I’m having a problem with my pronouns.

Tagging myself as “her” reminds me of the horrible hemmed feeling I had decades ago when women were compelled to be characterized as Miss or Mrs. You had to choose, even if you didn’t particularly identify with either. Opting for Ms.—once it became acceptable—could imply that you wanted to hide something. The truth is, you did. Because it was nobody’s business whether you were married or not; it had zero to do with your work.

The New York Times didn’t allow Ms. as an option until 1986.

In the late 1970s, however, the Times did create the “HERS” column, a forum for women writers. Having a column to yourself for several weeks in the Times was a big deal. I wanted to be chosen as much as anyone. Eventually, I was. Yay me.

HERS ran inside the Home and Garden section, framed by ads for home furnishings. In contrast, the short-lived “About Men” column, intended to give men a voice (lol), had a page of its own in the Sunday Magazine, more prestigious real estate, better pay.

HERS was a terrific opportunity, no question. But it also put us in our place. It signaled: Here be women! If readers weren’t interested (and many no doubt weren’t) they could just turn the page. It corralled us in a room of our own, whether we wanted that or not. I have no issue per se with her or Miss or Mrs. I like homes and gardens. I just don’t want to be forced to always frame myself that way. I don’t always want to lead with it.

Lucky for me, I’ve always had a gender-neutral nickname, which became my legal name when I realized it made a lot of difference to people whether my words were “hers” or “his.” More than once, I arrived for a panel or talk and was asked, “When is your husband arriving?” The disappointment on learning that “he” was a she was palpable.

That was in the olden days, you say. Things have changed. I wish. Just a few years ago, I wrote an op-ed titled “Why Does ‘CEO’ Mean ‘White Male’?” It was all about how easily we slide into default modes. A reader shared in an email that she loved the piece but admitted her husband had noted: “You remember KC Cole! He used to write for the LA Times!”

As we know by now, assumptions about identity change how people see you. “John” on a résumé rakes in more offers at higher salaries than “Jane” does, even if everything else is identical. Donald does better than Darnell. 

What if we used initials instead of first names?

A clue to what happens when you can’t tell a Jane from a John comes from looking at what happened when symphony orchestras started conducting blind auditions. With the performer behind a curtain, no one could tell whether the musician was a he or a she or anything else. I can remember when the philharmonic was almost exclusively male. That has changed.

A conservative friend suggests banning all adjectives—eliminate identifiers entirely. “Conservative,” for example. Adjectives signal our opinion of a person, and sometimes that’s all. Relying on them exaggerates differences, shrink-wraps complexity, slaps on labels instead.

Maybe that’s why during the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings, I found myself miffed at how the media identified her almost exclusively as First Black Woman—true, but also, in a way, generic. First Black Woman: Those are all important milestones, identities that really matter, of course. It’s just that sometimes they seemed to drown out so much else about her. Some people never got past First Black Woman (no doubt the same people who turned the page when they saw HERS).

As a “senior,” my identity gets established at a glance. Clerks at the co-op can’t tell me apart from other white-haired women waiting to get their orders. To twentysomethings, seventysomethings all look alike. (Twentysomethings can look pretty much alike to us, too, alas.)

Teaching required me to grapple with identity. Students ask: How should we address you? A friend gave her students two options: first name or Your Majesty. I liked that. But these days I find most of my students prefer to use “professor,” because that’s my identity to them. I don’t really identify as “professor,” but that’s OK.

That’s the thing about identity. It changes over space and time. “Hers” doesn’t mean what it did 30 years ago. At the same time, I have a hard time identifying with the reckless fortysomething me who rollerbladed around Manhattan. (The Trump Tower lobby was the best spot in town.) A friend sent a photo of me from a few years back, giving a talk at some event. “That’s when I used to be someone,” I wrote back. “That’s when you used to be someone else,” he answered.

At times, my primary identity has been “mom.” My cat, not incorrectly, probably identifies me as “can opener.”

Even so, my identity doesn’t mean I’m identical to other “can openers,” like the cat sitter—or that I identify with “can opener” myself. Even identical twins might not identify as identical. One might identify as “Olympic athlete”; the other, “felon.”

In math, an identity is something very specific. Euler’s identity is undoubtedly the best known: I once saw it engraved on the license plate of a pickup in Anchorage. It has appeared on The Simpsons more than once. A scientist friend suggested it to me as a fitting tattoo.

Part of the appeal is that Euler’s identity has a star-studded cast—all the cool numbers!

0: the destroyer; it makes everything nothing or infinity.

