“This is who I am”
I recently read an article about what it’s like being deaf in New Zealand. One woman interviewed recalled a camp she attended when she was young. The experience made a big impression on her, so much so that she came to realise that being deaf was “who I am”.
This got me thinking about other times I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such is “who I am”. One hears of people saying it about their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic they consider to be vital to the point of being definitive.
I expect many who say this are very deeply affected by the significance of the characteristic they are describing and this is articulated, with some poetic licence, as “This is who I am”. In some cases (perhaps many), this poetic licence may be energised by the fact that the person has been made to feel like a social outlier because of the characteristic. In these cases, the “poetry” becomes quite poignant and very powerful.
However, some proclaim “who I am” with a polemical purpose which, if spelled out, goes something like this: “This characteristic is who I am. For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity”. What seems to follow, in the mind of the speaker, is that the disapproval or disagreement must therefore not be permitted and may even be reasonably described as hate speech and condemned as such. We see this happening all around us.
This characteristic is who I am. For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity.
No matter how the declaration “This is who I am” is used, I suggest that it isn’t actually true. I cannot interfere with a person’s view of themselves – I’m just an onlooker with no authority – but I can have an opinion about this kind of thought process. When the woman declared that her deafness is “who I am”, it occurred to me to ask, “What about your ethnicity and gender, are they just peripheral?”
When a person identifies a characteristic and says, “This is who I am”, they are doing themselves a great injustice and selling themselves way short.
Each person consists of an enormous number of characteristics, some innate and others formed by experience and context. I’ll call each of these a “what” as distinct from the “who”. There are all sorts of whats – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, height, body shape and weight, strength, IQ, EQ, disposition, beauty, physical prowess, physical health, mental health, attitude to heights, enclosed spaces and spiders, place on various spectrums (eg introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, sweetness of tooth, sensitivity to heat and cold), opinions and world-view, life experience, experience of oppression (from one side or another), skills, self-esteem, memory, facility with languages ……….. I’m not sure the list has an end.
I suggest that “who” a person is must be, at the very least, the aggregate of the enormous number of whats that characterise the person. To be honest, I would go further and suggest that this aggregate is simply “what” the person is, while the “who” of that person is something even more profound and utterly unique.