|A few months before George Floyd, I was invited to participate in a panel about men’s role in diversity and inclusion conversations. There were four men scheduled on the panel: a Black man, a gay Asian man, a Trans man and me.
In our planning Zoom call, the facilitator asked us: “How do you identify?”
The Black man identified as “Black.”
The gay Asian man identified as “gay and Asian.”
The Trans man identified as “Trans”.
I identified as “bald”.
A few days later, the facilitator got in touch to tell me I was no longer welcome on the panel.
I wasn’t trying to make a joke. My bald head is the physical feature that strangers comment on most often. When I’m playing ultimate frisbee, I hear people across the field: “who’s got the bald guy?” At gas stations, bald men tip their cap and say: “We’ve got the same barber.”
I’ve heard that joke like a billion times.
Baldness is a secret club that hardly anyone wanted to be a part of. And every now and then, someone compliments me on the shape of my head — which is perhaps as backhanded a compliment you can imagine.
I suppose I could identify as “spherical.” But that would probably have gotten me kicked off the panel also. 😛
What does identity mean anyway? This question is fundamental to work and life these days, especially since George Floyd. These days, identity is the most important conversation in our society.
There is absolutely no doubt that our color and gender condition how we experience the world. And there is absolutely no doubt that people of certain colors and genders move more easily through the world than people of other colors and genders. That’s systemic racism.
But identity — pardon the pun — is much more than skin deep. When we use the term “identity”, we tend to mean two different things at once. On one hand, our identity is tangible and material. For example, I am white. I am a man. I am cis gendered. I am Canadian. I am a professional storyteller. These are things I might list on a resume.
But on the other hand, our identity is strange and fluid. “I” am the sum total of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. “I” am that weird dream I had the other night. “I” am the ever-changing, ever-evolving being that inhabits my white male, cis-gendered Canadian body.
I’m not one or the other. I’m both.
I first started to go bald when I was about 20. During the summer after my freshmen year, I went to Australia and spent a few months backpacking the coast, trying on an identity as a surfer. I bought a surfboard, pierced my eyebrow, bleached my hair blond.
That was the point when my follicles said, “you know what, we’re out.”
When I was 23, my mother suggested going to see a plastic surgeon. We drove downtown and sat in a waiting room in an upscale office in downtown Toronto. A man in a white coat ushered me into his office and used tweezers to pick at the top of my head. Finally, he delivered his estimate.
It would cost me $50,000 to keep my identity among the ranks of the hairful.
For months, all I could think about were get-rich-quick schemes. Win the lottery? Rob a bank? Buy a toupee instead? I was highly attached to my identity, like most of us are at 23.
I was dreading being hairless. But, a decade and a half later, I can’t imagine life with hair.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Identity is malleable.
It is now abundantly clear that the work of the next few years will be changing our social compact. We’re going to be engaging in this work at every level of society: government, business, community and non-profit. You may very well become a leader in this kind of work. Maybe you already are.
How might we dive deeper into our discussion around identity?
How might we better understand what’s at stake when someone’s identity is threatened?
How might we shift our understanding of our own identities, so we can see ourselves as fluid, dynamic and an ever-changing mystery, rather than a historically defined entity that we need to hang on to?
On that note, I’m off to see my barber.