The Problem with Identity

Reading Time: 10 minutes

“I stand before my highest mountain, and before my longest journey, and ,therefore, must I descend deeper than I have ever before descended.” (Nietzsche)

“The crucial element I wish to consider here is that element of a life which we consider to be an identity; the way in which one puts oneself together, what one imagines oneself to be…This invented reality contains a great number of elements, all of them extremely difficult, if not impossible, to name.  The invented reality has struck a certain kind of bargain with the world; s/he has a name, we know what s/he does, and we think, therefore, that we know who s/he is.  But it is not that simple.  The truth, forever, for everybody, is that one is a stranger to oneself, and that one must deal with this stranger day in and day out – that one, in fact, is forced to create, as distinct from invent, oneself.  Life demands of everyone a certain kind of humility, the humility to be able to make the descent that Nietzsche is talking about.”  (Excerpts from James Baldwin’s “The White Problem” – 1963)

James Baldwin speaks of the capacity for freedom when we do not become attached to this thing we call ‘identity.’   He speaks of identity as a creation that can arise within and something that must also be allowed to dissolve a be created again each day.

I posit that identity, particularly, the identity assigned by an external source (society), is both a source of deep suffering and also holds the potential for deep personal freedom.   Before I speak of this idea, consider two very important experiments that tap into the heart of human identity – The Stanford Experiment and Blue eyes/Brown eyes Experiment:

The Stanford Experiment (Philip G. Zimbardo, 1971 )

Dr. Zimbardo created an experiment to test the phycological effects of perceived power using the setting of a mock prison at Stanford University.  The initial experiment was set to run for 2 weeks and 24 random white male volunteers were vetted to reduce any chances of physiological instability or disfunction.  What happened became a deep investigation of human identity.

The men thought to be most stable were assigned the role of ‘guards’.  The ‘prisoners’ were arrested without warning (after they consented to the terms of the experiment) at their homes by fake police.  The ‘prisoners’, like actual criminal prisoners, were anonymized by wearing uniforms, being assigned a number rather than a name, having their heads shaved and personal belongings removed.  The guards were asked to ‘assure law and order’ was upheld.

The first night, the ‘guards’ began to harass the prisoners, and it escalated quickly from there.  One the second day, there was a prison rebellion, which was put down by the guards with force including using chemical repellents.  After the rebellion, the guards decided to use physiological punishment as a means to control the ‘prisoners’ since they could not bring new ‘guards’ in to constantly watch the disruptive ‘prisoners.’   Within 3 days, the first prisoner had to be released because of emotional distress.

The experimenter, himself, played the role of the prison warden and within these first days, he began to lose his former identity and take on his new role.  In addition to the volunteers and Dr. Zimbardo, there are approximately 50 people who visited the ‘prison’ in some capacity – some curious professional colleagues, some families of the ‘prisoners’, a priest.  None of them thought to demand an end to what had become a place of torture for the ‘prisoners’.

On the sixth day, graduate student Christina Maslach was invited to conduct interviews with the volunteers (as she saw them, not as Guards and prisoners, as they saw themselves).  She was the first person to raise the alarm on the ethics of the experiment, and it was terminated on that day.  Extensive reflections have been written on the meaning of the experiment and why is went so wrong, so quickly.    One thing that is very clear is that human beings very quickly take on the identity assigned to them and our behavior can almost immediately conform to the expectations of that identity.

Brown eyes/Blue eyes experiment (Jane Elliot, 1968)

Jane Elliot is an anti-racist educator who was so deeply impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that, on the day after of his murder, she vowed to dedicate her life to awakening white Americans to the monstrosity of white supremacy.

She had all white students in her classroom, and they had often spoken of racism.  The children were sympathetic the the plight of Black Americans.  She asked them to do an experiment with her to help them really understand what it feels like to face discrimination.  She told the children that, for the day, children with brown eyes would be ‘superior’ to children with blue eyes (smarter, kinder, and other qualities though to be positive).  Since they were ‘superior’, they had access to certain privileges like more playground time or extra food at lunch.  The blue eyed children had restrictions placed upon them like not being able to use play ground equipment, not drinking from the same water fountains, etc.  So the kids could identify the blue eyed children from a distance, brown eyed children placed a collar on their necks.  The experiment was reversed on the second day (blue eyes children being ‘superior’).

