We live in a world where people constantly talk about authenticity and being your authentic self. The first time I heard it, it sounded like something people should be talking about constantly. After all the opposite of authenticity is inauthenticity, which is basically lying. Not only do people dislike inauthentic people, but it seems like it would be a great burden to live a lie for a long duration of time. However, over time, I realized authentic is too hard to define.
External Perceptions of Authenticity
The first time I started to realize that the straight forward definition of authenticity didn’t cut it, I was in a discussion at a church I attended. Leaders and youth adults alike were talking about how important it is for us to show the youth our authentic selves. I agree with the statement at face value, but the deeper discussion proved that everyone’s definition of authentic was closer to “you should admit to and exhibit the qualities I believe you have,” as opposed to “you should admit to and exhibit the qualities that truly represent you.” The first example people brought up was pretending we waited until we were married to have sex—but at least 2 members of the larger group are actually virgins waiting for marriage, and another is a married woman who did wait.
If that was the only example, I would say we just got our signals crossed. However, I’ve seen so many examples of this. Another common example is my fellow black people saying another black person isn’t authentic because the person doesn’t fit their definition of blackness.
Recently I saw someone comment on a journaling video (not mine), “I appreciate that your journal is not perfect. So many journalers out there have perfectly meticulous journal pages and have honestly kept me away from it for a long time. Seeing someone displaying their authentic handwriting and thought process is inspiring.” While I can respect that seeing something you perceive as perfect can be intimidating, some of us really do have neat handwriting without much effort. Imagine if the person had wrote on an artist’s page: “I really appreciate that your art isn’t perfect. I always see such perfect and beautiful paintings and it has kept me from drawing. Seeing someone display their authentic artwork and thought process is inspiring.”
That sounds ridiculous though, doesn’t it? The reason it sounds ridiculous is because people view art as a talent and at some point in life make peace with the fact that they do or don’t have that talent. People assume an artist has practiced and evolved and that somewhere in their possession is a first sketchbook that maybe didn’t look so great. Saying that someone else’s hard work has kept you from even beginning says more about you than the other person, so no one says it.
However, all three examples I gave—the issue of premarital sex, how a member of a particular culture behaves, and handwriting—have the same thing in common. Admitting that there are people who are able to wait, who share your skin color but have a different life experience, or naturally write neat is admitting that it’s possible. A lot of times people use the “everyone does (or doesn’t) do it” as a crutch or an excuse.
The presumption that a person is automatically inauthentic because they don’t behave the way we think they should stems from the fact that we define people by our own personal experiences.
Self Perceptions of Authenticity
The other major issue I have with “authenticity’ is, where do we draw the line with learned behavior? For example, when I was two I would have picked my nose in public but my parents and society taught me that was unacceptable. How does that differ from the fact that despite being raised in the deep South, both my parents and teachers taught me that “y’all” isn’t proper English when I was still in elementary school? Am I inauthentic if I don’t say y’all? Or is it inauthentic if I do say y’all?
In a conversation with a friend about code-switching, I realized I don’t know if I code-switch.
References & Footnotes
- I’m aware that long is subjective, however since the sentence allows for the subjectivity I think it still holds. Whether long for you is an hour, then long is an hour; if it’s years, then its years.
- I want to highlight that just because other people are able to do something, doesn’t mean you’re a failure because you didn’t or couldn’t. Everyone is different and has a different path to walk. We have different peaks and valleys on our journeys.