The Identity Conversation

The authors of Difficult Conversations suggest that Identity Conversations may be the most subtle and challenging of the three types of conversations.  In order to address identity conversations, we must look inward and ask, “How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, my sense of who I am in the world?” (Difficult Conversations 14).

When thinking about the impact of one’s self-image on conversations about Jews and race, it may be helpful to remind students of the difference between history and heritage.  That is, are students over-invested in a vision of the past because they feel it determines who and what Jews are today?  If so, why? What is the relationship between the actions of Jews in the past and the privileges enjoyed by Jews today in the United States? Likewise, students might ponder whether they are so concerned with being perceived as progressive, that they are unwilling to risk empathizing with other Jews and their struggles. Ideally the goal in an identity conversation is to “understand the identity issues on the line for each of us,” not to lose one’s own identity altogether.  [Side note: I talk about this issue some in my article on Sherman Alexie’s elegies.  In that article, I argue that Alexie suggests that poetry can help form a bridge between cultures, but that such a conversation “must begin, however, with an acknowledgement of difference, not its erasure”; that is, communication for Alexie is based on a “bridge of difference” (Leibman 543).  I am advocating something similar here in terms of inter-ethnic communications about history.]

Again, here is a summary of the Assumptions and Goals made in an Identity Conversation (Difficult Conversations 18-19; reproduced in html by  The goal is to get past the “battle of messages” and move into a “learning conversation”:

Conversation A Battle of Messages A Learning Conversation
The Identity Conversation Challenge: The situation threatens our identity. Assumption: I’m competent or incompetent, good or bad, lovable or unlovable. There is no in-between.
: Protect my all-or-nothing self-image.
Assumption: There may be a lot at stake psychologically for both of us. Each of us is complex, neither of us is perfect.
: Understand the identity issues on the line for each of us. Build a more complex self-image to maintain my balance better.


Read through Tony Martin’s version of the “Incident at Wellesley College” when he used The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews in his class and also read the Introduction and first chapter of Mary R. Lefkowitz’s History Lesson: A Race Odyssey.  Each side appears to feel they are the victims of prejudice, racism, violence, and abuse.  Why?  Is each side correct?  How does what happened affect their “self-esteem, … self-image, …[and] sense of who …[they are] in the world?”  Now read Professor Martin’s 1994 article “Jews to Trinidad.”  How does this article square with either his self presentation or his presentation by others during the “incident”?  If you were to draw an identity map (similar to figure 2 from Markus and Moya) for the key players in this debate, what would it look like?

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