don’t leave room for other people within that group to have an alternative perspective. Being able to explore other points of view, even if we come back to our starting place, is a powerful tool for creating positive relationships and taking steps to cultivate our ability to use it can be really incredibly helpful.
This has been one of the big flaws of identity politics for years because rather than being able to see other group members as allies who could work together, people often end up arguing about whether this person or that community is really part of the group. Instead of a conversation about what their experiences have been or an inquiry to find out what they have to bring into the discussion, the interaction easily turns into a fight about who gets to use the label. And that doesn’t do anything except inspire anger and schisms within communities.
In my experience, it’s much easier to avoid that trap when I avoid using adjectives as if they’re nouns. When I use them describe one facet of who I am rather than as an identity, I have much more room in my mind and my heart for people who see the world in different ways. I don’t feel threatened by their perspectives because they don’t threaten my sense of who I am. I can be more open in my curiosity since I’m less defensive. And it creates much more opportunity for me to understand where someone else is coming from and even shift my understandings and perspective, which is the only way we’re ever going to stop fighting and develop real connections.
I’m certainly not suggesting that shifting our language is enough. But you might find that when you try it out, it makes things a little easier for you. It definitely has for me. It’s a simple thing to do and you never know- it just might help you stop letting your identity get in the way.
So what is the alternative language you’re suggesting for “as a queer person, I feel…”? Presumably someone says this for a reason — to put what they’re about to say in a context. Sometimes it’s precisely to object to someone else’s over generalization: “well, I’m queer, and I like NASCAR…”; sometimes it’s to explore where they think an emotion or position comes from, where it is rooted: “as a Jew, I feel a constant unconscious background sense of exile, and it’s because of that that the idea of Israel, despite my anger at its policies, still seems to offer some solace…” Sometimes it’s to attribute some constraint, or privilege, or observed pattern, to the operations of some identity: “as a man, I feel like dressing as if I don’t care how I dress is often the safest option.” Are all these usages covered under your admonition, and if so, how would you rephrase them?
I like to say things like “my experience as a [X] has been…” (where X = queer person, man, Jew, sex educator…) because it acknowledges both my experience as someone within that group while also making room for other people within that category to have a different perspective. I find that it both explains why I think I have some credibility to speak on a given topic and doesn’t fall into essentialist language. I might also use “As someone who has experienced [Y]…”
Also, I don’t know that I would say that it’s an admonition so much as an exploration of the tension between common language patterns and right speech. 🙂
I suspect you might find e-prime interesting – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime – it takes this idea and extends it to eradicating all forms of the verb “to be” from communication.
In my experience, I have found it interesting as a thought experiment. While I don’t always use it in communication, I often find myself considering how I would restate something in e-prime. At some point, I would like to do more detailed reading on it, and possible make it a more active component of my communication.
Also, hi there!
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