Education Needs to Meet the Identity Challenge

Sep 13, 2017

Every day a myriad of labels, both old and new, are thrown into society, reaching first its most vulnerable population: its teenagers.

Through social media and word-of-mouth, the spread of these labels can create both comfort and fear in teens trying to find their place in the world. Having lived just a small fraction of their lives, they are pushed to fall into certain groups which will supposedly make them more readable by their peers. However, this means that once grouped in a certain way, kids are expected to fit into a label completely. This not only results in kids losing their individuality, but also masks the individuality they do possess.

I grew up as a first generation American in a mix of two cultures; a home environment filled with Venezuelan news and food, and a school that taught me about the American Revolution and had me standing up with my classmates and friends, right hand on my heart, left at my side.

The labels set in stone for me such as Venezuelan and Latina have been ones that both others and I have questioned. If I am a Venezuelan American, am I less Venezuelan? Am I less American? Am I really in the Latinx community if I do not look like what some people assume a “normal” Latina looks like despite the fact that it is an ethnicity, not a race?

With the growth of America’s immigrant and mixed race population that has created overlap between so many groups, questions like these have become increasingly prevalent among adolescents and society.

If labels so seemingly simple have been so difficult to embrace, what happens when adolescents question their gender or sexuality; when the identity they question seems to contradict other parts of their identity; when opinions between generations and political leanings vary so considerably and create even more fear, confusion, and anxiety? In a society where our identity is defined by ourselves but also by others’ perceptions of us, a struggle to establish ourselves as individuals has become the “norm.”

As America continues to grow as a mixed-race society, as gender takes on a different meaning, and as labels begin to shift denotations and connotations, education should broaden to talk about identity and the importance of tolerating how others identify regardless of whether we agree with it.

Too much pressure has been put on adolescents to label themselves by the environments they are in. This becomes even more difficult when they are not only bombarded by labels, but also groups that invalidate the labels which they choose to identify with. We must teach tolerance and remind students that knowing who they are is not something that has to be figured out because it would be simpler for others to be able to put them in a category. That it is not something that has to be figured out immediately; not something that has to be figured out at all. Rather, identity is something in which to find empowerment and comfort.

Humans have always categorized things — from shapes to people — because grouping things together makes it easier for the brain to understand, but the pressure adolescents face from both adults and their peers creates hostile environments at schools and online. All the categories they are pushed to group themselves in overlap more and more every day. Meanwhile anxiety spreads throughout their population.

However, education, tolerance, representation in media, and patience can teach us all to overcome fear and discomfort and learn to find where we belong in our own time without losing our individuality.

Andrea Grossmann is a student at John Bapst High School. She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Orono sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.

Associations by Podington Bear is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.