1: unity, an identity in itself!

pi: ratio of circumference to diameter, irrational and never-ending. (The first three digits are Einstein’s birthday.)

e: transcendental, shows up everywhere, a limit, unreachable, its own derivative. 

i: imaginary, the square root of minus one: √(-1). 

Put them together and you get: e i pi + 1 = 0. In English, multiply i times pi then raise e to that power. Magically, it equals zero. That’s amazing!

Recall: an identity is not an equation. It doesn’t mean the two sides are equal. It means they’re interchangeable. That’s entirely different. All people are created equal is not the same as all people are interchangeable, certainly not identical. 

And yet, I've been asked, a bewildering number of times, “KC, what do the women think?” Once I was asked, “What do the women think of Carl Sagan?” Another time it was generic “woman” opinions about having kids. Black friends tell me similar tales: “What do the Blacks [sic] think about Chris Rock?” Or “defund the police”? Not only do we all look alike, we think in lockstep, our opinions interchangeable. That's why a single Black friend (substitute woman, gay, trans, conservative) is all you ever need to claim a certain cred.

In chemistry, identity is “the central problem,” writes Roald Hoffmann, Nobelist. It’s not that easy for a chemist to know: “What do I have?” Molecules can vary depending on their isotopes. For a complex molecule like hemoglobin, Hoffmann calculates: “The number of let’s say possible variations is astronomical (whoops, why not just call it chemical!).”

In human affairs, a central problem is mistaken identity. It happens more than we’d care to admit. The evidence we use to ID the bad guy is disturbingly prone to error. A report from the National Academy of Sciences looked at the forensic “science” around footprints, bite marks, fingerprints, ballistics, and more … and found they were “not based on science.”

Eyewitnesses aren’t much better. I imagine a lineup of little old ladies, one of them charged, say, with using her cane to clobber that kid weaving around pedestrians on his electric scooter. What if the witnesses were all like the clerk at the co-op who can’t tell us apart? (Now that’s identity theft!)

Lumping nonidentical people into homogeneous clumps is the only way I can explain the strange outcry emanating from the “straight white man” crowd when anyone from the “nonstraight, nonwhite, not-male” category gets a big job or award. A more qualified member of the former, they state with utter certainty, was passed over for an underqualified member of the latter. Of course, most members of both groups are, on average, average. Thus the number of average nonstraight, nonwhite, nonmale people running things should naturally equal the number of average straight white males in power. That’s simple arithmetic.

Well, at least DNA nails down identity, right? Not really. While DNA matches can and often are able to prove innocence, they cannot prove guilt, if for no other reason than lab error rates are all over the place and frequently unreported. So even if the DNA sample from the crime scene matches that of the suspect to an accuracy of 99.999 percent, if the error rate is even 1 percent (very low), then the chance of mistaken identity is still 1 in 100 (very high).

Perversely, some people most closely identify with what they’re not: not guilty, nonmember, unemployed. Or by what they used to be: recovering Catholic, ex-husband, ex-boss, former friend. Or what groups they don’t belong to: noncitizen, nonresident, nonmatriculated.

That can be a good thing. When you’re an outsider by default (“passive deviance,” the physicist Stephon Alexander calls it in his book Fear of a Black Universe), you’re required to improvise, come up with new approaches. Not always being comfortable around others, he says, forces you to look elsewhere for meaning, answers, perspectives, clues.

I’m uncomfortable with social media precisely because I don’t like the way my identity gets crafted, say, on Twitter. What I actually post is so rare as to be meaningless. But I fret over which friend’s tweet to retweet—despite the fact it’s pretty random, given that I’m active maybe 30 minutes a week. Worse, if I do post something, I look to see how many people shared it. I don’t see myself in that person, but I’m also afraid of being left out—a fear that John Wilson on HBO’s How To notes “can turn you into someone you barely recognize.”

What do I identify with, then? A senior, for sure, but not the puzzling caricatures of old folks talking about their ailments and complaining about Gens X, Y, Z. We do, of course, but there’s a world of worry out there to try to make sense of, not to mention a new season of Hacks and a Bob’s Burgers movie.

Finding things to laugh at (most of all ourselves) is front and center.

Most of all, I identify as Earthling, carbon-based biped, member of a species that can’t seem to understand that it has no identity at all apart from every other life-form out there. I’m all for “self-care,” especially for people caring for others, but really, isn’t planet-care a major part of that? 

Aren’t they identical?

"All things … linked are," wrote the English poet Francis Thompson. "That thou canst not stir a flower / Without troubling of a star."

I can identify with that!