This children, particularly on the first day, quickly began to denigrate their classmates.  The ‘superior’ children quickly became arrogant and mean.   They also saw improved academic achievements.   At the same time, the children in the ‘inferior’ group saw a decline in academic performance and became quickly subservient to the ‘superior’ children.

“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.” (Jane Elliot on the results of her experiment)

The experiment did not end in the classroom for Ms. Elliot.  The children were tremendously touched by the experiment and were asked to write about it.  Some of their writings were published in the national news.  Her entire community turned their back on her.  None of her fellow teachers would speak to her (accept one), her parents lost their business in their small town, and she received many death threats.  She continues to do anti-racist programs and lectures for children and adults.

When white supremacy defines ‘Identity’

What is important to note in both experiments is that they are both considered ethically unsound – not, necessarily because of the premise of the experiments, but rather because of how quickly people in the experiments assumed a new identity and began to behave monstrously towards others, committing what may be permanent psychological harm.  These few shocking days of experiments revealed that identity does not exist unless we believe it does, and if that identity has been placed upon us by another, it has the potential to rewrite even our own fundamental ethical foundations.

We, at least in the United States and Europe (the cultures of my birth and my life experiences), each have within us a monstrous subroutine called white supremacy, which assigns us an identity from birth.    This subroutine is has been inserted into our programming from the first breath and many of us have never learned how to disable it or even recognize that it exits.

I should be clear here, that no one actually benefits from white supremacy, even ‘white’ people – ‘whiteness’ being a socially constructed identity for people who are perceived to benefit from this illogical belief system. White supremacy is a dysfunctional ideal rooted in delusion and is detrimental to any stable society.  Its founding idea is that some people (defined at ‘not-white’) must be exploited in order for the ‘white’ people to prosper, and, therefore, there will always be a need for creating  an exploited class.

If a group of ‘inferior’ people cannot be found to serve as the exploited, an exploited group must be created, either by conflict or societal dogma (which will, inevitably, lead to conflict).

Remember, the form of white supremacy in the roots of the United States and Europe arose from European Christians as they came across people when they moved away from Europe to ‘discover’ a world that already existed.  As Christians, it would have been in conflict with their values to slaughter and oppress the people they came across in far away lands.  However, to declare these people as ‘other than fully human’ was a way to avoid the conflict of the Christian teachings and slaughter of God’s children.  Once large groups of people were determined not to be fully human by the Europeans, these same people became the people to exploit.

Colonialism was logical extreme of the Stanford Experiment and Jane Elliot’s experiments.  Europeans defined themselves to be ‘white’ based on relative appearance, but this definition of ‘whiteness’ had more to do with access to power than appearance, and it made the Europeans brutal in their conquests.

Naturally, there have always been exploited people.  The ancient myths and stories are full of tails of slaves, the poor, and royalty, often the most exciting stories occurring when one secretly steps out of their place – prince disguised as a slave to win a beautiful woman’s heart, etc.  However, the creation of ‘race’ as a construct at the time of colonialism took this exploitation to a new level as those in the exploited groups can now be identified by physical traits and so their fate became inescapable from birth.

It should be no surprise that as ‘race’ became a social construct, we began to see the poor and working class ‘white’ Europeans begin to rise up against their oppressors. They began to believe their identity as a privileged group as they began to see themselves as ‘white.’  So, those freed from the identity as ‘oppressed’ took their place as ‘oppressors’ and demanded their autonomy.  This concept is most beautifully expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in 1776:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

However enlightened these word may read, the system that arose from them were tainted with white supremacy – many of these men, themselves, held enslaved people hostage and the freedom of hundred of thousands of people in the country were seen as negotiable.  These men, who did not come from a royal line, were now demanding the right to their own destiny because, although they lacked parentage, they were, at least, white   

The philosophical, economic, and social systems that arose at these times became dependent on cheaper labor, social oppression, and assumptions of white superiority.  In 2020, we have become trapped by these social and economic systems, and with each explosion of protest against it, unravels the twisted knots of exploitation more and more, but what is beneath the unraveling is not yet clear.   Can we even conceive of a system not based on systemic exploitation?

