Your identity is what makes you you. It's not just how you look—a person's identity consists of and encompasses a broad range of personal experiences, values and characteristics. Think: race, ethnic background, gender identity, sexuality, religion and more.
However, human beings don't live in a vacuum—and neither do their identities. As social creatures, humans' identities are inevitably contextualized by the cultures they're enmeshed in and the prevailing hegemonies (or ways of thought) of the day.
For example, in a white supremacist, cis-heteronormative patriarchy, Black people, indigenous people and queer people may face serious marginalization and discrimination that can impact and even endanger their lives. Case in point: Based on police-involved deaths in the U.S., about 1 in 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by a cop, according to a 2019 study published in the journal PNAS; for white men and boys, that number drops to approximately 52 in 100,000.
Identity is personal and political, and undeniably important. Get the facts about some of the primary factors that make up people's identities, and how those identities—and cultural reactions to those identities—can affect their well-being.
Gender identity and sexual orientation
Gender and sexuality are distinct, but often related, parts of someone's identity. Gender identity refers to how someone experiences themselves as masculine, feminine, a mixture of both or neither. Sexual orientation is complex and nuanced enough to warrant its own guide, but broadly has to do with which gender(s) someone finds themselves romantically and/or sexually attracted to.
Gender identity is inherently complicated because of culturally perpetuated gender roles—expectations that people of different sexes naturally behave (and should behave) in different ways. Because of these norms, everything from certain speech patterns to certain clothing items can be perceived as "masculine" or "feminine." Gender norms are the reason it was considered controversial for Harry Styles to wear a dress on the cover of Vogue magazine, for example.
Biological sex vs. gender identity
Someone's gender identity can be different from their sex assigned at birth or "biological sex," which is generally limited to male or female and has to do with a person's physical body and genitals.
It's important to note that not everyone's body is easily categorized into such a restrictive binary; estimates suggest that about 1 to 2 people in every 100 born in the U.S. are intersex, with naturally occurring variances in their reproductive or sexual anatomy, Planned Parenthood reports.
Unfortunately, many babies born intersex have a binary sex chosen for them by their doctors or their family, and are often put through unnecessary surgeries and hormone treatments in order to make them fit into traditional sex categories.
Transgender and nonbinary identities
If someone's gender identity does line up with their sex assigned at birth, that person is considered a cis person: a cis man or cis woman. This is in opposition to trans identities, wherein someone transitions away from the sex they were assigned at birth—and, often, the expectations that come with it.
Transgender identity comes in many varieties. A person may transition to the "opposite" binary gender, recruiting medical interventions such as gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapies to help their outward appearance better match their intrinsic gender identity. However, not all trans people choose to undergo medical transition and might express their gender identity outwardly in other ways, such as how they dress or which pronouns they use. Either way, someone's gender identity is never invalidated by their outward appearance, and can't be reliably guessed just by looking at a person.
Furthermore, many people experience their gender identity outside of the strict confines of the male/female binary. Those with nonbinary gender identities—a mixture or spectrum of both masculine and feminine energies, or something that transcends that picture altogether—are also sometimes considered part of the greater trans community, though not all nonbinary people identify as trans.
Historically and culturally speaking, there's a good argument to be made that race is the most important part of identity—and the most significant nexus of oppression and mistreatment. Race was used to justify kidnapping or driving people from their homelands and forcing them into unpaid servitude. To this day, institutionalized racism continues to create alternate realities for people born in America (and around the globe), all based on the color of their skin.
What is race?
Race is often assumed to be an objective, biologically based division of humanity based on external features, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features and more. However, the truth is that the whole concept of race is an invention, and a fairly new one at that.
Race was invented by white European philosophers and naturalists in the 17th and 18th centuries as they set about cataloging and categorizing the world around them. Unfortunately, they built unfounded notions of moral, intellectual and aesthetic superiority into arbitrary categories.
The truth is, human beings have naturally occurring variants in their physical appearances, and because these variants are genetic, natural selection caused certain adaptations to flourish in certain contexts. For example, human skin tends to have a higher concentration of melanin, a pigment that protects us from UV radiation, among populations who have historically lived closer to the equator, where there's more sunlight. More melanin means a darker skin color. But there is no innate genetic footprint that is unique to, or defines, any given "race," according to researchers.
Racism and racial identity
Although race is a human construct, that doesn't make it any less real in someone's lived experience or any less important in the understanding of our identity. That's because race carries a heavy load of culturally imbued meaning and can have a real effect on how people walk through their lives. White supremacy and racism against all non-white people continue to persist in America and many other countries around the world.
The U.S. Census Bureau currently recognizes five races, though these categories have changed significantly throughout history. The races listed on the form today—which by no means constitute a comprehensive list of potential racial identities—include:
- Black or African American
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
You may notice that Hispanic or Latino doesn't show up on this list—that’s precisely because a person of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race.
Whereas race is about physical differences among people, ethnicity is about cultural differences. The religion you follow, language you speak, holidays you celebrate, tribe you belong to or nation you call home might all be part of your ethnicity.
Although ethnicity is often used interchangeably with race, the two are distinct from one another. For instance, an African American whose ethnicity is Kenyan might have a very different identity from a Black person whose ethnicity is Jamaican. This is part of the problem of relying on constructed racial categories in the first place, which can paint with too broad a brush and render specific ethnicities invisible.
As with race, it's possible to identify with more than one ethnicity—and, like race, ethnicity has also been the basis of discrimination and oppression, including atrocities like genocide or "ethnic cleansing."
There are many other identity factors that make up people's full sense of themselves, including age, ability status, profession, political affiliation, religious affiliation and many more. But it's not possible to talk about identity without also acknowledging privilege, because not every identity facet is saddled with the same socio-political weight and not every identity facet is the cause of discrimination and marginalization. Those with identities that are more in alignment with cultural norms and expectations experience more privilege than those from marginalized communities: social advantages conferred to them simply for "fitting in" better.
Identity and health
Because identity does carry so much cultural weight, living with a marginalized identity can have far-reaching consequences for health and well-being. Police violence against people of color is a glaring example, but there are other less obvious ways identity can impact physical health.
For example, Black women and other people of color may have a harder time securing appropriate medical care, especially since research published in PNAS as recently as 2016 suggests that many doctors (falsely) believe Black people are less sensitive to pain than white people. Trans people also face rampant mistreatment, and even negligence, at medical practices. In one particularly egregious example, former EMT and trans man Jay Kallio didn’t receive his breast cancer diagnosis until a lab technician accidentally outed the news by asking how he was dealing with it. The surgeon who'd taken the biopsy hadn't bothered to give him the positive results at all.
It's true that human beings, as different as they may be from each other, have far more in common than not. People share more than 99 percent of their genetic makeup even with those who look and think most differently from them. And some of the ways people break themselves into categories—such as race—are flimsy when pressed on by the rigors of science.
But identity continues to be critical to people's understanding of themselves in the world, regardless of how, why or from where their identity categories emerge. And while identity-based discrimination continues to take place, greater representation and intersectional activism is still needed to secure and ensure equal rights for every human being, no matter how they identify.