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Do you Choose your Identity or is it Chosen for you?

Can people choose their identity and if so how much of our identity do we choose? For the aspects we don’t choose how did they come to form part of our identity? How much of our identity is a non-changeable permanent part of ourselves, and how much has been cast over us like a cloak via external influences including family of origin, friends, teachers, the media and social structures? We will explore these questions using several theories and concepts in order to gain a greater understanding into the degree to which we choose our identities.

The issue of identity is a complex one. More fluid than fixed our identity is comprised of a myriad of inner qualities and outer representations of self. It consists of innumerable defining characteristics that make up the whole of who we are in any given moment. These fragments of self include our sexuality, gender, and sense of belonging to a particular culture, nation, religion, family, or some other group. Our identity includes our looks, personality, beliefs and fears and is “an unfolding story…continually recast in the course of experience.” (Sennett 2000: 176-177). Very little if any of our identity is a permanent unchangeable part of us in these days when surgery can alter everything from gender and height to body shape and face image. Self help workshops and books have entered the mainstream as people embark on lifelong journeys of personal growth and evolvement, no longer content to stay within fixed roles as perhaps our parents and grandparents once did. This suggests that we have greater choice over our identities than ever before.
Identity can both be influenced by, and influence, the work we do, our education, financial and class status, the car we drive, the home we live in and the clothes we wear. Identity is also determined by perspective. Our self-image can be entirely different to the way we are seen by a colleague, partner, friend, child or parent who all have their own lens of perception through which they view us. 

One definition of identity is “those images and masks” (Sennett 2000: 175) many of us wear, the persona we project out into the world. According to postmodern theories we don’t have as much conscious choice over our identity creation as we think we do. Postmodernism suggests that we mould ourselves, and are moulded by others, in response to whatever is currently popular and accepted. (NationMaster: PostModernism) Today more than ever we are being increasingly conditioned, influenced and bombarded by a multitude of messages and experiences about who to be and how to be. Current forms of social communication processes, particularly mainstream media, advertising, television and film, along with family, friends, teachers, political agendas, religion, society’s rules, our perceptions, perspectives, interpretations and assumptions, and those of others, all play a part in creating our identity. 

One question we need to ask is: In which way do they play a part? Do we take an influence and consciously choose to either integrate or discard it as part of our identity, or are external factors more of a subconscious influence in our identity creation? Do you know when you are being influenced? Certainly every action is on some level a genuine choice. One chooses to wear a particular style of fashion. One can choose to have a positive attitude or an angry defensive one as part of their core personality. However, what subconscious influences have led to these choices? Is something really a choice if it was a subtle or not so subtle influence imposed by media saturation of a particular message? Is something really a choice if it is ultimately decided by some inner hidden influence? 

A breakthrough in scientific research recently is triggering a major “shift in the understanding of inheritance” (BBC: 2005), particularly the inheritance of emotions, traits and beliefs. That is, scientists have just discovered that much of who we are, our very identity, has been passed down through the generations via our DNA. The “discovery of epigenetics – hidden influences upon the genes – could affect every aspect of our lives.” (BBC: 2005). Research has proven that if we had grandparents who went through a war or famine, our genes carry that energy. “A ‘memory’ of an event could be passed through generations.” (BBC: 2005) Our cells act as if we have been through that same trauma, affecting everything from our life expectancy to emotional fears of poverty or survival based not on our present day reality, but on the reality experienced decades before by our ancestors. This raises fascinating questions about what consequences epigenetics have on not only our individual identities but also on national, religious and cultural identities. Is something really a choice if you were born with a certain identity trait already existing in your genes?

The film ‘What the Bleep do we Know’ offers the theory that our mind knows no difference between an event we experience, and an event we imagine and visualize. Our body reacts the same way whether we are experiencing something or thinking about it, it triggers the same emotional and chemical responses. (Arntz, Chasse, Vicente 2004) So, we have to ask what kind of an influence on our identity do constant images of violence and war on television have on us? What kind of influence on our identity do thousands of hours of fear-based news and mind-numbing shows have on us, offering a version of reality that is less than empowering? Offering versions of identity that are less than inspiring?

Is something really a choice if it has been chosen unconsciously? Is it a choice if you don’t know all the options available to you, or have been taught that other options are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? If one is born into a certain religion, is their identity as Christian or Jew a choice? Even once they grow into adulthood and can make their own decisions, the power of constant indoctrination, family and community pressure and ingrained beliefs can make one continue to wear a piece of identity that doesn’t actually fit with their ‘authentic’ identity.

