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Valuing identity as an intersection of labels

There is never just a single aspect to our identities. So what happens when different aspects of your identity don’t quite line up with the society you’re a member of? I’ve recently been looking into my past to try to answer this question. There are five main labels that I attach to my identity: Black, woman, American, Somali and Muslim.

When I was asked to write this viewpoint I knew it would be about this topic, but I was hesitant to include my own experiences. So before I begin I would like to note that these experiences are my own and it should not be assumed that others with similar identifiers share the same experiences or beliefs.

Having a Black mother and an African immigrant father, I essentially had to learn how to balance the Somali and American parts of my identity from the start. There was my name. At home and with my family my name was Safiya, but everywhere else and on my birth certificate, I was Sofia. Although the names referred to the same person, I found they elicited very different responses. Introducing myself as Safiya would often lead to further questioning about my origins, and I would repeatedly have to explain I was American.

Then there was my language. In my home I was able to comfortably switch between the English I used to communicate with my mother and the Somali I used to communicate with my grandmother. But in order to adapt to my American schooling and that fact that outside my front door Somali was not widely spoken, I lost most of my mother tongue. My parents had to teach me how to navigate a world where the color of my skin would attract both inquiry and hatred. They taught me that as a woman I wouldn’t have the same advantages as my male peers. They had to teach me that although every day in school I had to recite the pledge of allegiance to the American flag with my classmates, there would still be people who saw me as a threat to that flag because of my religion. The most important thing my parents taught me, though, was that no matter what label was attached to me, I had the power to determine who I was as a person.

When I lived in Kenya I received questions from my friends as to why I called myself an American, because, to them, America was a place of opportunities, but it was also a place of prejudice. They couldn’t understand why I still took pride in my nationality. My answer would always be that I was American because that’s where I was born, that’s where my family was, that’s where my friends were and that’s where I grew up. Even though sometimes it was the source of my conflict, I understood that being American was a large part of who I was, and it couldn’t just be discarded.

Overall, although they don’t always make things easy for me, I enjoy my labels. I feel as though my combination of labels adds to my uniqueness and speaks to the experiences I’ve had in my life. I find beauty in where they intersect along with the challenges. That’s what causes me to wonder where conflict comes from. Is it internal, because we want to have a clear understanding of ourselves, or does it come from the pressures of society and the groups we belong to telling us who we should be? I’ll leave that question out there, since I have yet to find my own answer.

Sofia Abdirizak, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at SAbdirizak20@wooster.edu.

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