kitty in the mirror.jpeg

Who We Are/Not?

Who We Are/Not?

- the identity project -

Threads To Explore:

Identity Crisis, Donald Trump

(Click on the links above to traverse a thread of interest rather than follow the chronological development of the blog)

kitty in the mirror.jpeg

Who Are You?

How do you answer this question? We asked this question all the time in many contexts. If you think about it, you'll realize... often you have to introduce yourself -- we start doing it in school, then at work, parties... And then there are all the ways we speak about this in our inner dialogues. For me, it's often in anticipation of being in a new situation; how should I introduce myself? What should I say. What will be people think of me. Or even in choosing my clothing, what does this say about "who I am?" this shirt or that one. These shoes. I suspect women have this even more.

With all the time we spend thinking about who we are and how others think of us, you'd think we'd be kinder in how we think about others. But I think if most of us are honest, we have just as much inner dialogue about who we think other people are. We look at their clothes, what cell phone are they using, how long is their hair, what accent do they have. All this we assess, we compare and contrast them with ourselves and others and try to get a fix on who they are.

WHY? Well, I had an epiphony when I was in High School and all these years later (I'm in my fifities now), I still think this insight is critical -- and it's at the heart of this project. I'm addressing it because I think that the survivial of our species and maybe our planet hinges on this: Heterogenity. 

Heterogeneity? You ask! Big word, but it doesn't sound life or death. OK, here's my argument:

It starts with a basic understanding of evolution. Evolution happens because environments change. When the environment of a species changes, the species has to change an adapt or perish. Yes? You with me? This is grade school stuff, but it's fundamental. We are in the first century or so of the period of history where most people live in heterorgenious contexts where most of the people they interact with are NOT from the same culture. They don't share common beliefs, values, rituals, experiences. In evolutionary terms this is a MASSIVE change in environment and we have NOT adapted to it. This is the evolutionary challenge of our time. Why is this so hard?

Because our entire neurologicaland psychic structure evolved in a situation of homogenity. Sameness equalled safety. Difference equaled danger. And we developed this highly attuned neurological obsession with detecting difference. Difference puts on alert. Again, in neurological terms this means we enter the first phase of the Threat Response. We have a highly reflexive system for responding to threats. First we scan for difference and when we detect it our nervous system puts a halt on all other functions and clamps down on our analytical and creative faculties -- because they take too much time -- and so we are biolgically incapable of complex thought when we are in fight or flight. Guess what? We all are triggered by fight/flight multiple times per day. 

So, either we learn how to inhibit Fight/Flight and find a more appropriate way of seeing difference, we DIE! There, I've said it. So, I've carried this perception around with me for 40 years or so. Now i'm doing something about it. One, I'm a middle school teacher. My main purpose as a middle school teacher is to help my students learn to value themselves and to learn how to get along with people who are different from them.

Two, this project. I think we have to find a way to dialogue about identity. Who are you? The purpose of this website is to get people thinking explicitly about who they are and about how other people are different and/or the same as them, and trying through tihs process to get enough space inthat dialogue that we start figuring out how to value difference rather than see it as a threat. This is NOT an intelllectual exercise. This is something that takes place at a core, gut level.

So, I am inviting you to join me in exploring Who We Are and Who We Are Not -- Who We Are/Not (for short). The format is short video. I am traveling around asking people these questions: Who are you? Who are you Not? How do you think you are seen by people who you are not (who are different from you). How do you see them? What would you like to say to people who you are not? Here are their answers. And if you feel moved, please submit comments, or your own videos. I will review them and post them as they fit.


Who We Are/Not: 1; Ian Behrstock

Initially, this was meant just to be a test. I asked my 14 year old son, Ian, to respond to the model prompt (Who are you/Who Are You Not/What would you like to say to those you are not), just to see how it would go. We actually did a couple of re-takes as I found how to explain the project to him so that he could respond. But listening to it, I realize that Ian gets at some very basic questions and issues that I hope this project will slowly explore. Sometimes it's young people who get right down to it.

Anyway, give a listen and see what you think. I'll write some more about what I hear in it below and shortly I hope to have a form for you to submit your comments. I will review them and then print those that seem to further the dialogue. I'm not going to curate to filter out things I don't like or disagree with. But as we all know, internet dialogue that is unmoderated can quickly devolve into name calling -- quickly creating the very problem, I'm hoping this will get beyond. But as long as your submissions are thoughtful, I'll include them. I do reserve the right to edit for essence, so that we can move the dialogue along.

There are a few things I want to highlight from Ian's piece:

1. He, like most, starts with the obvious, visible or nearly visible "identifiers." white, Jewish, American." But he quickly gets to the fact that what matters more to him is about the differences in how people think, their psychology. I think this is important and fruitful. It gets at the idea that what's on the surface "shouldn't" matter. But this is what the whole proeject is about, what are these differences that seem to matter so much.

2. On the other hand, it may be his (and my) whiteness that allows us to move so quickly to the inner differences. So, I invite people to explore these more obvious identifiers also. We have to recognize that in the world we live in these things make a big impact on all of our lives.


Who We Are/Not? 2: Marcie Andrew

So right off the bat, We see that the fundamental question of Who Are You? can bring about unexpected types of responses. In interviewing dear friend Marcie Andrew, my questions brought up for her a deep sense of "identity crisis." How wonderful to have this term brought up so early, because it is so frequently used. And the fact that it is so common points at the importance of this project exploring the nature of identity. If many of us have identity crises, then identity must be important. Right?!

What is an identity crisis? It is the loss of a sense of who we are. Somewhat paradoxically, Marcie’s identity crisis challenges her to find that her deepest sense of identity is that of being "simply human."

In fact, she works backwards. Her identity Crisis leads her to discover as we are talking about how her professional identity resonates with something absolutely fundamental about who she is. How do your identities resonate with who you are at your core? Maybe it takes a crisis to really make this clear?

Identity Crisis: When this term came up in Marcie’s interview, it immediately became for me the negative space surrounding identity. I’ve begun to dig a little deeper into this concept. Not even my Middle School son is allowed to use Wikipedia as a source, but nevertheless it is an easy starting point sometimes. According to the Wikipedia entry on Identity Crisis (, the term was coined by groundbreaking psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. He saw this as being a primary part of adolescence. The task of adolescence being to develop a sense of identity or “ego development.”

This raises some really deep questions:

Is it true that adolescence is the time to develop identity? 

If so, what happens when you don’t get it accomplished at that time of life? I don't think I did. And yet, I did! Because this entire project was born of a realization that I had as a teen: that we are living in a unique time where humanity is trying to adapt to living in heterogeneous societies.

For me personally, it raised the question as to whether most of the people that I am close with didn’t do this successfully in adolescence. I think I am attracted to people who are struggling with identity. But then Marcie’s interview points to the possibility that we have to have an identitiy crisis, or at least have to question our identity identifications in order to find connections with being simply human.

I also came across the work of James Marcia who makes the distinction between accepting an identify without considering alternatives and going through a conscious process of considering alternatives and deciding on where one wants to land. When a person takes an identity without reflection and choice he calls it: Foreclosure Identity. "The foreclosure status is when a commitment is made without exploring alternatives. Often these commitments are based on parental ideas and beliefs that are accepted without question".[a quote from Marcia drawn from the Wikipedia page sited above].

I think the question of whether an identity has been consciously chosen or simply assumed is going to become central to this investigation! So, I'd revise my question above: maybe it's not that the people I am attracted to failed at an adolescent task, but are really drawn to question identity so that one doesn't live in "foreclosed identities."