Do we even have an ‘authentic’ identity, that “collective or true self hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed “selves””? (Hall 1996: 3-4). Postmodernism can be seen as “a development of aspects of modernism while rejecting others, in particular the emphasis on authenticity...Postmodernism attacks the notions of monolithic universals and encourages fractured, fluid and multiple perspectives.” (NationMaster: PostModernism, para 1). So, according to postmodern theory identity has become not an authentic energy that comes from within, but a mask or cloak that has been put over us. This mask or cloak has been created from the fragments of external influence that are thrust upon us each day telling us what is right and wrong, what is normal and accepted, what is perverse and ‘other’. 

According to postmodern theory we seek and create our identity through these external influences, we all wear these masks and cloaks, so that we fit in with the world around us. The degree to which we choose our identity, versus having it imposed on us via external influence, is arguably a matter of consciousness and awareness. When we are unaware of the power of external influence we are akin to pieces of clay, being unconsciously moulded to fit into the accepted or preferred norms of someone else’s reality. When we are aware we can take responsibility for the creation of our identity. We can make empowered choices that best serve our selves, rather than serve people and systems outside of ourselves. 

Do individuals even want to choose their own identities? Is it easier to be given an identity than to find and assert your own? It is possible that “having grown up within a particular system of meanings and values, which may well be contradictory, we may find ourselves resisting alternatives.” (Weedon 1997, p32) Sociologist Manuel Castells refers to the “defensive identity, an identity of retrenchment of the known against the unpredictability of the unknown and uncontrollable.” (Sennett 2000: 176). 
Kalle Lasn, the founder of ‘culture jamming’ organization Adbuster’s is concerned about the mental impact consumerism is having on our sense of self. “It has been scientifically calculated that there is an average of three thousand marketing messages a day seeping into the average North American brain.” (Smith 2002). These messages tell you everything from how to think about the big issues like global warming to what you have to wear to be cool, essentially turning us into mind-numbed dumbed-down robots.

Lasn says that the primary job of the cultural jamming movement is “to nip away at consumer culture and try to bring people out of their trances and engage in activism of all kinds.” (Smith 2002). He believes that “we have lost our independence...we have become a nation of consumer drones.” (Smith 2002).

Anthony Giddens suggests that our choice in lifestyle gives “material form to a particular narrative of self-identity….we all not only follow lifestyles but in an important sense are forced to do so – we have no choice but to choose.” (Giddens 1991: 81) Giddens describes our lifestyles as “routinised practices…that are reflexively open to change in the light of the mobile nature of self-identity.” (Giddens 1991: 81) Importantly Giddens does admit that not all “choices are open to everyone, or that people take all decisions about options in full realization of the range of feasible alternatives.” (Giddens 1991: 81)

Our cultural identity also raises interesting questions of choice. How do we define our cultural self-identity and are these definitions self-chosen or imposed on us? 

Stuart Hall discusses “the traumatic nature of ‘the colonial experience’” (Hall 1990: 225-226). He suggests that the “expropriation of cultural identity cripples and deforms”, that colonized races are subjected to “imposed will and domination, by the power of inner compulsion and subjective con-formation to the norm.” (Hall 1990: 226). They are unfairly projected upon as “the Other”, and so cultural identity is often “not an essence but a positioning.” (Hall 1990: 226). 

In Australia hundreds of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and ‘country’ and raised away from their roots becoming what is now referred to as the Stolen Generation. What kind of an impact has this had on the identity of Aboriginal individuals, and on the Aboriginal culture as a whole? 

A member of the Stolen Generation adopted into a non-Indigenous family at 13 months in the 1960s says of his process: “I went through an identity crisis. And our identity is where we come from and who we are....My wife and I are trying to break this cycle, trying our hardest to break this cycle of shattered families. We're going to make sure that we stick together and bring our children up so they know who they are, what they are and where they came from.” (Confidential evidence 696, BTH Report 1995, Part 3 Sec 10)

Others were the product of an inter-racial union, often imposed on the Aboriginal mother by white settlers. A member of the Stolen Generation with an Aboriginal mother and Anglo father says: “You spend your whole life wondering where you fit. You're not white enough to be white and your skin isn't black enough to be black either, and it really does come down to that.” (Confidential evidence 210, BTH Report 1995, Part 3 Sec 10). 

