What Defines You? How to Check Preconceptions at the Door
Illustration: Hunky-Dunky Studio
But what if we could shed our ill-fitting identities and embrace the idea of uncertainty? Because as much as you think you’ve got yourself—or anyone around you—pegged, what you know yourself to be is only a fraction of the full you.
Being born poor, or loud, or with a nose that could be optimistically described as “having character” doesn’t determine your existence, just as a thick layer of cumulonimbus clouds today doesn’t necessarily prohibit you from sunbathing tomorrow. As Walt Whitman well knew, we contain multitudes, and it’s your prerogative—maybe even your duty—to take a look behind the classifications you’ve given yourself and others, and examine them with an unblinking eye. In this, O’s Year of Big Questions, we want to ask: What defines you?
Illustration: Joey Guidone
You spot a woman buying shampoo in CVS, and within seconds you’ve mentally clocked her income level, social standing, and jeans size—all without exchanging so much as an “excuse me.” Sound familiar? Snap judgments are a biological necessity handed down from our ancestors: Often a glance was the only thing they had to go on when sizing up their surroundings and calculating risk. But in a world as codified and gendered as our modern one, it’s a little odd to be lugging around a suitcase full of biases that shape and warp our perception. You spot someone who looks “threatening” and immediately cross the street—a seemingly innocent maneuver, sure, except there can be high psychic costs and real-world consequences when we make certain judgments about strangers.
Changing one’s approach isn’t a cakewalk. It’s easier not to interrogate every experience, and who doesn’t want easy? But we can talk ourselves into at least being occasionally conscious of the flawed or problematic ideas our unconscious might be hinting at. As an experiment, next time you find yourself rushing to judgment, try asking yourself these questions:
Illustration: Joey Guidone
One afternoon my 3-year-old asks if we are black. “Actually, we’re brown,” I tell him, keeping my voice neutral. “What’s that?” he asks. “What’s what?” I reply, stalling. He narrows his eyes at me. “Mommy, what are you?” It’s the question I hate most, and here it is, being spoken by my toddler.
What I am is American—born in Canada, raised in Atlanta, naturalized at 14—and I signal American, too, from my Gap jeans to the upspeak that makes me sound more Valley girl than Indus Valley. And yet for 39 years, strangers have asked where I am from, and when the answer fails to satisfy— as will my answer to their inevitable follow-up, “But where were you born?”—this uglier question pops out: “What are you?” It’s the silent question animating the stranger who smells of lipstick, in line at the bank, asking how I learned such good English. The one that the dentist, his fingers in my mouth, thinks he’s answered when he tells me unprompted that he really enjoyed The Namesake.
I do not want my son to inherit my history of anger and hurt, of trying to define myself against those who cannot see me as American—especially now, when our very government cannot see it. What do I tell my boy, who will form his identity in this America?
For now I can give him only the facts. “Nani and Nana”—his grandparents— “are Indian,” I tell him. “That makes me Indian, too. And it makes you half Indian.” “Indian,” he whispers, and I see the gears turn to open up a space in his brain for this new word. It is a marvel to hear him say it, for in his mouth, it does not signify the things it did when I was young: foreigner, other, unwelcome. I send up a wish that it will never mean those things for him, though I know I can’t protect him completely. All I can do is give him a home where, in his half-brown all-Americanness, he belongs.
Illustration: Joey Guidone
We're required to claim our gender countless times a week, whether deciding which public restroom to use or checking “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when ordering flowers online. And though you might never have had to think twice about your pronouns, for a trans person like me, they can be tricky. On one hand, that little part of speech isn’t the only thing that defines me. I know who I am, and I’m not devastated every time I’m incorrectly called “he.” But using someone’s preferred pronouns (mine are “she/her”) is an immediate indicator of courtesy and respect.
