“Identities are Tools” – and sometimes you need a whole toolbox

This is a submission for the February 2020 Carnival of Aces, on the topic of “Identity”.

There is a common saying in ace activism that “identities are tools”  – that rather than trying to figure out which box is the “right box”, an identity should be something that you should pick up if it will be useful, and feel free to set down if it isn’t.

I want to take that analogy a step further, and talk about how when it comes to identities – and tools – there’s no single all-applications solutions. Instead, we often need a whole toolbox, wherein each tool might be used a little differently.

Here’s just a few of the examples of the tasks you might need different identities/tools for:

  • Identity can be a tool used for personal/internal validation. Just knowing about an identity concept can help prove to you that you aren’t alone, that you aren’t just broken, that maybe the reason you weren’t fitting into any of the other existing boxes was because there was an even better box that you just didn’t know about. Identities can serve as a framework that help us understand and process our own internal feelings and experiences – even if we never say them out loud.
  • Identity can be a tool used to find relevant content. Once you have a new term/identity for a specific experience, it allows people to index content associated with that experience, and also to search for it. If you have an identity label, you now have something you can type into google or look for it as a tag to try to find writing, or resources, or communities, or research related to those experiences.
  • Identity can be a tool used to connect with like-minded communities. Just as you can use a term as a search term to find relevant content, you can also identity terms to find and connect with like-minded people – both by searching for communities associated that term, or by using that identity to broadcast about yourself, hey, I am x which means I experience x’! If you are also x, we might have something in common!
  • Identity can be a tool used to communicate something different about yourself to others. Just as identity can be used as a way to signal something about yourself to people who might feel the same, identity can also be a way to signal to others that something about your experiences might be different from theirs.

Identities are also like tools in that they vary in how often they are useful to you and how suited they are to the task at hand:

  • Some identities are general-purpose tools, like swiss-army knives – they’re easy enough and useful enough to carry around with you every day, and they are generalizable enough that they can be useful in almost all situations. They might be useful for all of the situations described above, and might often be the first thing you grab.
  • Some identities are more specialized, like a 1.5mm allen wrench – you probably don’t use it very often, so it sits at home in a closed box in the closet a lot, and when you do take it out it’s only for a few specific purposes, maybe just one or two out of all of the above – but when you need it, you’re glad you have it on hand.
  • Some identities aren’t the most appropriate solution, but they can get the job done – like using a hammer and a flathead screwdriver to try and chisel off a piece of rock. It’s not what they were designed to be used for, and it’s maybe not the tool you would prefer to use, but when it’s all you have access to in the moment, you know it’s available as a backup.
  • Some identities are more sentimental than useful (and that’s okay). Sometimes you have tools that once worked great, but now maybe they’re a little loose or a little rusty or no longer work for what you need them for – but they mean something to you on an emotional level, enough that you may want to keep them in your toolbox to have them close to you, even if they don’t get much use these days.

To try illustrate what I mean, and extend the metaphor even further, here’s a few examples of how this works out for me in practice:

  • Some identities – like “asexual” or “mixed race”  – are my workhorse multi-tools; they serve as a way for me to find community, groups, and resources, as a way to find people with similar experiences, and as a way to communicate with other people that no, I’m not interested in dating your friend, and no, I’m not hooking up with anyone anytime soon, etc; or that actually, my name isn’t pronounced like that because it’s not white, and that’s why some parts of my family look the way that they do.
  • Some of my identities are more specialized, like my allen wrenches – there’s a lot of them, but they’re small and they all mostly sit in a box gathering dust until I find a use for them. Examples of things like this include things like “quoiromantic”, or maybe “agender” which I find useful for finding content that appeals to me (and for validating the fact that no, I’m not crazy, other people feel the same way, but don’t find as useful for communicating something about myself to others.
  • Some identities are more like improvised tools – I often find myself falling back to using “bisexual” on limited forced choice surveys the same way I occasionally use a rock to bash in stakes when nobody remembered to bring a hammer. It’s not the most accurate, and it’s not the one I’d prefer to use, but when it’s all I have access to, it can still get the job done well enough – after all, 0 and 0 are pretty much the same, so technically I am equally attracted to all genders…..and that’s close enough for some jobs.
  • And some, like “libidoist asexual”, are frankly mostly sentimental – I only ever used them in a very very specific context (like early 2010s AVEN TMI threads”,and these days don’t really find it useful for anything, so I don’t share it – but I still hold a soft spot for it in my heart.
  • Other identities are like using power tools vs. manual tools – both will work, but one might be better for speed and efficiency (like just calling myself “mixed race”) and another might take longer but be better for getting something installed carefully when it matter to get everything just right (like clarifying that I’m specifically of mixed 3/4 white and 1/4 4th gen okinawan-american heritage).
  • Sometimes you have two or more identity tools (like “atheist” and “nonreligious”) that are maybe like slightly different colored handles on your two hammers but in general are useful for the exact things and a relatively interchangeable – it doesn’t hurt to have duplicates around to spare!

In the end, I have a wide range of tools in by toolbox – the more I gather, the more likely I am to have something on hand if I need it – or if I run across someone who looks like they could use it too.

Readers – what tools do you like to keep in your toolboxes? Are there any that you find yourself using in more unusual ways?

6 thoughts on ““Identities are Tools” – and sometimes you need a whole toolbox

  1. The moment you described what you meant by “more specialized” tools, I thought, that’s me and quoiromanticism. As a tool, it’s highly specialized to a particular ace community context that makes it relevant. For comparison, I’ve disclosed my ace identity to non-aces in person before, but I don’t think I’ve ever called myself quoiromantic in person outside the context of ace meetups. ‘Cause unless someone already has it in their head to prompt me for a romantic orientation, I just don’t have a need for it.

    As for unusual uses, hmm…. Well, okay, here’s one that comes to mind: I’ve taken some limited surveys before that ask everyone to place themselves on a scale from “conservative” to “liberal.” Neither of those labels works well enough for me, but when the survey asks other politically-oriented questions, I find some satisfaction in giving very strong/extreme answers and then answering that question with “slightly liberal.”

  2. […] “Concepts” vs. “Model”: while this may just be a me thing, I prefer to refer to this as a “concept” instead of a model, as it feels like a slightly more vague/freeform way of referring to an idea, rather than “model” which carries connotations of scientific precision – which is the last thing we need in a community that cares so much about letting people use labels as flexible tools rather than strict boxes. […]

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