Defining Identity

Williston Northampton's 2015 Diversity Symposium Tackled Difficult Questions
Photo by Braden Chattman

How do you define yourself?

That was the simple—and surprisingly complex—question at the heart of the 2015 Diversity Symposium.

Keynote speaker and advocate Thomas Smith viewed the issue as a matter of triumph through adversity, while University of Massachusetts faculty member Dr. Kerrita Mayfield saw it as a problem of integrity.

In their student addresses, which began a day of workshops, Maranie Harris-Kuiper ’15, Verdi Degbey ’16, and Cameron Stanley ’16 strove to answer the question through the multifaceted lenses of race, culture, sexual orientation, and religion.

Mr. Degbey offered his response in the form of a spoken word performance, entitled “Self Reclamation,” in which he urged his fellow students to discard labels and “know yourself, then be yourself.”

“If we tried to copy you through a machine,” he said. “It’d read error because there are just too many levels to what makes you an individual.”

Perhaps nowhere else were the answers to the question as nuanced or fluid, though, as in the Storytelling Through Writing workshop, jointly presented by former Diversity intern Brittany Collins ’14 (Smith ’18) and Diversity committee member Ms. Harris-Kuiper ’15.

To kick off the session, Ms. Collins explained that, in her mind, identity encompassed “our story, our experiences and our traditions, our quirks and preferences, and the feelings that we carry with us that influence who we are and how we live our lives.”

“We refer to identity as a muscle, so much like I would go to the gym to exercise my body, I can come to this space to exercise the muscle of identity,” she told students in the workshop.

“Identity changes every minute,” Ms. Collins added. “We’re always different people. We have the same base, but everything is changing.”

To illustrate her point, Ms. Collins and Ms. Harris-Kuiper asked the dozen participants to go around the room several times and complete the following sentence: “By looking at me, you wouldn’t know that…”

The group began tentatively, first listing off their club and sport affiliations. As their confidence grew, so did their answers, until the list became as complex and nuanced as they were, involving travel, the banjo, diabetes, public speaking, an eating disorder, shyness, and an extreme fear of spiders.

“I’ve been to almost every country in Europe,” said one.
“This is my third high school,” said another.

“I’m scared of public speaking,” said a third.

It was a way of answering the question of identity that Ms. Harris-Kuiper had also touched on in her address earlier that morning.

“I’ve learned that we all have a race in common,” she had said then. “It’s the human race.”

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