Last night, Sherry was telling us about her work on identity and went on at length about fluid racial identity. I asked her what she thought it required to change identity and she said, “Loyalty,” which involves commitment.

This morning, the day after that discussion and the fine dinner with our friends from Penn State, I’m still wondering about the relationship between identity and loyalty. I understand “commitment,” but wouldn’t that concept mean different things depending on the nature of the desired identity?

For example, changing professions entails loyalty in the form of understanding the history, evolution, politics, economics, people and processes of your new profession. To do otherwise would be to remain a “newbie,” an outsider or a novice, and apprentices/novices are not full members of a profession. This change may also entail a shift in grooming and dress; take, for example, a surf-board salesman moving to corporate accounting. Hair will probably need to be shorter, clothes more conservative, jewelry kept to a minimum, vocabulary more specialized and professional. Thus, a shift in identity may involve one’s appearance, carriage, demeanor, a virtual uniform that represents to non-insiders the concept of the profession It is loyalty to the concept and all it encompasses.

Changing beliefs is one of those things that may be entirely internal, unobservable to others. Or it may involve behaviors that reveal loyalty. Take a non-religious person who “finds Jesus” and commits his life to this new belief. Such a shift probably involves a change of habits, such as rising early enough to read the bible, going to church twice a week, restraining one’s tongue from former cursing habits, volunteering at the church’s food drive, to name a few things. This new identity may have implications for jewelry and dress, such as wearing lots of crosses or removing one’s body piercings. It also may involve speaking the right language in “insider” conversation: vocabulary, tone, and range of acceptable opinions.

Changing race or sex depends, as Sherry noted, on how slippery you are already. If you’re medium-skinned, you can shift to a darker ethnicity, but a Scandinavian person simply isn’t going to turn African. But it’s not just skin color, for what people mean by “black” includes a range of “loyalty” tests–history, culture, vocabulary, dress, body movement, hairstyle, jewelry, and so on. “Black” identity may actually, for some, mean “urban youth” or “downtrodden but newly empowered” or “protected class,” and so on. You may not be able to turn a Swede into a Nigerian, but you can demonstrate loyalty to all the non-skin aspects of identity.

If “identity” is achieved through “identification,” with the obviously common Greek root “id” and “entity,” or selfhood,then Sherry’s “loyalty” or “legality” or “codes” must entail a 2-way process. First, I identify (i.e. make or forge my self) to a new group, one that has enough common characteristics so as to have an identity or code itself. I take the loyalty oath to this group one step at a time, buying new clothes, changing body movements, perhaps having cosmetic procedures done to me. I unilaterally choose to take on these loyalty conditions in the hope that the second kind of identification will occur, namely, that members of this target group will begin to recognize and identify (confer identity upon) me as either being one of them or at least showing commitment to a trajectory that points to my new desired belonging, my new identity.

The verb identify works both directions, in forging and making and believing and speaking on the one hand, and in accepting, listening, seeing, and conferring legitimacy/authenticity upon the seeker on the other hand. There is a token that is passed from the group (or most of its members) to the applicant, and when that token has been passed, then the seeker may be said to have passed — passed in the sense of taking an exam as well as the sense of passing among a group unnoticed.

There are rituals of identification that generally cannot be done alone. I may study women, read women’s magazines, observe what women wear and how they apply make-up, but there is an invaluable connection that is made when I participate in a ritual of identification. Mary sat with Christiana at the jewelry store yesterday for two hours, trying on jewelry of all sorts, with Christiana giving her realistic opinions and feedback about her style, carriage, body type, etc. It seems to me that these rituals, while not encompassing the identity token, above, are key elements or activities in forging identity.

Take graduate students — they have a whole series of rituals and actions designed to slowly forge their identities as scholars and researchers. Perhaps a few clever and studious ones could acquire the new identity without any of these rituals, but most of them need it because it passes on the little things that are not the title of a course or the mission statement of a program. These rituals reveal and communicate the idea of the group and allow the petitioners a path towards the group. Forging identity isn’t like walking a single path. Rather it’s like throwing multiple ropes from a ship to the shore — the more that are tied, the safer and stronger the moored ship becomes. Some ropes fall in the water, some are incorrectly tied, and some break — but the rest, numerous and strong, create a docking that is collectively strong, and the actions of throwing the rope to shore and having someone tie it all reveals the collaborative nature of the ritual.