Embracing Shifting Identities

I recently attended a talk on Identity in Britain Today at the Barbican. A panel of professionals discussed the notion of ‘identity’ in modern Britain from a range of viewpoints:  that of a social artist, a psychoanalyst, a reader in international politics and a journalist. Each member was uniquely situated in the hybrid-limbo of ‘British-other’ (with which I identify). The discussion was timely given the EU Referendum which will take place on June 23rd, 2016.

In one week’s time UK Citizens will be voting on whether to remain part of the European Union or to leave it. As someone who migrated to the UK and eventually became a citizen, who enjoyed living in Barcelona and the possibility to live in other European countries (current benefits of my UK citizenship), my vote to remain is a no brainer.

This post is not a discussion of the arguments for/against leaving the EU. If you are interested in the facts and stats I will link a couple resources I have read below. What I do want to discuss are the psycho-social processes relating to identity that are going on right now.

For the longest time the white Western identity has dominated global hierarchy. This status was unchallenged, and people benefitting were either ignorant or careless about the resultant inequalities (some still are – those desperately fighting to hold on).

Globalisation, new technologies, and raised efforts for diversity & equality all began to de-construct and criticise the social strata. Things are shifting towards a more equal state, and as a result we increasingly witness extreme expressions of threat and prejudice from the ‘dominant’ subject against the ‘other(s)’.

What we are seeing in potential ‘leave’ voters is the response to a threat to their sense of British identity.  The more things modernise and diversify the harder it may become to have a secure sense of who you are in this world.

Are you the American because your accent sounds it, no matter how little time you’ve actually spent living in the US? Are you American-Mexican because your bloodline says so, even if you are very white? Are you infinitely the Columbian despite European citizenship and residency? Are you the Swiss before you are American because you were born there but grew up in the US? Are you the Nigerian before British, even though you were born and live in the UK? Are you dual? Are you mixed?

Are we all mixed? – This is something I will come back to in another post. But the bottom line is, I can understand that it is difficult to define yourself when there are many options – and that this could feel threatening and confusing. (It could also be exciting if you are like me – but more on that later)

During the talk Kannan Navaratnem (a psychoanalyst) drew a distinction between our sense of self and our identity. The former is an internal relationship we have with ourselves, something that we develop privately. Our ‘true self’ may reveal over time and in our most spontaneous moments. The latter develops in response to external relationships and may change in different contexts. We use language and categories to describe our identities: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, culture, nation. etc.

This self categorisation leads to distinctions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, inclusion and exclusion. But an identity crisis occurs when there is movement of ‘them’ to ‘us’, yet ‘we’ want to stay distinct from ‘them’, or ‘they’ want to stay distinct from ‘us’, and the ‘original we’ are a united ‘we’ in our oneness from ‘them’, despite having true differences from ‘each other’,  although ‘we all’ reside in the same place. And so on…

In relation to the EU Referendum, if we consider identity as something moulded and influenced by external contexts, we can see how the ‘British’ identity will shift significantly when its union with 27 other countries remains or disappates. Not only will the rights of individuals change, the global status of the nation will shift conceptually and practically.

What is truly interesting is acknowledging “[i]dentity [as] a process” (Claudia Aradau, Reader in International Politics). It is fluid and not entirely within the individual’s control – even the words you use to describe your own identity will shift in meaning and be subjective according to who you describe yourself to. And the words you use to describe your identity were in fact taught to you for use, not originally conceived of by yourself.

On the other hand, our sense of self is more individual and subjective. This sense of ‘being’ is developed naturally and reflects whatever makes you feel like you. And when your prescribed identity feels threatened you can tap back into this sense of self and feel secure.

And surely the stronger our conviction in our true selves, the less threatened we feel by shifting rhetoric and events out of our control?

It may be too late to suggest this to any Brexit voters – but I do think it’s positive for everyone to have an understanding of what’s truly at play here.

Going forwards, to embrace shifting identities and go with the flow is a much more relaxed and open way of forming who you are. And in my perspective the more experiences and influences I have in my perception of myself, the more interesting really!


