Understanding Identity: In Theory and in Practice

It has been way too long since I have actually written a blog post. Life has been happening hardcore. And I can’t believe that I am nearing the end of my first year of grad school. In reflecting on my time in grad school, working on the many papers I am writing, and thinking about my future goals, I have wrestled with how I want to and should approach being “developmental” and inclusive with my students.

For two of my classes this semester, I am working on papers that ultimately center around identity. For my diversity class, I am writing a paper addressing the overall Whiteness of LGBTQ+ Centers on college campuses and how we can make those spaces more inclusive of and welcoming to Queer students of color. In my Theory 2 (or better known as “Critical Perspectives on Student Development Theory”) course, I am looking at how racism and heterosexism impact and shape my understanding of my male gender identity.

Full disclosure: I try to stray away from the terms “identity development” and “identity formation” because to me they make it seem as if a person has to move towards something and they invalidate where the person is currently. I believe that a person’s understanding of their identity shifts and changes over time, but their understanding of it at any particular moment is valid.

In working on these two papers and thinking about my current work, I am not sure I am  doing the best job at being developmental or creating inclusive environments. I try, but I haven’t figured out how to measure if I am achieving those goals. I have great conversations with my students about identity, but as a first year grad student I have spent much of the year just trying to figure things out. How do I actually do my job? How do stay on top of things as a grad student? How do I balance having a social life with my assistantship and academics? How do I obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to  be successful after graduate school? These questions have been pervasive throughout my entire graduate school experience thus far. I also think about what skills and knowledge I currently have and how can I share them with others in my graduate program as well as within the offices I work in. Today, I attended a professional development session by Antonio Duran entitled “Queering Residence Life: Supporting our LGBTQ+ Students in the Halls”. This presentation and discussion focused on topics of language, identity, performatives, and how to create inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ students. Certain elements of the presentation really peaked my interests because how do we as student affairs professionals create inclusive spaces. How do we challenge the dominant cultures and narratives present in our residence halls, identity-based centers, offices and create welcoming environments for those who don’t fit the socially constructed norm? How do we support students in exploring and making meaning of their identity?

As a graduate student looking to support students with underrepresented identities and as someone who hopes to study identity as a researcher, I aim to help students better understand their identities and not necessarily develop them. Identity is fluid and can’t be represented in stages or vectors or phases. The understanding of it can change not only over time, but in different context. Identities are intersectional and can’t be parsed out because each individual identity is influenced by every other identity a person holds. I cannot think about my racial identity without thinking about how my gender, sexual orientation and class shape my understanding of it. In my practicum with the Office of Diversity Affairs, I am starting to think about how I can incorporate theory in the planning and execution of the immersion trip to Atlanta. I don’t want this trip to be about simply gaining an awareness of and starting to understand Southern Black culture; I want students to walk away with an increased understanding of themselves as well. Questions like “how do you understand your identity after participating in the immersion experience?” come to mind or “how do you make meaning of systems of oppression in relation to your identities after the immersion experience?”

As I wrestle with these philosophical questions, I have to also consider how I will put this into practice. How will I create an inclusive and welcoming community? How will I create opportunities for students to wrestle with and explore their identity to foster an increased understanding of themselves.

  • First, I have to consider how I am being read in a space. Am I being read as a person who is open to having conversation about identity or am I being read as a closed off, closed-minded individual? If I am being read as the latter, how do I work to change that image?
  • Second, I have to think about what programs and educational opportunities I am implementing and supporting. Who is centered in those opportunities? Am I considering intersections of identities? Am I focusing solely on dominant experiences and narratives (e.g. am I focusing solely on White gay men in this program?). Am I perpetuating any -isms while trying to inclusive?
  • Third, I think about what my own biases are. My understanding of my identities shapes how I view and interact with the world. I must consider how that is influencing the way I am approaching my work. I have to be ok with being uncomfortable even in the spaces I create because learning is uncomfortable. Even as a professional, there are plenty of things I can learn from students as learning should be a two-way street.
  • Lastly, I have to remember that my students aren’t blank slates when they come to college. They were people who for 18+ years have been socialized and taught to think and view the world in certain ways. They have had experiences that have shaped their understanding of themselves before and at the time I meet them. With this knowledge and recognition, I have to think about how I am challenging and supporting them throughout their experiences in college and the fact that their understanding of themselves will likely change in that time frame.

Working with students whose understanding of themselves changes can be challenging. They may be confused and concerned about how others will react to those changes. Those feelings are ok and valid. The best thing to do in those instances is validate those experiences and ask students how you can better support them in that process. Identity understanding is a process. It never ends. If I can help a student better understand who they are at this moment, I will do my best to do just that and I will continue to support that process as long as they will allow me to.

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