This highlights the unique situation bi-or multi-cultural people find themselves in. Identity is often “displaced; hybrid or multiple.” (Sarup 1994: 93). This makes it no less valid than a fixed obvious identity. Born in Indonesia into a Chinese family, educated in the Netherlands and now residing in Australia, author and cultural studies teacher Ien Ang writes of her younger life: “Chineseness then, at that time, to me was an imposed identity, one that I desperately wanted to get rid of.” (Ang: 2002). She describes the challenges one faces in adopting other cultures: “my grandfather decided to go ‘back’ to the homeland and set up shop there, only to realise that the mainland Chinese no longer saw him as ‘one of them’. (Ang: 2002). 

The media continually perpetuate stereotypes of race and religion, thus strengthening prejudices and playing an often harmful role in the construction of cultural and national identities that are disempowering to individuals and entire communities. Since 9/11 we have received repeated messages that have served to inspire a fear of anyone who follows Islam or is of Muslim or Middle Eastern descent. 

Ordinary people have had an unwanted identity thrown upon them associating them with terrorists and terrorist activity, and are finding themselves living their lives in defense mode. Asama Khan is an American Muslim who keenly feels the influence September 11 has had on her identity. In an article published in the New York Times she agrees with a quote made by fellow American Muslim Hamza Yusuf: "It's like our religion was hijacked." (Finn 2001). The attack has “transformed her from a citified, New Age Muslim who shopped at Ikea, skated in Central Park and made profitable use of her law degree as a project-finance associate at Chadbourne & Park, to an angrily articulate advocate intent on disproving any link between Islam and the fugitive who dominates her nightmares, Osama bin Laden.” (Finn 2001)

In today’s world the choosing of one’s identity is a multi-layered experience, consciously and unconsciously influenced by countless factors. Although we may like to think that ultimately we are our own authority over the form our identity takes, the degree to which we are able to act on this authority is dependent on opportunity, awareness and taking responsibility for ones self. We also have to accept that no matter how much we live by our own authority we will always carry pieces of identity that have in some way been influenced by others. The saying ‘No man is an island’ accurately describes the inter-connectedness we share, not only with other people but with the media we digest, the social structures we reside within, and the family we have descended from. Genuine choice in our identity creation can exist when rather than viewing these influences as something imposed on us, or being ignorant to them, we embrace them as rich parts of our personal tapestries and decide in each moment how to use them, and even whether to use them or not.


Ang, Ien 23 March 2002, Not Speaking Chinese Radio Interview with Jill Kitson Transcript, Lingua Franca, Radio National, ABC Australia http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s511053.htm

Arntz William, Chasse Betsy, Vicente Mark, (2004), What the Bleep do we Know?, Captured Light Industries, Lord of the Wind Films, USA http://www.whatthebleep.com

BBC Science & Nature (4 Nov 2005), The Ghost in your Genes, Horizon Televison Programme, BBC 2, London http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/

Finn, Robin (Oct 25 2001), "A Daughter of Islam, an Enemy of Terror" in New York Times, Metro Section, archived in ‘Identity and Society’, Human Rights Resource Centre, University of Minnesota, http://www.hrusa.org/september/activities/

Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford

Hall, Stuart (1996), Introduction: ‘Who needs ‘Identity’? in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, pp 1-17, Sage, London

Hall, Stuart (1990), ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Jonathan Rutherford (ed), Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart Limited, London

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1995, ‘Bringing them Home’, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Reconciliation and Social Justice Library. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/

Nationmaster.Com, October 6 2004, Encyclopedia: Postmodernism

Sarup, Madan (1994), ‘Home and Identity’ in George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam (eds) Traveller’s Tales, Narratives of Home and Displacement, Routledge, London

Sennett, Richard (2000) ‘Street and Office: Two Sources of Identity’ in Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens (eds) On the Edge, Living with Global Capitalism, pp175-190, Jonathon Cape, London

Smith, Star Jewel, 12 January 2002, Culture Jamming: 21st Century Activism, Get Underground Online Magazine, http://www.getunderground.com/underground/features/

Weedon, C. 1997, ‘Principles of poststructuralism’ Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory, 2nd edition, Basil Blackwell, Oxford

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