Recently, I had to answer that question.
And I realised that, even though I never had to answer that question before, I had a lot to say. Our identity is constantly changing as we move through life and as we grow emotionally, intellectually and culturally. And it definitely changes after critical events such as having children or experiencing loss.
This was my answer.
I define identity as the sum of things that make me, me: my birth or physical traits, my experiences and my personality.
Physically, I present as a black woman. And that’s all a lot of people see when they meet me. But I am also much more than that.
I was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in Spain and lived most of my adult life in the United Kingdom. I lived in the Dominican Republic until when I was six years old. Those six years are the only years of my life when I haven’t been different to the majority of the people around me. After that, I’ve often been the only black person in the room (at school, at high school, at university, in the workplace, amongst friends, in social spaces, doctor’s…).
So I guess I’ve grown to adapt to my surroundings and to make choices based on that. I think when I was younger my goal was to not be seen, or to not stand out much, so my image was very much like that of my friends: I used to relax my hair so it would be straight, wear similar clothes, go to the same places and make an effort to enjoy the same music, for example. Of course, usually being the only black person in the room meant that I was always going to stand out, no matter what.
Now, as an adult, I don’t really do anything to blend in. I wear my hair the way I want it, I wear the clothes I’m most comfortable with for each occasion, listen to the music I actually like — and I’m much happier this way.
What about my experiences? A lot of them have shaped my identity.
Being a migrant everywhere after the age of six has meant that I’ve had to prove that I deserve certain things. Or that’s how I experienced it. I don’t think a lot of people saw me as an equal unless I was exceptionally good. And there might still be situations like that in my life, but I generally gravitate towards people and situations where I don’t have to prove myself more than others.
I accept job offers from companies with reasonable recruitment processes. I only engage in friendships with people that just enjoy being with me, regardless of what my job, my house or my looks are like. And I believe I lead a life that makes me happy, as opposed to a life that seeks external approval.
Other experiences such as difficult early years, losing my dad unexpectedly and moving abroad as an adult have also shaped my identity. I’ve made the choice to be a migrant once again, but this time as an adult, because I felt I had the confidence and skills to thrive as part of a minority group. Like my family did when they moved to Spain. Like many others have done before. And just like many others will do after us.
And all of that has resulted in certain personality traits.
I now know that I’m resilient, resourceful and caring. I know when to work hard and when to look after myself. I know how to make time for those that matter and I know to let go of those that don’t bring joy to my life, Marie Kondo style. I know that if a situation is asking too much of me, it probably isn’t for me and I need to move on. I’ve understood that I enjoy learning, but not when I do it to please others (or to prove myself once again), so I learn about things that I’m passionate about. And I love it.
Above all, I see myself as just that — me. I am a black Caribbean woman, humble beginnings, working class, educated, resilient and caring. My first language is Spanish, although I work and live in English and I speak Portuguese. I am an atheist, but I respect people who believe in a god or in something greater than us. My career, my family and my friends are top priority, although not in that order.
And what about you? What does identity mean to you?