We all develop a sense of who we are, and this process is a juggle of one’s sense of self and our culture’s sense of us. Even as adults, we are constantly refining this sense of self and even working on several different versions of it. Much like having several different resumes that highlight our skills in different ways, we all have several different hats we wear, whether at work, with our children, or while pursuing a sport or hobby or other avocation. Right now I am a blogger, but I’m also a Dad, I’m straight, I’m white, I’m a researcher, I’m an employee, I’m a partner. And many things beyond that. As I approach 40, I am still struggling with what it means to be any number of these things, but for school aged youth, this struggle is often what their lives are consumed by.
Majka Burhardt has been blogging about a sense of understanding who she is, especially relating to what I understand is a very U.S.-centric question: “what do you do?” How do we articulate who we are in a one-sentence soundbite? And what if ‘what you do’ is not really fully how you understand yourself? Like Majka, I have climbed for all of my adult life, and this is a major way that I understand myself, even if I barely get out these days because of other responsibilities. So “what I do” is not necessarily who I am. This is also going to be true for many people of color, for women, for anyone who struggles against the culture. I’ve always struggled with the common dinner-party question Majka talks about: “what do you do?” and I’ve never come up with a really good alternative, but I’m certainly open to options. I usually ask something like “what do you do with your days” as a way to allow someone to answer outside of their job, but it still implies “what is your job?” to many people.
If we take this sense of self one step back to a more basic sense of human identity, I am male. But that simple fact does not encompass who I am anymore than the fact that I am a climber. I am male, but I have struggled against culturally-force-fed stereotypes of gender my whole life, especially in classrooms. I like to take students’ comments about being one gender or another and start a bigger conversation about what gender means in our culture: “Wow, so do you really think you’ve got to be ‘tough’ like that to be a man? Can’t women be tough too?”, or, perhaps more commonly, “do you really think women are less valuable than men? Why do you say ‘don’t be a girl’ like it’s a bad thing? What are you actually trying to say then?” 7th graders ‘get it’ when they are encouraged to talk about it, because so much of these gender stereotypes are ‘received knowledge’ that they’ve heard but never questioned. Dollface is talking about these gender stereotypes on her blog and asking what we’re doing to reinforce or break these gender stereotypes. For me, I always enjoyed talking about how I like to sew and quilt and cook and parent and yet still climb and get dirty and use tools and fix things: I can be my own definition of man.
One issue with these cultural stereotypes is the idea of homophily, which the Guardian had a piece on last week. Homophily is “The faintly depressing human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us.” One of the reasons I always tried, as a teacher, to talk about my own experiences and life (to a reasonable degree) is that I was different than many of my students. I felt that if I talked about this, they would see that the stereotypes (of whatever, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, rural/urban, etc. etc. etc.) are just false social constructions. If teachers allow themselves to be vulnerable in this way, students often respond to that with authentic thinking. Other students, especially (in my experience), the LQBTQI students, seem to feel a sense of relief in an adult being open to these conversations and in an adult who is willing to talk about these issues.
So do we surround ourselves with only people like us? Is that a good or bad thing? Don’t we want to have interactions with other viewpoints? To what degree is this line of questions white- or male- or hetero- or able-centric? Can members of any non-dominant group truly surround themselves with only like points of view in a culture so fiercely dominated by straight-white-male-able-culture?
I guess the bottom line to me is that we ought to be having these conversations with youth early on.