What We Talk About When We Talk About Identity

Our dominant mental model of identity is not only wrong, it hurts minorities.

January 14, 2019

When people in higher ed diversity circles say ‘Believe women’ or ‘Follow leaders of color’, or even just invoke the term ‘women’ or ‘black’, what does it mean? What are we talking about when we talk about identity?

 I think what we mean falls into several different categories. Here is my initial list:

A set of physical characteristics

.....As in the color of someone’s skin or the particulars of an individual’s sexual anatomy.

A set of experiences

.....As in ‘"women" referring to a set of people who have experienced sexual harassment or "black" referring to a set of people who have experienced police harassment.

A set of qualities

.....As in "women" are emotional and ‘men’ are stoic.

A set of virtues

.....As in "women’" are cooperative and "men" are competitive, or "women" tell the truth and "men" lie.

A set of psychological characteristics

.....As in "black" people experience trauma because of their experience of racism. 

A set of political views

.....As in ‘"women" oppose Brett Kavanaugh and support pro-choice laws or "black" people support police reform.

A set of solidarities

.....As in the familiar litany "people of color, women, LGBT folks, immigrants, Muslims." When this list is invoked, the suggestion is that this wide-ranging set of groups has something powerful enough in common to link them into a kind of supergroup. 

An aesthetic, an energy

.....As in ‘black music’.

(Any other categories come to mind?)

In his recent book on identity, The Lies That Bind, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to persuade us “that much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.”      

I think the mental image that best describes the higher ed/diversity progressive talk about identities like "women" and "black" is a picture of the aforementioned categories arranged like Russian nesting dolls. The largest doll of physical attributes contains the next largest doll of experiences which contains the next largest doll of qualities which contains the next largest doll of virtues and on and on.     

In other words, when the term "black" is invoked it is often intended to mean all the dolls within the outermost doll of physical characteristics. So, along with skin color, you necessarily and inevitably get a set of experiences, a set of qualities and virtues, a set of psychological interpretations, a political worldview, a group of community solidarities, and an aesthetic.  

A number of obvious questions emerge from this. What about individuals who share the physical characteristics that distinguish women from men, but have not had an experience of sexual harassment? Or who have had it, but do not interpret it as an especially important life event? Or who have another identity – say, parent of a son or friend of an individual who has been accused of sexual harassment – that complicates the manner in which they mark the experience of sexual harassment? 

What if the doll that denotes the experience of sexual harassment is actually found within the larger doll marked "male," as in the story that Jeff Tweedy tells in his autobiography of being taken of advantage of by a much older woman when he was a fourteen-year-old boy.

You can run this mental exercise endlessly. What if within the outermost doll marked "black," you find an aesthetic taste that tends towards the white dominated genre of country music? What if within the outermost doll marked ‘male’ you find the quality of expressive emotion and the virtue of cooperation?

There is no doubt in my mind that women are more likely to experience sexual harassment, and black people are more likely to experience police harassment, and that both psychological interpretations and political worldviews could well emerge from these experiences. The identity categories listed earlier have some accuracy and some relationship, because our society has treated people with different physical identities in profoundly unequal ways.

But, as the Russian doll image suggests, assuming that when you see a person with physical characteristics that denote her as "black" and "female," you can confidently know her most significant experiences, the intimacies of psychology, the nature of her politics, the texture of her aesthetic taste and so on seems to me to be making two grave errors.

The first is that paradigms that generalize, essentialize and determinize are intellectually lazy because counter-examples abound.

The second error, I believe, is worse. To assume that you can tell a person what their psychology or politics is (or ought to be) based on their physical characteristics, without taking the time to find out, is a violation of that individual’s personhood, by which I mean the agency that we humans have to create ourselves.

In what world do we think that if we know someone’s physical characteristics (race or gender), we then know everything else that matters about that person?

Isn’t higher ed about advancing more accurate pictures of the world? Isn’t it about nurturing in individuals the freedom and ability to be, well, individuals? Given how important diversity is in our nation and on our college campuses, shouldn’t we try to do better than a Russian doll model of diversity that errors in both the picture it offers the world and in the manner that it violates personhood.

Here’s the question I’m mulling: What mental model of identity takes into account the existence of racism and sexism in our broader environment without assuming that every individual in those groups has the same experiences, the same qualities, the same virtues, the same psychological interpretations, and so on?


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