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Topic 6: Identity

Identity can be defined as who someone is and the qualities and beliefs that make a particular person or group different from others. Therefore, when we think about our identity, we are reflecting on how we are made up and how that is related to our sense of self.

The recent protests against police brutality and racism have revealed a lot about our nation's identity. It has revealed that our country's identity is a fragmented one, made up of very disparate parts. Some parts of us still judge people on the basis of their race, gender and sexual orientation, while others are willing to act, be allies and advocate for equity. Our identities are indeed complex and this topic explores that complexity. While we see ourselves in one way, we are simultaneously being labelled and categorized by others. Identity therefore becomes an integration of the ways we understand ourselves, and the ways we think others see us. At the same time, there are parts of ourselves we love, and parts that, if we are being honest, we try to improve daily. Thinking and talking about identity is an important place to begin discussions around race and diversity because it establishes who we are, our values, our beliefs and the ways in which we are both similar and different from one another.

"We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things others want to see in us." — Charles Taylor

RISE Perspectives

This week, as we think about identity and the role it plays in racism and inequality, we recognize that how we are seen by others can often be in conflict with the ways we view ourselves. It's that duality that gives some power and privilege in society and limits other people. In light of that, we want to share this perspective piece written in May 2020 by Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh, who shares a little about his identity and how it has been impacted by the events surrounding Armaud Arbery's death.

A Tale of Two Months

By Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh

It's been two months since my company has been working from home. That fact dawned on me recently for a couple of reasons.

The first is that being at home has allowed me to spend more time with my kids and for us to do things together, like exercise. We haven't done much, but a few push-ups here and there is refreshing to someone feeling their athleticism slipping away. The second reason was Ahmaud Arbery. A news headline reminded me that it had been two months since he was shot and killed.

The reason his death has stuck with me, though, has less to do with the outcry for justice. It is less that he was in the prime of his life and essentially hunted, or that I have two sons of my own, and I pray something this terrible would never happen to them. This particular death has stuck with me because two months prior I had half-jokingly suggested to my mother that this could happen to me.

I remember telling her the weather in Michigan, where I live, was warming up, and I wanted to begin running again but wouldn't because of COVID-19. She said I should just wear a mask and go early when no one is around to maintain social distancing. I then said: "You want me, a black man, to put on a mask, and run, in Michigan?" She laughed and so did I. Like I said, it was half-joking.

But it's the serious part of that conversation with my mother that led me to doing push-ups instead of going out for a run.

Ahmaud Arbery photo

Ahmaud Arbery

One of the saddest aspects of Ahmaud's death for me is the fact that according to all the publicly available evidence, he was killed doing what so many of us are doing in this time of social distancing – exercising.

One study estimates rates of exercise are up by as much as 88 percent since the start of the pandemic. Running rates are up by as much as 117 percent. While so many Americans are using exercise as a mechanism to help cope with the stress and social turmoil brought about by this pandemic and its accompanying economic challenges, exercise is responsible for this young man's death.

His death reaffirms the fact that being able to safely and comfortably run, walk or jog outside isn't a privilege universally shared. I know I'm not alone when I thought, "that could have been me."

If you criticize me for focusing on this one aspect of this tragedy and not some of the others, I would understand. I agree that there are many frustrating aspects to this case.

Ahmaud was killed because, like so many other people of color, he was assumed to be guilty and dangerous simply because he was black and running. This has been true of many other killings, but the fact that Ahmaud was, of all things, exercising strikes a chord for me that is unprecedented.

Sport is one of the most quintessential of all American pastimes. The American Academy of Pediatrics has estimated that 60 million youth participate in organized sports annually. Sports contributes $60 billion to the economy each year and athletes, at all levels of sport, are household names in their community. That this former high school athlete could go out to exercise like so many Americans and be killed because he ran past the wrong men, in the wrong neighborhood, simply does not seem right.

Which American heading out for their morning run, as so many of us are doing during this pandemic, think we might be mistaken for a burglar? The reality is, it crosses the minds of many people of color. It's this reality that led me to doing push-ups instead of running.

In my professional life, I lead the creation of curriculum at RISE, a nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, improve race relations and champion social justice. Our work is based on the premise that sport is a platform that brings people together and provides an opportunity to address issues of racism, bias and inequity. Sport allows people to work together towards a common goal or come together to root on the same cause in spite of the obvious or deeper differences that might exist among them. Regardless of age, race, nationality or ideological differences, sport exemplifies that teams and organizations can be successful even where differences exist. Using sport to bring people together, we can teach the skills required for people to be culturally competent and spark much needed conversation around issues of race and injustice.

It is for this reason that we need to stop and consider seriously what took place in Brunswick, Georgia. It's the circumstances of this case that fuel discussions of fear, privilege, injustice and racism for many people of color today.

The facts of this case lead to awkward jokes between mothers and sons at odd hours of the morning. Killings like these, and this one in particular, suggest that as a black man in America, I can be doing what I have every right to do and still get killed.

Just months ago, while many of us were working out in our basements, gyms or through the streets of our neighborhoods, a young black man was shot and killed for no explicable reason.

Andrew Mac Intosh, Ph.D. holds degrees in Kinesiology, Applied Psychology and Sociology. As Vice President of Curriculum at RISE, he is responsible for the design, delivery and evaluation of RISE's leadership and cultural competency curriculum, which is administered to professional, collegiate and school-aged athletes, coaches and administrators throughout the country.

How we see ourselves and how others see us make up a significant part of our identity.

Complete this activity to learn more about your identity.

Go to Activity

How does your identity shape you as a leader?

We asked a diverse group of leaders to talk about different aspects of their identity, and how it defines their ability to foster inclusion and help create a more equitable society. Click on each person to see what they had to say.

Jocelyn Benson

Michigan Secretary of State

Gary Bettman

NHL Commissioner

Kim Davis

NHL Executive Vice President, Social impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs

Pete Bevacqua

NBC Sports Group President

Maverick Carter

CEO SpringHill Entertainment and UNINTERRUPTED

General George Casey

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff (retired)

Troy Vincent

NFL Executive Vice President Football Operations

Matt Higgins

RSE Ventures Co-Founder & CEO

Steve Phelps


Max Siegel

USA Track & Field CEO

Adam Silver

NBA Commissioner

Seth Waugh

PGA of America CEO

College Athletes Talk Identity

Watch student-athletes from across the country discuss identity.

  • What does your identity mean to you?
  • Does how others see you affect how you see yourself?
  • Is being a student-athlete formative in identity?

Learn More to Do More

Connect with friends and family and check out our "Identity Circles" activity. Explore labels central to our identities and discover just how fluid our identities can be, while examining the value of diversity.

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