Why No One Listens When We Tell Them Who We Are

When identity is shifting but society is slow to make room it- An article by the founder of Insights in Color in partnership with Lucid & ThinkNow.

The state of identity in America and across the world is in flux and no one seems completely sure what to do about it, or how to handle it. This change should not come as a complete shock since, for many of us, our values shape the way we think about ourselves and others. If you’ve been paying attention, the state of American values have been steadily taking on new direction and form, since the cultural events of 2016.

The uncertainty surrounding how to think about the evolving state of identity has birthed a seemingly unnavigable tension regarding how we choose to describe and label ourselves- a tension catalyzed by shifts in generational viewpoints. However, the conflict of older generations seeing things differently than younger generations is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is in many ways, a part of the natural circle of life in most societies.

Where the tension becomes most dangerous however, is when these conflicts deny rights of access to groups who may see themselves as not belonging to the identity variables the US has kept alive and mostly unchanged for decades. These “variables” of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality are in the midst of their own evolutionary make-overs and young generations of individuals eager to define themselves are facing scrutiny because of it.

Due to technology and our increasingly digital lives, these tensions and conflicts are often are playing out on the public stage and in the court of public opinion. It is this same public stage where we witnessed Meagan Markle being chastised for preferring to be identified as biracial instead of only “Black” or “white” and later having it determined for her by those outside of her life. It is the same court of public opinion where critics dissect and analyze the parenting choices of Dwayne Wade and Gabriel Union with regard to their daughter Zaya who no longer felt connected to the identity she was given at birth and was permitted to change it.

So what is the driving force of this “public opinion” and how does it remain in power? There are many complex factors and layers, but the first one is undoubtedly, “us”.

Tension 1

As parents, aunt’s, uncle’s, and grandparents, we often tell our little ones to dream big and to be whomever they want to be in this world. In fact, we encourage them to not limit themselves or their imaginations so much that there are entire books, brands and ad campaigns dedicated to the idea.

But the truth is, when we do this, we are usually only referring to the career paths, hobbies and interests of our children. No one ever seems to consciously think they are encouraging their kids to define themselves on their own terms, or with labels that don’t exist yet for them. No one seems to assume that by sparking a little self-motivation in our youth, they are also possibly igniting a match in a direction that was never built to allow wildfire to burn.

As in many cases, the human ego sits at the center of this tension as there is always a desire for our littles to grow up and be better, younger version of us. Many times, as adults, we find ourselves placing our hopes and failed aspirations on young people to avenge the dreams that we lost along the way. It’s why a father takes his son to a baseball game and why a mother enrolls her daughter into ballet or cheerleading camp. “Maybe they’ll like the same things I liked at their age” we often think, and secretly hope.

However, the desire for our children to “grow up the same way as we did” is a flawed concept as there is often an unspoken tradition, nay, right of passage, for each generation to free itself from the restrictive norms of previous generations. In fact, since the 1960s, social norms and expectations around who we were supposed to be have steadily loosened and unwound from the grips of the classic American mainstream persona that evolved in the 50s. Despite this, we are still mostly connected to the type of America that was formed at this time.

Tension 2

In addition to the more evidentiary ways in which identity is shifting, the way we track and categorize consumers has remained mostly the same throughout history, which is the second factor impacting identity formation in the US.

If identity, and the way we think about ourselves is evolving beyond the variables of the past, nowhere should this change be more reflected than in our census and research data. In fact, the groups with the power to change the way we see and conceptualize ourselves (census enumerators, and researchers) are the ones who should be leading this conversation. However, what is often true is that consumers are the ones breaking away from restrictive rules on identity while enumerators, researchers and the entities that rely on those sources of information are almost always playing catch-up.

These viewpoints are also shared by Talia Lipkind at Lucid who recognizes that the census was never meant to capture an idea as wide and as multifaceted as “identity”; it was simply a tool made to measure and count the population. Because of this, the way we categorize consumers, by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and more, has failed to evolve or to grow alongside the audiences these variables were initially built to capture.

THE IMPACT

This slow to change process (and in some cases, the refusal to update methodologies) not only works to keep identity in flux but it also keeps research results inaccurate while painting an incomplete, often biased picture of the American public. In effect, it strips consumers of the complexities of their personhood for the sake of ease and simplicity.

For those of us who have never seen ourselves in the limited ways that society has pigeon-holed us, this process of realizing who we are, and being denied the agency and/or freedom to claim it can be as limiting as it is confusing and emotionally traumatizing. While it may not seem like a big deal for some to continuously check a box marked “other” for many, it can serve to deepen the struggle around claiming an identity that is uniquely theirs.

For young people learning who they are and trying to determine who they want to become while balancing the secret hopes, dreams and wishes of the adults in their lives, it can feel like one of the heaviest burdens to bear. The yo-yo effect of being told to reach for the stars and then being forced to come back down to earth can be a dizzying, confusing and disorienting journey.

THE SOLUTION

The vocal court of public opinion is in fact, one of society’s most useful and potentially devastating tools, but in this case, it is not the only entity empowered to affect and impact the shifting state of identity. Researchers, enumerators, and government legislatures are ultimately the ones with the power to ensure marginalized groups are seen, heard and given the same rights and opportunities to exist as they truly are.

Research entities like ThinkNow, Insights in Color and Lucid are each actively working to try to ensure that shifts in how we identify are accurately reflected in the way research is conducted moving forward. The goal is to establish a new standard of inclusive identity variables and considerations as the norm- standards that have the ability to be as flexible and dynamic as the groups of consumers pushing the boundaries to establish a new sense of self.

As this work evolves, stay tuned to find out more about the efforts of these groups as they work together to change the market research industry and to create a more representative and inclusive world of insight outputs.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy. www.touchofwhit.com www.insightsincolor.com

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