Who will we become?

Reflections on cultivating an "aspirational identity"

Over the holidays my wife and I took our two kids on a road-trip of the South: from my in-laws home in Greensboro, North Carolina to Montgomery, Alabama (via Charleston, Savannah, and Macon). The goal was to explore our history, to visit sites devoted to memorializing the civil rights movement, and to think about race and reconciliation. The whole trip was powerful, made all the more so by the imperative to try to explain it to our children (at least our 4.5 year old; our 2.5 year old isn’t quite there).

The centerpiece was our visit to Montgomery, and the newly-inaugurated National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial) and the companion Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. They are both beautifully conceived and long-overdue contributions to America’s essential journey toward facing our history—thanks to the tireless work and advocacy of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. The visit prompted me to revisit some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head; please indulge me in exploring them here.

TL;DR: We urgently need to cultivate new aspirational identities… that are attainable.


The word "apocalypse" means "unveiling" 

This to me is one way of understanding the moment we find ourselves in: a collective global process of sense-making, of peeling back layers to grapple with a set of truths many of us—particularly those of us who hold privilege in this system—have long denied, or preferred not to face.  It’s a careful balancing act. To let go of something we’ve long believed is a destabilizing experience; we find ourselves unmoored. We grasp for a new story to anchor ourselves, to feel secure and proud in our sense of who we are. Here’s James Baldwin:

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed.

We are in a period of unveiling: tearing down false narratives (Confederate monuments as a powerful metaphor). This is a movement—perhaps inevitably and necessarily—defined in opposition to the story it is trying to change: Columbus not as great explorer but as genocidaire. But as Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us: “All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against.

Telling a new, and better, story

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few years, particularly in the context of whiteness and masculinity (what does it mean to be a white man in America?), but it’s a broader global trend where popular movements are succeeding in challenging dominant narratives. I see generally three responses (analogous to the stages of grief, now that I think about it…):

1) willful ignorance: turning away from unpleasant new truths: denying that the Confederacy only holds meaning in the context of protecting the institution of slavery

2) defensive backlash: engaging with the new story, but aggressively rejecting it: the Civil War wasn’t about race!

3) sad or angry acceptance: grieving the loss of a comfortable myth, or anger at a lie we’ve been told (screw Thanksgiving!)

I think we desperately need a fourth way to approach this necessary process of learning and unlearning, one that offers us a path forward. Baldwin again:

It is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

We need positive role models

I was having lunch two years ago with a person I respect (a woman of color), and she asked me this question: “who are contemporary examples of good white men, the kind of people you would want your white son to look up to?” I stared at her for a full two minutes, and realized: I have no idea. All the names that leapt to mind I quickly rejected, and it occurred to me: we have lots of examples of what NOT to do, who NOT to be (just read the news)… but alarmingly few positive role models. This is a whole newsletter post in its own right, but it’s the moment that started me thinking in earnest about this question.

We need to cultivate “aspirational identities”

Role models offer us a way of imagining who we can become. They give us an aspirational identity. Doug Hattaway wrote a brilliant essay in SSIR last month that elaborates on why this is so important in the context of social change, using the gay rights movement and anti-smoking campaigns as case studies. He explains:

Your aspirations are your ideas about the kind of person you want to be, the life you want to live, and the world you want to live in. Aspirations are important to our personal identities and play a powerful role in driving our attitudes and behaviors… Connecting your cause to people’s authentic aspirations is the key that can open the door to durable attitude change. It moves your audience beyond empathy to self-reflection.

In other words: it’s not enough to use clever messaging and a story (marketing) to get people to take a certain action or adopt a particular behavior. We need to get people to adopt a new identity, or better yet to be reminded to aspire to an identity they already value: to be a voter, rather than to vote. This is both an individual and collective imperative: who will you be? Who shall we become?

I’m reminded of the classic social psychology experiment about children trick-or-treating and confronting a mirror when told to take only one piece of candy. The mere act of seeing themselves—of being forced, literally, into a moment of self-reflection—caused them to behave more ethically. The article cited above concludes: “When we take a moment to focus inward on ourselves, we become more aware of the person we think we should be.”

