“Who are you?”
Very few questions boggle my mind quite like this one. Who am I? How do I even begin to put my entire being into 5 smooth sentences that make sense? I struggle with this question because the truth is, I actually don’t know. Plain and simple. I know what I do, what I like, who I love and what I think- for now- but as life has taught me, these are not only outward-based but also changeable. Careful for my answer to not be met with a “Oh- I-guess- you- don’t- know- yourself” (which society has made synonymous with, “you actually don’t have it all together, hunny”), I have always unconsciously used a demographic profile, job title and what they suggest about who I am as a means to define myself.
These are the very things that have dictated how I behave, how I think and what I have centred my life on after all, so surely this is who I am? I wonder if that is a reflection of my true self. The self that I have created or am supposed to find? Is who I am based on what external factors i.e. society has told me that I am or should be?
On a quest to delve deeper into the topic of self-identification for other people, I asked the women around me the same question. “Who are you?” Judging from the reactions, this was clearly a baffling question to ask. “Who am I? Uhm, what do you mean?”, they replied. “Uhm, it depends on the context”.
Context, according to the Macmillan dictionary, suggests that the answer is conditional. But does that really matter? Is there no all-encompassing answer regardless of who is asking the question, why and where they are asking it? Is there no unified or consistent self that could be made reference to? When probed even further: mom, daughter, friend, black, wife, strategist, South African were some of the answers I heard.
Most answers noticeably related to the multiple titles, groups or environments that had been pre-determined or adopted throughout their lives- all of which carry assumed roles. Roles are the behaviour and qualities that are expected of us on the basis of our titles which subsequently inform or feed into who we are. For instance, because I am a woman, I am expected to act in certain ways that are considered acceptable or appropriate to society and therefore have learned to use that as a means to define myself.
In the same breath my race, my job title as well as all the social groups I belong to – along with all their unwritten rules of behaviour and qualities – have heavily influenced the way in which I act, think and relate to society and myself. Could it be that we take on the cues to be who we are from different surroundings? Does each environment call for us to be a different self? Does this mean that who we are is a mere product of external societal norms? Is who we are something that has been dictated to us?
A trip I took to Bali revealed that perhaps I have always used my titles and conditioning as the basis of my self-identity. All of the things that I had always used to define myself had zero context and fell away once I was 14h 50 minutes away from home. It didn’t matter what my job title was or who I knew or who knew me. It didn’t matter who my friends were or what ‘social group’ I belonged to. It didn’t matter that I was black or that I grew up in Soweto – and what connotations that had.
If anything, the connotations of being a black woman and how I identified with myself as a result were completely different in Bali. In Bali, being a black woman meant that I was perceived as this exotic person of interest; locals were captivated by my braids and my skin colour – things that I had been programmed to perceive as ‘normal’ .
Essentially, being black and what that meant to me completely shifted because I was in a different environment. All in all the boxes I had been so programmed to fit myself into and use as the basis of my identity dissolved. I then wondered, if who I am is based on my titles, my activities, my environment and all their connotations then who am I when they change, lose context or fall away? Do you know who you are outside what your titles, geography suggest you should be?
Outside whom you are trying to impress or make proud of you? Can you honestly say that it is an independent decision? Or is it a result of conditioning? Are you inadvertently perpetuating a cycle? Is who you are true and natural or acquired and adapted?
Maybe our ‘true selves” are who we are when we are born and perhaps in the early stages of our childhood. ‘The true self’ could be what is left when we are stripped of the conditioning, titles and expectations that we have been taught to subscribe to. If so, I imagine the true self that we are born as to be goo-like: fluid, not bound by rules or expectations and independent of external forces. It seems as we grow up, society begins to define us by dictating to us who to be, what we are allowed to do, and how to act which we begin to adopt as our own identity and behaviour. This is the process of shaping, boxing and moulding the ‘true self’.
Our mothers teach us to behave a certain way, work demands that we be another way, relationships expect certain things from us, and our children need us to be another way. Because there was no father figure around, we act a certain way. Friends and social groups expect us to comply with certain standards. Social status and even reputation call us to act another way. We are so many things to so many people in so many different environments, with every element calling for us to be a different self. Books play a huge part too, particularly the multiple best-selling books that tell us who to be and how to act in order to get this life thing right. “Think Like a Man, Act like a Lady”, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and not forgetting “Why Men Love Bitches”. Such societal standards are constantly pulling at, pinching, compressing and diluting what may be the ‘true self’.
Maybe who we are is a reaction to other people’s perceptions and is not something that we actually create? Perhaps it is something that is a total external process and not something that we actually independently decide upon internally? Perhaps it is a myriad of the titles handed over to us by society?
I don’t know. I am still figuring it out myself. With all the numerous societal elements at play in our self-identification, is it not ironic that the very same society that moulds us into an acquired self has the audacity to tell us ‘be yourself’?