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Who am I? A conversation about identity

Diploma Programme (DP) graduates and classmates, Klaudia Ofwona Draber and Suzanna Sobolewska reflect on what it means to understand and identify yourself. This is Klaudia’s second story in our graduate voices series.

By Suzanna Sobolewska   & Klaudia Ofwona Draber

Hidemi Takagi, Identities Series: 1st edition of Haiti, 2020.
Digital C-Print, 30 x 48 inches.

“The self is much larger than we can fathom”.

The question of identity, ‘Who am I?’, preoccupies not only philosophers and psychologists but also each one of us. Consciously or unconsciously it shapes our lives—yet it always eludes us.  A sense of defined identity offers illusory clarity, confidence and comfort. We assume that the self must be fixed, yet experience proves otherwise. You may have experienced unsettling moments when you do, say, think or feel something that doesn’t conform to your own self-image. This produces an anxiety that maybe you don’t know yourself that well after all.

Self-knowledge involves dissolution as much as it involves construction. In his book Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, psychologist Carl Gustav Jung called this process individuation, whose aim is to strive towards a, “synthesis of the self”. It requires letting go of pre-conceived notions, recognizing new insights about yourself, and integrating them into your self-concept.  While it may feel like coming apart, it enables seeing yourself in your utmost awesome complexity. The self is much larger than we can fathom. Walt Whitman celebrated this in Song of Myself, 51: ”Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

Not only is identity multidimensional, and even inherently contradictory, it is also in flux. You are constantly unfolding as you define yourself in relation to what and who is around you. Sociology Professor Ginetta E. B. Candelario in her book Black behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops calls this symbolic interaction-ism, where, “the self is produced through interactions with others, interactions that are mediated and structured through multiple social groups and institutions”.

Identity exploration is a bold feat. It can imply not only transgressing entrenched internal convictions and community norms but also defying societal demands for clarity, precision and constancy. Challenging predefined categories, such as gender, race, sexuality, in favor of fluid, coexisting or nonspecific identifications can be difficult but liberating. It is fundamental that we, as individuals and as a society, create more space for the complexity of our identities.

We will explore how the multiplicity and fluidity of identity relate to language and culture, as well as our passions and everyday life. We also consider how you can make space in your life for more freedom in exploring who you are. 

Language and culture

Learning languages and experiencing various cultures can broaden your consciousness and expand your sense of identity”.

In today’s globalized world, different languages and cultures intermingle on a greater scale than ever before. You constantly experience multilingual and multicultural families, schools, work-places and communities. As a result, many people today find themselves in ‘in-between’ states (in-between countries, continents, cultures, languages). In unfamiliar and diverse environments, we tend to define ourselves through negations: I am different from X; therefore, I am not X but some other Y. This often leads to relativizing differences and ignoring similarities.

Language can serve as a safe tool for identity exploration. Experimenting with varying meanings of similarly sounding words (and vice versa), brings enjoyment and a sense of belonging, even if only transitory. Learning languages and experiencing various cultures can broaden your consciousness and expand your sense of identity. Becoming immersed in different customs, idioms, art and beliefs enables appreciating both their uniqueness and underlying universality.

In heterogeneous societies, trying to blend in can come at the price of individuality. In the case of code-switching, whereby you adapt your speech to the group you are interacting with, language becomes a tool for adaptation and self-preservation.

Tahir Carl Karmali, Displaced Series: “I like feeling that I am part of a neighborhood”, 2015. Archival Pigment Print, 16 x 12 inches.

You code-switch in response to being perceived as ‘other’—such as when you migrate, look ‘different’ or feel displaced. Chandra Arthur in The Cost of Code Switching TED Talk draws attention to the experience of people of color, who are forced to code-switch in order to be perceived as ‘nonthreatening’. She enlightens us at the same time that, “the expectation of code-switching threatens true diversity”. Energy spent on ’proving yourself’ or fitting in detracts from self-realization. 

Passions and everyday life

“When you realize there is no script, you can invent your life however you want”

Knowing and exploring who you are is a lifelong commitment, with no predetermined end goal. We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to follow a linear, rational and predictable path. But this leaves little space for spontaneity, intuition and creativity. You may feel drawn to a particular topic, discipline or activity but struggle to define why. Following a new path is always a gamble—it’s hard to know what it will entail or what practical considerations may stand in the way. Many of us struggle with guilt, uncertainty and anxiety, but that is because we assume there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way or outcome.  Instead, trust yourself, give yourself permission to follow your heart and be more accepting of mistakes.

Passions are never simple or one-dimensional—they are usually a mix of, sometimes seemingly unrelated, interests. There aren’t many new things we can invent in life, but there are new ways we can connect them. Pursuing different interests may seem like a waste of time but when you realize there is no script, you can invent your life however you want. Audre Lorde in her essay Poetry is Not a Luxury assures us, “Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas … But there are no new ideas … There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves—along with the renewed courage to try them out”. You can be creative in how you choose to bridge your seemingly incompatible passions and allow your contradictory selves to coexist. The synthesis will be something new, unique, truly yours.

Space for self-exploration

“You ultimately must rely on your own intuition to find your own truth”.

Identity is a constant search. In contemporary life, we chase after certain ideals. We strive towards a ‘perfect’ self with a ‘perfect’ body, house, family, job etc.  Keeping yourself busy may help you identify with something and prove that you exist, in relation to something or someone else. In fact, we don’t realize that the self, and a sense of comfort, can be experienced when we just allow ourselves to be, in the here and now. Wherever you’re sitting, laying down, standing, walking—let yourself feel the present moment. This is where and when your intuition unfolds. It is the place you can grow from, process trauma and gain insight.

Leaving time in the week for undirected exploration or taking conscious action towards your beliefs will allow your true self to emerge—unrestricted, authentic, independent of anything else.

Alexis Duque. Lina with Ferns, 2020. Digital photo. Variable dimensions.

Those moments, when you exist and create freely, are terrifying and demanding, because of the accountability that comes with owning who you really are, not as defined by other people’s perceptions. But these are also moments of feeling the most and truly alive.

There are no set formulas or clear paths for discovering and living your purpose. We must each find and build our own way. This is both scary and empowering. You must be willing to go into uncharted territory, make your own discernment and take responsibility for them. You ultimately must rely on your own intuition to find your own truth.

Start by letting the question of ‘Who am I?’ remain a question.

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Suzanna Sobolewska is a communications professional and humanities thinker. She has developed policy and public affairs strategies related to social innovation in the EU policy space. You can find more about her work here. She holds a dual master’s degree in corporate communications and management from IE Business School, as well as a BSc in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In leisure time she enjoys being out in nature with her dog. Connect with her here.

Klaudia Ofwona Draber is the executive director and curator at KODA, an arts non-profit based in NYC. Connect with KODA on Instagram here. Previously she managed projects in Africa, at UBS and the British Council. She completed MA in art business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and MSc in economics at the Warsaw School of Economics, with a focus on the art market. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she enjoys trips to the ocean and walks in Prospect Park. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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Photo and artwork by Tahir Carl Karmali

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