The Unexamined Life

As a white person, I am being encouraged right now to look inward. To ask myself what my role is in institutional racism. To examine my actions and my attitudes. To face the problem head-on. While self-interrogation is a cornerstone of my personal practice and foundational to my formal eduction as a philosopher, it occurs to me that not everyone has done this kind of work before. In this article, I would like to share the things that have worked for me, help you identify areas of difficulty and create some markers of success.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that self-interrogation is scary. What we are going to do will challenge your concept of personal identity, and your self-preservation instinct is going to scream. It is OK to feel intimidated. It is OK to feel afraid. It is even right and normal to be afraid! It is not OK to not do the work. I find it very helpful to validate my feelings. I will say aloud, “I feel fear.” I will give those words a few moments to dissolve in the air. And then I will remind myself, again aloud, “I am going to do the work. I am strong enough to do the work.”

Once I have acknowledged and affirmed, I am ready to begin.

We start to form our identities as children. Some aspects of identity are gathered from experience and observation. Some aspects of identity are given to us by authority figures like parents, teachers and television. Some aspects of our identity are given to us by our peers. Deep traumas and everlasting joys are gathered during this period. By the time we are in our early teens, we have developed a sense of self that will endure for most of our life. What is interesting is that until that point we lack the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze our beliefs. We are given an identity without the tools to check if we want or believe that identity. As our minds begin to develop critical thinking skills, our society starts to give us the intellectual freedom to explore new ideas and new modes of being. As we spend less time in our childhood home and more time at school, with friends, in another city, or another country, we are bombarded by ideas that challenge the ones we were given originally. Using our new critical thinking skills, we develop the ability to say “No” or “I disagree.” Like a child, we swing that newfound “No” around like a hammer. Most of the time the ideas that we say “No” to are ones that contradict the ideas we already have. Because we never said “No” to the original ideas we believe that we cannot ever say “No” to them in the future. This is how our identity becomes fixed, and we become unable to change. This is how our hearts become hardened.

Humans are, if nothing else, creatures of habit. As we say “No” to one thing (and, implicitly, “Yes” to another) we become more likely to say “No” to that thing again and less likely — to the point of unable! — to say “Yes.” Rather than acknowledge this as a problem our society has created some comforting platitudes. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is not the way.

We gon’ learn today!

By the time we are in our late 20s, we have mostly finished cementing our identity. Maybe we’ve picked up a few changes, but maybe we haven’t. Despite the fact that we haven’t experienced even half of the total phenomena that will comprise our lives we’ve settled pretty firmly on who we are and what we believe. The second step of self-interrogation is to articulate this identity. We must establish who we think we are. Again, I prefer to say these things out loud. Writing them down is fine but you will be amazed how different ideas sound when they’re in the open air. As an example, one might describe themselves as “Straight, White, Conservative, Christian, American, Female.”

Now comes the hard part. In the above example the majority of the identity is based on the circumstances of the individual’s birth. That is to say, the individual did not choose that identity, it was handed to her. You must ask yourself what aspects of your identity were given to you before you could choose. I am not saying that just because you were told you were straight at birth that you must be gay or that being straight is inauthentic. I am just asking you to ask yourself honestly and without judgment “what did I choose and what was chosen for me?” I often find it helpful to ask myself by name, “Nick, what aspects of your identity did you choose?” We are used to answering questions other people ask us. If we can frame it similarly, it may be easier to answer. If you are already starting to feel offended, taken-aback, afraid, angry, please refer to the second paragraph. What we are doing is shaking up our sense of identity. It’s supposed to be scary. You can do it.

You may have done something like this before without knowing what you were doing. I am thinking here especially of my gay and transgender readership. You know intimately what it’s like to be told you are one thing and to feel another. To wrestle with yourself. There is no aspect of your identity that is different or immune to this wrestling and confusion.

At this point, we may be feeling exhausted, and I believe we deserve a rest. To take apart one’s entire identity in a few hours could be devastating, assuming we even have the intellectual firepower to do so. Instead, starting tomorrow, we will take things apart bit by bit.

