Creating Identity


I’ve been thinking a lot about how, when, and where race, ethnicity, and gender intersect. The answer, of course, is simple: identity. As a woman of color, I am constantly questioning identity (both my own and others’). Identity is all around us. It’s in the way we walk, the pitch of our voice when we are excited, in the places we choose to go, in the way we look at ourselves in the mirror, and it’s in the art we create.

Recently, I learned a little something about identity, specifically, my own.

I was mugged this past week at a light rail station in Newark. Here is the story in brief:

I got to the light rail station early in the afternoon. I had just finished teaching and was headed home for the afternoon. As I approached the station, a train had just pulled up, and folks were leaving the station. Two black, male kids, probably no older than 16 or 17 years old, sort of lingered as I started walking down the stairs. For a split second, I thought that I should A. put my phone back in my pocket or B. walk up the stairs and wait outside in the broad daylight until I heard the next train coming. Then, I thought how these kids resembled some of the students I’d taught in the past.  I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I kept walking down the stairs. The first kid walked up right past me. As the second kid reached me, he swiped at my phone.

I kept an iron grip on the phone. (For a small Asian-American woman, I’m pretty strong.) I held on as tightly as I could. The kid tugged harder. I started screaming, “No! No! No! You asshole!” The kid tugged some more, and I tripped, scraping the side of my leg on the concrete steps. Still holding onto the phone, we played tug of war for what seemed to be forever. All of a sudden, the second kid appeared again. I looked up and saw him shove his hand into his pocket, saying “I have a gun.” At this point, I let go of the phone. They both ran up the stairs. All in all, I walked away with a slightly sprained ankle, a small scrape on my knee, a large scrape on my shin, and a small scrape on my ankle.

When those two kids saw me and made the decision to try to rob me, they made a judgment about me. The judgment was that I was probably going to let them have my phone immediately, that I wasn’t strong enough to hold on, and that I wouldn’t have fought back in the first place. When I saw those two kids, I made the judgment that these two looked like they could be any one of my students who would never hurt a soul. We were all wrong. To be fair, I had no idea I was the type of person to fight back in this situation, either. Writing and talking about what happened, though, has helped me learn that I have a little fight in me.

Writing shapes and creates my identity. I’ve spent my life working as an educator, a social justice activist, and a poet.  Writing has been important to all these roles I play, which, in turn, are largely shaped by the fact that I’m an Asian-American woman living in America.  While I understand the complexity of racial, ethnic, and gender identity in America is not quite so simple, there’s nothing quite as comforting as knowing that you can define and construct your own identity. I do so through writing. How do you do it?

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