Object Lessons in Juggling Multiple Identities

So this semester, kind of out of the blue, I was offered a teaching assistantship by the history department. The course I’ve been assigned to is centered on Latin America, and focusing on revolution, nationalism, and state building. One of the things the professor wants to explore is the idea of identities, namely that people in Latin America performed a variety of identities, that those identities changed over time, and that sometimes people had to perform multiple, conflicting identities in order to get by.

Hold that thought, because I want to define a couple of terms real quick: construction and performance. Some theorists (myself included) maintain that identities are socially (or culturally) constructed, that they are not innate and that any given identity had to be constructed over time by the society in which it is contextualized. Gender is one of the most common examples: there is no inherent “woman” or “man,” “feminine” or “masculine.” These are concepts that are constructed within societies and change over time; 21st century Japanese constructions of femininity are not the same as 18th century Japanese constructions of femininity. Mid-20th century American constructions of masculinity were not the same as mid-20th century British constructions of masculinity.

The flip side of construction is performance, how “man” or “woman” is enacted in the social context. There are certain actions, thought patterns, fashions, emotions, and so forth, that are considered masculine or feminine within a specific social and historical context. If a woman wears the correct clothes, expresses her emotions the correct way, she is considered a woman, she is performing femininity. When she does something that is tagged as masculine, she might still be performing femininity, but she’s isn’t performing it the “right way.”

In short, construction tells us how to “be” a certain identity, while performance shows other people that we “are” that identity.

So the title of this post. On the first day of recitation (the short class periods where I, the lowly teaching assistant, am the boss), I was wearing a Star Wars shirt. Specifically, it was a shirt that featured Boba Fett drawn in the style of Ralph Steadman, specifically it mimicked art from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thomson. The shirt is actually called “Bounty Hunter S. Thompson.” At the same time, I had my Star Trek water bottle (it’s blue and it just has the Starfleet insignia on it).

I went through three sections, introducing myself, and admitting to my pretty obvious geek identity, before one of my students pointed out that my Star Trek and Star wars fandoms were at odds. I’ve never partaken in the feud between Trekkers and… whatever Star Wars fans are called, because I was raised in a mixed household (both my parents enjoy both properties as well), although I have been a bigger fan of one than the other at different points in my life (first Wars, now Trek, as I’ve matured). I admitted all of this, and pointed out to the students who were there (recitation hadn’t started yet) that this course would be all about juggling multiple, sometimes contradictory, identities, which I should have been illustrating with my own multiple identities in every recitation.

Well, it stands to reason that “teachable moments” can teach the instructor as well.