Identity is a Fluid Social Construct

It wasn’t until I lived in Paris that I realized I wasn’t brown. Or, a woman. I’ve lived in America most of my life, since I was 4.5 years old. There, I am always brown.

I am brown, for example, when I walk into most shops, from a Banana Republic all the way to Neiman’s. Nearly always, a security guy or sales clerk follows me around. Not in that target-rich kinda way, either. If they knew how much I spend and overspend on clothing, they SHOULD follow me around ready to hold my bag, and offer me Perrier. But, instead, they follow me around assuming that I am a shoplifter. At Neiman’s, I always think ‘hey I recognize that guy; surely he will remember me, because of ya know… the last 10 times I bought way too much stuff here’.

I can be about to give a keynote speech, the key closing keynote on the same day Jamie Lee Fox was the opening keynote…wearing some nicety-nice outfit, and in full make up and get asked to clear the table where the attendees are eating lunch. (This happened just the other day; same event when I also didn’t get put on the program.)

But, despite the many things I AM, I am often assumed to not be any of those things because, in America, I am brown.

In France, people pretty much figured out I know how to shop the minute they spotted me. I didn’t dress any different, I just was seen differently there.

And I also wasn’t a woman. I never got handed a “woman’s menu”, and if I was the one who asked, “l’addition s’il vous plait”, no one ever came back and handed the man the bill which happens so often in America. Back when I was CEO and founder of Rubicon, I took plenty of really senior execs from major companies like SAP, GE, Adobe, etc, out for meals to talk strategy in a different setting and almost every darn time (EVERY. DARN. TIME), the high-end restaurant would presume I was the guest and the man “in charge”. Even as that executive man was turning to ME as an executive peer for advice on how to save his critically failing business.

How Others See You Affects Who You Are

It was in Paris that I wasn’t brown, nor a woman. Before this moment, I never really got how much identity is not just a personal sense, but also a social construct.

How others see you affects who you are. And this of course affects your agency, the capacity to act on your own interests, on your own behalf.

It’s not that I can’t still shop at Neiman’s. But it does change my behavior. For example, I don’t pick things up to then match it to other things because I’m afraid of how it might look to someone. I will wait for a sales clerk to find me and then ask. So that one simple thing costs me my time. It’s a tax that I pay that some others don’t. And I pay it over and over again. So it adds up. The bill coming to the guy? I have to then reach over to get the bill, instead of getting it handed to me.

It undercuts my own authority to have to do more than a man would in the same situation. And those little things add up. And, in an ever so slight way, diminishes me.

And again, that adds up, too. In meeting after meeting at a company, I have to assert my right to have an opinion but then at lunch, I can’t even hand over money? Yeah, it’s ridiculous.

Identity is Fluid

We are each many things. Our identity is multifaceted and distinctly our own. It is a function of where we’ve come from, our vertical identity: our parents, race, gender, age, socioeconomic status and so on. Our identity is also shaped by what we’ve developed: those skills and interests into which we’ve poured our 10,000 hours, and often (but not always) shows up in our vocation. But it’s not just our past or our work that defines us, we can also have as our identity those things we dream as possible, what I sometimes label as horizontal identity because it is what pulls us into the future. And as we grow and adapt, that identity shifts also.

When researching Onlyness, I was thinking about the interlinked ideas of agency and power and identity in a city where all of that got remixed again. (It’s not that Paris or France doesn’t have it’s own bias structures of who is in and out. And I’m happy to share what those are, if you’re interested). It was there that I clearly understood: identity is not fixed, it’s fluid.

And so it was wonderful to come back and share that and other takes during this interactive talk at the American Library of Paris a few weeks back.


We’re only as strong as the people around us let us be. Which is why it matters that we can now shape our power, by shaping our community and context. Where is it you can be you? Who does that for you? When you realize identity is fluid, contextual and shapes what you can do, you can also put yourself into a context that enables all of you.

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(This post originally appeared on Medium.)

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