The discussions at the panel and thoughts I had afterwards reminded me of my post Informing My American Identity; My Experience of White Privilege and The Choice to be an Ally in which I challenge the notion of an ‘American’ identity when individual citizens are treated differently dependent on their skin colour. Check this out if you haven’t already!



Identity in Britain Today Panel Talk at the Barbican, London, UK. June 14 2016. Panelists: Claudia Aradau, Reader in International Politics; Kannan Navaratnem, psychoanalyst; Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, reporter and writer; and Marianne Holm Hansen, artist; and Orlagh Woods, chair.

Chris Bryant Reminds David Cameron His Cabinet are Children of ‘Bunch of Migrants’


Live Referendum News from the BBC


Stronger In Website


Parliament UK Website re. History of EU


Who Are We? And Why Does It Matter in the 21st Century? by Gary Younge a Discussion by Sarfraz Manzoor, May 29 2010.



6 thoughts on “Embracing Shifting Identities

  1. So I’m not sure how many other people feel like this (or how relevant a point this may be), but my identity has never been informed by my location or where I was born. I have always considered being from the UK/being British an identifying factor, something for other’s to be able to help identify me. It may be because I have spent so little time around other cultural influences, but I have never tied any sense of worth to the identifier I call home. I will always be me, and that is what matters most for me, not what I have to label myself to make it easier for others.


    1. Thank you for your input! It seems that what you are saying goes somewhat in line with the psychoanalyst’s point at this talk – that our sense of self and our sense of identity are two distinct things yet may inform one another. I feel like the categories and labels, e.g. ‘British’, are definitely constructions built to inform us of one another – an identifying factor as you say. I agree that these do not necessarily correlate with a more personal sense of self, but in many people I’m sure it does enhance their sense of self. Or maybe in some cases it’s hard to differentiate the two and to find your sense of self outside of the identifying labels that you are placed into.


  2. Makes me think about 2 things. First, how localized comfort and sense of self are. Super specific cultural familiarity seems to both provide a sense of community and offer comprehension about life by joined experience. This may be necessary for homo-sapien brains? IE, we seek very localized understanding and community which leads to an “us” and “them?” This could be functional and allows someone to feel comforted and relaxed, even protected, but may create xenophobia. Maybe being multicultural by upbringing (either within the home or by living in multiple places) makes for a more adaptable mind, or a less threatened mind? Second thing is how changes in life stage and personal processes seem to effect allegiance to identities. Living in the UK for 15 years makes it the comfortable home to my current self, while visiting California still holds the greatest impact to my inner child mind. Being a bit older and wiser now, when moving between both places I can feel equally part of both and see the pros/cons of both. And I see the universals of both – things like there are jerks and ignorants and heroes and artists and intellectuals everywhere. American? British? I think of myself as culturally American, but a very proud British citizen. Meaning I feel at home and contribute to the UK, participate in the day to day fabric of its society, love its humour and culture, but still see big differences between me and people who grew up here. California made me. I wonder if some who grow older feel the opposite to me – staunchly latching onto their childhood culture, the place that formed them and has a strong hold on their inner child mind.


    1. You are right that it is natural and instinctive to find a sense of belonging amongst people, and this feeling of being drawn together, finding similarities, creating cultural customs, traditions, etc. all must have been a key part of uniting humans and forming societies. It’s actually a pretty cool aspect to all this – that we want to find those similarities and to feel part of something. And yes, ultimately when discussing multiple societies in a large global world, this includes creating dividing points for ‘us’ and ‘them’. So what multiculturalism and globalisation bring to this sense of self/identity is unfolding now and is interesting to see…

      Regarding the sense of self between different cultures- in my case I have lived in America for less than half of my life, I was a teenager and young adult living in the UK but I continue to be influenced and formed now by new things. I more or less ‘grew up’ in England but within an American-influenced household and we have kept strong ties to Berkeley. So I identify with both in different ways and I suppose I’m able to adapt to either identity. I also experience being differentiated and not fully fitting in to either because of the other. Bizarre huh. But it makes sense that the individualisation and culturalisation that comes as a child/teenager developmentally, will totally influence your sense of identity. I didn’t think specifically about the timing of identity formation so thank you for suggesting that!


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