UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Who am I? Who are you?

Growing up in a small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, just outside St. Louis, Missouri, I was raised a middle class, suburban Catholic kid who was aware of his heritage but never gave it that much thought. Though my heritage is Irish and Slovakian, I have no identification with those backgrounds other than to know they are where my great, great grandparents and their families lived. For the most part, my identity always lacked ethnicity, a reality that became clear when I went to a large college filled with diverse identities. Later, while living abroad in southeast Asia and then residing in the city of Chicago, a place filled with unique neighborhoods of cultures and ethnicities, my mind was opened even more to how we define ourselves through culture. And, like most people, I often wondered just who I am and how I define myself.

The noticeable void in a specific cultural heritage has, at times, made describing my culture and identity a bit of a challenge over the years as I encounter the rich diversity of the world, and my world. With that in mind, I occasionally refer to myself in relation to where I’m from, specifically my hometown. “I’m an Altonian,” I’ll say when asked about my background. For, even though I know longer live in my little river town, I believe it defines my character as much as any other affiliation I might have. As Morgan Wallen sang, “I’m still proud of where I came from,” and I will always look back fondly upon the place where I was raised. For a placid little river town just north of St. Louis, Alton, Illinois is a surprisingly well-known place with a big history, and it has enough funky eccentricities that, no matter where I am, I love telling Alton stories. And defining ourselves by our geography is a natural inclination, even as that tendency is rife with limitations. 

People identify themselves based on many affiliations – their race or ethnicity, their religion or political ideology, their geography, whether it’s a town, city state or country, their likes and dislikes, the teams they root for or against, the lists just go on. And, too often, people think of themselves in terms or this or that, of us or them. In the most recent edition of Time Magazine, Yuval Harari, an Israeli philosopher and academic, wrote a fascinating essay on “The Dangerous Quest for Identity.” Harari identifies and explores all the aspects of his identity that extend beyond his race, religion, and nationality. For example, while he is obviously Jewish, he speaks of being a huge football fan, which is clearly British. He also loves coffee, so he acknowledges the Ethiopians, Turks, and Arabs as clear influences on his identity. Harari is incredibly well educated on history and anthropology, and in exploring the issue of identity, he observes that “People who, in search of their identity, narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity.” The point is that we are all humans, and that is the primary quality which we all share. Our shared humanness should unite rather than divide us.

Generational norms are a rather common shared experience, and people also identify themselves by their age. The Greatest Generation, the Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z, and those to come later all seem to coalesce around shared experiences based simply on chronological age. Douglas Coupland, the author credited with naming Generation X after he wrote a book of the same name, has said the term Generation X was never about a specific age group or demographic. Gen X actually meant a certain kind of person who chooses a lifestyle. Lately some have argued that there is no such thing as a generation, an increasingly relevant claim as society becomes increasingly diverse. Arguably, generations are legitimate divisions only in the sense that they reflect common associations and familiar references.

Often we define ourselves by what we do or who we voted for in the last election. Too often it seems like our sense of who we are is based on opposing those who we are not. And occasionally these days, where I am does not feel like who I am. As Harari notes, many of the ways we identify ourselves as separate from others comes at the cost of the humanity that aligns us.

So, who are you? 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com