When I was in my early 20s, I saw a Kat Williams skit where he implied that if you haven’t made any progress in your life since your last birthday you shouldn’t celebrate your birthday this year. This idea struck me, and I have practiced this every year since. I am thankful to say that only one year since I began have I had to say No Birthday This Year. At some point just asking if I was “making progress” started to become too intangible and I would dedicate each year to a certain idea.

Our next step in self-interrogation is going to be asking ourselves who we do not want to be. This is different from asking who we want to be. That is too easy, and often we will delude ourselves into thinking we are what we want to be. Again, self-preservation is a powerful force. Instead, identify the things that you don’t want to be. Say them aloud. Violent. Sexist. Homophobic. Classist. Or, today especially, Racist. Once I compiled a list of things I did not want to be I would spend an entire year examining my thoughts and actions and comparing them against the year’s focus. I would cross-check those thoughts and actions against my conception of identity to see if I could identify their source. Wherever I found contradictions between my thoughts or actions and my goal I would try to eliminate that behavior. If I could find the root of the undesirable thought or action in one of the aspects of my prescribed identity I would explore what other thoughts and behaviors came from this identity.

My face when someone tells me they don’t do self work.

When I was in college my friends and I used to say “slay” as a euphemism for having sex. As in, “did you slay that girl last night?” While spending a year examining sexist thoughts and behavior, I became stuck on this piece of verbiage. Was it sexist to describe sex as a violent act, in fact the most violent act of all, killing? Was it sexist to imply that women are enemies or monsters? Was it sexist to suggest that I was on a noble quest like a knight of yore when I had sex with a woman? Yes, yes and yes. Did my comfort with these implications and words come from my identity as a straight male? Might I feel different if I had been handed a different identity? What other ideas did that identity allow me to feel comfortable with?

I do not write this anecdote with any pride in my old behavior or in an attempt to excuse or explain it. I am thankful that I had the presence of mind to identify it and change it. I want you to know that it is OK if you find thoughts or actions that you are then ashamed of in the course of your self-interrogation. This is the process. I do find it helpful (albeit terrifying) to acknowledge aloud that I am ashamed of that behavior and to thank myself for changing it. I also find it helpful to reach out to anyone who I may have offended or hurt with that behavior and apologize to them. Most of the time they have no idea what I’m talking about, but it is mostly for me and my process anyway. Acknowledge, affirm, act.

I want to recognize here that this step is very difficult. Up until now, the things we’ve done have been perhaps scary, but they have not been hard. Paying enough attention to your mental state to observe your own thoughts and actions is very hard. If you have a mindfulness practice, a movement practice, or a meditation practice it might be a little easier. If you don’t let this be your first foray into the world of self-observation! I do not want to give the impression that I could identify and analyze my actions and mindset in a few minutes or even a few days. It takes weeks of practice and turning the idea over and over in your head. We call it Work for a reason. If you are lucky enough to have people in your life that you trust, let them help you. Ask them if they think you said or did anything racist or sexist recently. Try so hard not to be defensive. When it comes to thoughts, only you know them. Ask yourself, by name and aloud if possible, “Nick, how do you feel about Black people?” Observe your mental state when you see images of Black people in the news, on TV, or live on the street. Observe the language you use when you talk about race. Do not expect to change yourself in a day, but do not expect to be able to change ever without good observation. It may take a month, it may take a year and it may take the rest fo your life. The first time you are able to notice, “that was a racist thought/action,” you will know you are making progress. One easy way to account for your identity bias is to ask yourself, would I think/do this thing if I wasn’t the identity that I think I am.

Identity is a process. If we allow it, it can continuously change in reaction to the endless torrent of experience and impressions that we call life. Consistency is comfortable, and there is no shame in being comfortable with who you are. However, there are times in the history of the world where situations force us all, especially those of us in positions of power and privilege, to confront what we’ve become comfortable being. I believe we are in one of those times now. I do hope that the practice of self-interrogation is one that stays with you even beyond the tense times of today. Through this practice, I believe that we can all rise and become the great people we were born to be.