Levels of Identity

By: Sarah Inskeep

At my university in Kansas, a friend once shared the following anecdote while teaching about identity in a class on culture and conflict resolution:

If you get into an elevator in Ohio, with some others from Kansas and some others from Boston, you might notice how loud the Boston people are and think or say, “Oh, we’re from Kansas, we’re not like that.” If, on the other hand, you get into an elevator in Moscow with the same people, you might instead be inclined to think or say, “We’re all American.” 

Reviewing my notes from our first week and contemplating the idea of a global sense of belonging, this story came to mind again. In several of our discussions, questions of identity and global citizenship arose, and I was glad to hear the perspectives and concerns of my classmates about those ideas. One question was of what global citizenship, or development of a global culture, means for diversity. This has been a lingering concern for me, too. It’s unsettling to think that, in order to have some sense of global belonging, we might need to sacrifice our sense of belonging to a community, a culture, or a nation. Though I always preferred to believe such sacrifice wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t a belief I could easily justify. 

Over the course of the week, I continued to think about global belonging. It wasn’t until recalling the simple elevator example, however, that I found a way to articulate more clearly what I thought. Just as an individual does not belong to a single culture, an individual does not have to have a single level of identity. When things are familiar, we tend to differentiate more. When things are unfamiliar, we tend to be more broadly inclusive. When I say I am from the United States, it doesn’t negate the fact that I am also from Kansas — which, in turn, doesn’t negate the fact that I am from the Flint Hills, one of the last remaining stands of tallgrass prairie in the world. Just as a body is made up of organs, which are made up of tissues, which are made up of cells, our identities are composed on many different levels. Perhaps it is not a matter of choosing one part over the other; perhaps it’s a matter of scale. 

Of course, if this is the case, the question then becomes one of how we learn to see the scale at which we can identify together. Intriguingly to me as a young physicist, that could be the scale of the very big or the scale of the very small. Neither are scales we’ve any finesse at understanding intuitively at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to develop such understanding with time and effort. To identify together as a result of understanding on the quantum scale seems a difficult feat to me, but to identify together on the planetary scale? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched, especially when I consider what is necessary to meet the challenges of climate change. Admittedly, when I look at all that is happening–our slowness to change our ways, and how far we still are from many of the goals set by the international community–I tend to get a little bit overwhelmed by those challenges. At the same time, however, the part of me who has been practicing seeing conflict as an opportunity wonders if we might use these global challenges as catalysts for change — for the realization of another level of identity, and of a broader definition of ‘we’.

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