Identity as our Gateway to Freedom

This takes us back to the identity that James Baldwin spoke of; it is a broader sense of identity beyond the specific identity of relative ‘whiteness’.  I argue that dedication to any particular, externally defined, identity has the capacity to distract us from our highest values. 

The Stanford experiment shows us what can happen when we create an identity that purely serves a social function (‘Guard’ or ‘prisoner’) and Jane Elliot’s work shows us what happens, even to the most innocent, when our society amplifies these identities based on assumptions of superiority.  The insistence on societally constructed identity, because identity only exists within relation to the external, is the path to destruction.

As Jane Elliot pointed out, those who perceive themselves to be advantaged by the subroutine of white supremacy can quickly become “Nasty, vicious, discriminating” people.  The rage and hatred white supremacy feeds within one has impacts on all of their relationships and in their communities (to the point of genocide)  and even on their personal health.  On the other hand, those even those oppressed directly by the ideals of white supremacy are running this subroutine in their minds leading to significant impacts on heath, economic prosperity, even intellectual achievements, and personal relationships.   

“You will always remember the first time someone reminded you that you are Black.” (John Boyega, 2020)

Remember, one does not get to chose which side of the white supremacist construct one lives on – Whiteness or Blackness will be defined for you by the world around you.  Society, in innumerable ways, demonstrates to us where we stand; and if we do not challenge it, we begin to believe it.  Those who are perceived as ‘white’ will be told as such by the reaction of society, and those perceived as ‘Black’ will also be told.   In this way, our deluded ideals created by European Christians from the colonial era are defining identities in 2020.

It is time to rewrite the subroutines.

The foundation of the spiritual traditions, as I have studied them, is to free us from the identity placed upon us that we have come to believe.  As we practice, we begin to see, hear, taste, feel, smell these subroutines on a deep level – our nervous system been wired to it.  However, once it is seen, it creates a bug in the system, short circuiting the power of the programming.

Our identity is largely the result of the impressions that our world and our cultures imprint upon us, like a block of marble, slowly chipped away until a form appears – we think we are the sculptures, but were were only ever the marble.  The highest journey is to become free of the illusion that we are this identity that has been created for us and come to terms with the foundation of who we are, beyond culture and impressions of life.

What Baldwin asks us to do it to ‘create, as distinct from invent, oneself’.  Invention is only converting what already exists and converting it.  What he proposes is far more radical.  In order to create, from scratch, you must have already destroyed your socially anointed identity.  Not only is he asking the we create our identity but that we recognize this identity as a temporary construct that needs to be degraded regularly – identity is only ever a fictional tool for societal interactions.

When we let the identity die, in each day, in each moment, we can truly become free from the confused entanglements of human history.  This freedom allows our actions to be rooted in our fundamental values, rather than the dysfunctional ideals of power and exploitation rooted in the identities placed upon us by our societies – the monstrous subroutines.  The only way to come up with new solutions to ancient problems is to work from such a place.  As a result of the death of identity, we automatically become more compassionate towards ourself and others.  As Zen teacher Hyon Gak Sunim once told me, “compassion is not a choice; it is what arises naturally when we are in touch with who we really are.”   

When we chose to turn towards the stranger within us each day, as Baldwin suggests, and recreate our identity over and over, we have found a gateway to compassion and freedom, not just for ourselves, but for our societies.

These words are in no way a guide to this unraveling of your own identity but rather a long winded invitation to ask yourself, “If I am not this identity, who am I?”

Within the illusion of life,

Death is the only reality,


is Reality the only death?

Within the reality of imprisonment,

Illusion is the only freedom,


is Freedom the only illusion?

(Dr. P. Zimbardo)