This is, in short, the art of self-actualization (for those of you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Psychologist Carl Rogers explained:

Self-actualization occurs when a person’s “ideal self” (i.e., who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behavior (self-image).

We need radical imagination… about who we can be, not just what we can do

I’ve seen lately a growing discourse (which I am grateful for!) around the need for radical imagination; I love this recent piece by Eric Holtaus as a great example that we need more of. But it occurs to me that we too often limit our utopian visions to actions, not identities. What would it look like to re-imagine who we might be, and who we might become? I love the work of the McBride brothers here. As Ben says:

The question is not what should we do, but who should we become?

To me the most exciting area where I see this happening is around gender, and specifically the nonbinary movement. People refusing to fall into the either/or, but transcending them entirely and exploring new possibilities for who we might be, how we might live, how we might relate. I find it incredibly liberating. Trina (my sister) inspired me to follow nonbinary artist Alok Menon on Instagram, and I find it so delightfully provocative, transgressive, and… beautiful. I mean… why not? I aspire to one day have Alok’s sheer audacity and courage.

These identities have to be attainable

It’s not enough to have something to strive for: it has to be something you can reach. This insight struck me reading a powerful journal article exploring masculinity and violence in Mexico. The authors describe the way things used to be:

Mexico’s macho identity was a hegemonic masculinity that ordinary people could access. It was also a moral identity, embodying the values of the post-revolutionary Mexican republic.

And then the particular bind many young men find themselves in today, as a consequence of decades of extractive neoliberalism:

On the one hand, a culture of hyper-consumerism dictates that individual, family, and social identity are achieved through ownership of purchasable status symbols. On the other hand, with more than half of the population living in poverty, the opportunities to access resources are extremely limited for the majority of Mexican society. 

The same could be said of the United States (or India, or Russia, or the Philippines, or Brazil, or…). The American Dream at its best contained a moral ethic; under neoliberalism it was stripped down to a product for purchase—a house in the suburbs and a two-car garage. Even were that Dream still desirable, for the vast majority of Americans it’s unattainable. There’s no point aspiring to something you can never reach. This is why there’s always such a strong nostalgic dimension to these backlash movements: make America great… again.

These identities have to be acceptable

There’s a second component to attainability: are the sacrifices necessary to reach the goal acceptable? Again, the gender lens here is powerful. There was a great line from one of the economists interviewed in Claire Cain Miller’s article on why men won’t pursue so-called “pink collar” jobs in professions traditionally seen as feminine (nursing, eldercare, early childhood education):

“It’s not a skill mismatch, but an identity mismatch.”

I wrote my entire senior thesis in college expounding on a version of this challenge, on the gap between aspiration and reality and the alienation that results. I elaborated on the core theory (best expressed in this incredible 1979 article by William Connolly) in a 2011 post on the Occupy movement here.

This affects all of us, not just those of us from historically privileged identities

This landed for me listening to a podcast interview with race scholar Beverly Tatum on how to talk to children about race. She shared an anecdote about how she teaches her kids (she’s black) about slavery, and how she goes to great efforts both to valorize African people and to emphasize stories of resistance to enslavement: she didn’t want her children to internalize a narrative of victimhood.

I think about this a lot in the context of marginalized identities, which because they are forged by necessity in opposition to dominant culture risk remaining circumscribed by that opposition. Anzaldúa again:

It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat… At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.


I’ll conclude where I started: in Montgomery, Alabama, at the museum and memorial. There I was, shoulder-to-shoulder with African-Americans, together contemplating a past where people who look like me did unspeakable things to people who look like them… casting a long shadow that looms over us in the present, where people who look like me continue to do unspeakable things to people who look like them. Eye contact felt fraught: how can I convey the totality of what I’m feeling with a fleeting glance? How can I apologize for what has been done, grieve for what has been lost, honor what remains, invite into a shared imagining of a new future?

I’m grateful for spaces where we can confront the past with an unflinching gaze. But we can’t stop there. What might it look like to co-create a future—and aspirational identities—where we all belong together?