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Who are we? Our personal and community identities

As educators we often gave students an assignment to trace their personal histories and identities and create some sort of visual representation of that identity.

For little children it was mostly exploring their families through photographs and they proudly brought these pictures mounted on construction paper and showed the class their parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.

Older children explored more complex relationships including friends, sports groups, cultural clubs or personal interests like books, travel, etc.

In post-secondary was where these charts became fascinatingly complex and personal identity charts intersected with community identity charts.

Tracing our own identity charts can be an absorbing exercise.

In a way, it is similar to the television shows that trace the ancestral roots of famous people who find that their great-great grandparents were unexpectedly different be it racially, lingually or occupationally.

However, exploring our own identity is a very personal journey refereed only by ourselves.

Only we know who we are, what our affiliations are, our preferences, our interests, our philosophies.

Who are we?

I have seen identity charts where an individual uses a Venn diagram, or a jigsaw puzzle, a pyramid, a pie-chart with different colours denoting different strands of personality, or a central circle with the name and spokes of the wheel labelled with all the different facets of who they are.

These can be name, heritage, religion, ethnicity, language, gender orientation, faith group, politics, sports, club affiliations, personal interests, etc.

But it is when we attempt to create a community chart and place our personal identities on to that larger world space that it becomes fascinating.

We see ourselves fitting into so many different communities.

We are valued members of our family, our neighbourhood, our town, our place of worship, circle of friends, club, team and so much more.

In a Venn diagram we would see overlapping aspects of all the identities we share with other people.

Not all aspects of our identity will exactly match another’s. In each spot where the diagram overlaps we belong to a different group – we might be women, teachers, basketball players, book club members, engineers, multilingual speakers, etc. We are not one-dimensional cutouts.

This is why I find it so frightening when despotic leaders aim to claim whole countries or provinces for one particular trait of people.

No one has just one trait. A person may be white but not at all similar to another white person in identity. Or a person may be mixed race and not recognized as either.

There are places in the world where religious intolerance has caused egregious massacres – how can religion, a belief in God, be so destructive?

There are heinous people in history who committed genocides and ethnic cleansings to rid their countries of specific groups of people. As we watch politics around the world we see more and more the politics of divisiveness.

Encouragingly, we are also seeing strong voices who oppose this kind of destructive approach to leadership.

We are seeing ordinary people come out to express loud concern about the mistreatment of people, be they homeless, economically poor, mentally ill, physically different, or groups who are fragile in many different ways. That is true democracy.

When I was growing up I remember reading the powerful poem by Martin Niemoller, a German pastor writing about the cowardice of Germans who did not speak out against Nazi injustices. We saw what happened due to their fascist leader and their silence. It is worth re-reading Pastor Niemoller’s poem:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

                                                                                                                                                       – Dr Vicki Bismilla


• Dr Vicki Bismilla is a retired Superintendent of Schools and retired college Vice-President, Academic, and Chief Learning Officer.

Posted: Jun 5, 2019

May 2020

Centennial College

Immigration Peel Canada

© CanadaBound Immigrant 2016