When it comes to being misgendered, I take things on a case-by-case basis. Recently, an old friend accidentally called me “he.” And, yes, it bummed me out. But it didn’t end our friendship— it was a simple mistake. I don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. In general, transitioning has taught me greater empathy and acceptance.
I’m really appreciative of anyone who asks how I’d like to be identified. Of course, it’s best not to shout “Hey, what are your pronouns?!” across a dinner table, but discreetly pulling someone aside to ask “How would you like to be referred to?” is easy to do.
When you’re unsure about someone else, try reverting to gender-neutral options like “they/them/their.” If that requires an expanded way of thinking and communicating, then so be it. Speech changes over time: Things that would have been linguistically proper 200 years ago would sound absurd now. Language has evolved, and so should we.
Photo: Chad Griffith
Answers (from left to right)
Dancer: Erik Cavanaugh
“A teacher once told my parents I’d never find success as a dancer because of my size. Luckily, we didn’t listen—I eventually majored in dance in college. I may not have a Balanchine body, but that doesn’t mean I can’t move. And since my path was blocked, I started paving my own.”
Woodworker: Bozenka Shepherd
“Before this, I was designing pickup trucks at General Motors. Now, my partner and I repurpose salvaged wood we find around Detroit; I spend my days covered in dust, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Military Laboratory Tech: Dayna Lynch
“I always loved tattoos, and after a near-fatal car crash, I decided to express myself however I wanted. Still, plenty of people think tattoos are for thugs and criminals, so I have to cover some of mine with concealer daily. Most of my colleagues don’t know how heavily I’m inked—it feels like living a double life.”
Fitness Instructor: Zehra Allibhai
“Growing up in Toronto, I obsessively watched the Olympics. Now I’m a certified kinesiologist and teach about ten fitness classes a week. Most people have never encountered a woman in a hijab at CrossFit; I like seeing the shock in their eyes. It starts a conversation.”
Deejay (and dentist): Mazhar Alhadid
“Music was my first real passion. I started deejaying in clubs in 2004 and ran a music festival for about ten years. It’s not something I bring up with patients, but I did make a very calming playlist for my office.”
Illustration: Joey Guidone
“You’re always so ______ [silly, aggressive, angry, etc.]” someone cracks offhandedly, and the word ricochets inside your head for weeks. As a criticism, that makes you feel bad about yourself. But what if you could tweak those critical classifications and, in the process, your self-image? Our brains can change in response to our thoughts through a process called neuroplasticity, which researchers have even used to help treat patients with obsessive compulsive disorder. I’m no neuroscientist, but I have my own method, called mental redecorating, a simple way to refresh how I interpret day-to-day life: Just as you might move armchairs away from the TV and around a coffee table to create a more inviting atmosphere, you can make your brain a more inviting, benevolent place. All it takes is a change in perspective.
Picky to Discerning
If friends accuse you of being picky when you reject their lunch-spot suggestions, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—especially if you’re saving them from being squished into too-small booths in a too-loud dining room. You’re discerning, and that’s good for everyone.
Stubborn to Steadfast
Like a cast-iron garden gnome, you’re hard to move—stubborn—and maybe a little annoying to mow around. But you also won’t blow away in a storm. When the going gets tough, your friends and family are lucky to have someone as steadfast as you on their lawn—er, in their corner.
Selfish to Self-Aware
People say you’re selfish because you don’t volunteer for as many school activities as other moms. But that allows you to spend more time with your family instead of on planning committees. You’re not selfish; you know what you need to be the best you—and that’s better for everyone.
Pushy to Passionate
Taking the helm of the charity bake sale—yet again—makes you feel pushy, but you did go to culinary school and dream of opening your own business. You’re legitimately passionate about selling red velvet cake, and that’s pretty sweet.
Brash to Confident
Like a cherry red rug in an all-white room, you announce your presence in no uncertain terms. Some call you brash (they’re intimidated by your ability to command a space just by being in it), but you’re so confident, you don’t care what they think.
Knight is the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and the recent book You Do You.