Identity Crises

Friends, I said in a weekend Facebook post, I need your help.

I’ve learned a lot about systems of (dis)advantages over the past few years, and newsflash, I have a lot of privilege. In fact, it’s hard for me to find much in my life that isn’t a result of somewhere someone giving me me something that someone else was denied–whether it’s my assumed intelligence because I’m white or my assumed leadership skills because I’m male or so many other things.

So how do I hold onto any sort of self-worth when everything I thought I had fought so hard to achieve was really just handed to me?

I’ve been trying to figure a few things out for a while, and reading–as I currently am–about identity development and systems of racism, it’s not surprise my questioning blossomed into such an inquiry as this.

I had a slurry of similar answers almost immediately:

Jeremy: bear in mind that other people’s struggles don’t negate or diminish yours, Darren. you may have had advantages, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t work your ass off and suffer for the successes you’ve achieved.

Kimberlin: I think you just have to accept that we all suffer for whatever reasons and we are all holding on to every bit of confidence we can.

Betsy: I assume this to be sarcasm.

Grace: Darren you work way too hard. You’ve earned the things you’ve gotten. I know you know better than that.

Erin: Yes you had advantages but then you used them and worked hard. So someone assumes you are smart based on your skin color, but how many people don’t further their education like you have. So someone assumes you are a good leader before you are male, you are a leader who also inspired others. What about those who tried to deny you things because you are gay? You’ve been a fighter and advocate for this cause and equal rights. Be grateful for your advantages, but also realize what you did with them.

I felt torn. Erin raised a good point: I’ve had to be a fighter because I’m gay, but as far as identity development goes, I came to terms with my sexuality into my early 20s; by then, the rest of my identity–the elements I’ve been questioning as authentic–were already there. Being gay refined these privileges but it didn’t negate them.

These thoughts aside, I began drafting a response:

It would be easy to pass this off as sarcasm, but I really do wonder this. Growing up, even though my mom always worked, she still was able to homeschool us because my dad was able to work (and that I had a second parent at all was also an advantage). When I struggled in classes, my teachers said I just had to practice more and I’d get it; never once did they even imply maybe I was studying the wrong subjects. And I’ve only made such an impact as a leader because people listened to me and said I was inspiring. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be. It’s that simple.

I know I’ve worked hard to be where I am, but I also know no amount of hard work would’ve gotten me here if not for all the hands that helped mold me and put in place all the road marks along the way. And it’s easy to say I’ve used my privilege in a positive manner, but let’s be honest, that was all an accident because it happened before I knew that privilege was there. Now, going forward, that’s different, but it hasn’t always been that way.

So in a way, recognizing these things, it’s like waking up and realizing everything you thought you owned was really just rented or stolen from someone else. How can you figure out what’s actually yours, if anything still even belongs to you?

All my life I’ve never been told I can’t. That alone has been the single greatest advantage I’ve ever been given. But the truth is I didn’t do any of these things–at least not entirely on my own.

So I guess the question that’s really bothering me is what is the line between who I am as an individual and who I am as product of my circumstances? What can I claim as my own, as me, and what’s simply the byproduct of someone else’s oppression?

When I went back, there was another response:

Celena: So now you’re aware of it. That’s the first step. I’m going to be a little less kind than these other people, as someone who’s been aware their whole life that just because of their gender, they’ll be seen as lesser. (and, as I’ve gotten older, found other reasons I’m less privileged.)

What you’re feeling, this lack of worth because things have been handed to you, is pointless guilt. It helps nobody. Think about it — you’re asking for reasons why you should have self-worth, you’re begging for other people to help reaffirm that you’re worth something, and even though that’s a perfectly natural reaction, who does it help?

You are advantaged in your race and gender. You have your own disadvantages, of sexuality and (to some degree) class. Such is everyone’s lot. And yes, as others have said, you have worked hard with what you were given to rise above your disadvantages, and you were also aided by your advantages. That’s fine. You’re aware of it. Continue being aware of all that help you received unasked. Question it, even; those are good things to do.

But don’t wallow in guilt. If you feel guilty, take a look at what you have, and ask yourself how you can HELP those who are less privileged than you. How can you help women become all they can be? How can you spread awareness of racial inequity? How can you signal boost the voices of trans people? How can you make EVERYONE aware of exactly what you just became aware of?

Don’t wallow. Take that feeling and ask yourself how you stop perpetuating this problem, and work towards that goal.

At the time it was what I needed to hear, and I didn’t post the response I had written. Suddenly, it didn’t seem as important anymore.

But the replies kept coming, for which I was grateful:

Luke: Anyone that’s giving you the “everyone has advantages and disadvantages” bit are speaking truth, but also viewing the issue idealistically. Realistically, being white and male does give you an immediate privilege. It’s not “just what you do with the knowledge”, it is both that AND what you were born into. Those who cannot see both sides of the coin would do well to borrow from Aristotle, who suggested that, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

So, what does one do when confronted with the realization of their station in life? I’d recommend doing the absolute best with the means you have, and act with humility and respect to anyone in a more trying position. Remember that it’s about how you treat those who can do nothing for you. And what I’ve found particularly meaningful, is committing my life to the betterment of mankind, especially those suffering more than myself.

Existentialism is a beautiful, educated answer to nihilism, especially in this vacuum of mis, over, and under information.

Hari Rai: As many people have pointed out already, you haven’t worked any less hard than you previously believed, you have just discovered that you are more advantageously placed for that work to result in success. And as many people have pointed out, using that advantage to make room for those who have worked just as hard but had a few more barriers is the best thing you can do with it. Nevertheless, from a slightly different angle, I don’t think anyone is defined by what has or has not panned out in their lives. Being an amazing and unique individual is something that privilege or lack thereof can neither give you nor deny. And I’m fairly sure you’ve got that covered.

These two in particular I appreciated for articulating things in a new way, from a more philosophical space. They’ve raised questions that can’t be answered in a single post, and probably shouldn’t be anyways.

But I did keep thinking, seeing how not only me but all of us are born into a single time in history, wherein we must either ignore or accept all the history that brought us here. Perhaps I’m not the only one who should be left to wonder: What in our lives is simply the byproduct of a history of oppression?

Maybe the answer is everything and nothing. I have lived with what I was given. I didn’t ask for my place in life, nor can anyone, and I did what everyone would have done–lived. But all of us, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, are the products of oppression because our history is a history of oppression. However, that’s too narrow a perspective: our history is also one of resistance and uprising, the struggle of making the world a better place. Perhaps that is the true byproduct of oppression, and maybe it’s not a bad thing to witness it, to accept it, to be it.

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