What does identity mean in today’s postmodern, multicultural environment?
Consider, first, the Polish-born Ruchel Dwara Zylska (later Rachel Shilsky and still later Ruth McBride Jordan), who, twice widowed, co-founded the all-Black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook in Brooklyn and raised 12 Black children, including the best-selling author James McBride.
Then consider another Rachel—Rachel Dolezal—the so called “race faker,” who had served as an NAACP official, taught Africana studies and chaired her city’s Police Ombudsman Commission before being “outed” for having two white parents and whose claim to being transracial, trans-Black and racially fluid were scoffed at.
How do these two people differ? Is it that Ruth McBride Jordan never claimed to be Black and that Dolezal fabricated and benefited from her supposed identity?
We live in an age in which one’s identity is incredibly important. That’s why we speak of identity crises and identity politics. And yet much of our thinking about identity is, I think it’s fair to say, confused.
On the one hand, we are often told that identities in postmodern society are plural, composite and intersectional rather than unitary, fluid rather than fixed or static, performative rather than innate, and chosen or constructed rather than ascribed. Identities, we hear, are more complex than in the past. No longer are identities simply the product of class, gender and race or ethnicity.
There can be no doubt that, compared to the past, identities today are less a product of birth, residential proximity, institutional membership, religious affiliation and shared experience than of identification, and, in many instances, of common politics and ideological commitments.
On the other hand, despite multiple attacks on essentialism, there is a tendency to regard identities as much more than self-images that individuals are free to choose, shed or alter as they wish. There’s a general expectation that identities be authentic and bona fide. To reject or deny one’s identity is widely regarded as abhorrent.
In this context, I recall a savage attack on Erik Erikson for denying his Jewish background—as well as the subsequent defense of Erikson’s pleas for a more cosmopolitan identity. Then there is the memoirist Richard Rodriguez’s discomfort with being “put into a box,” as a Catholic or gay or Chicano writer.
So how should we think about identity in today’s postmodern multicultural society?
First, we need to recognize that a major contributor to today’s thinking is a reaction against modernist conceptions of identity. That is:
- A critique of identities that rest upon crude dualities and simplistic oppositions. Modernist conceptions of identity tended to reflect binary oppositions, like male-female or Occidental-Oriental. Postmodernism sought to deconstruct, challenge and overturn simplistic dualities that were defined largely through oppositions, such as the association of whiteness with the Apollonian and Blackness with the Dionysian or the masculine with rationality and femininity with nature.
- A challenge to identities that are inextricably linked to power, status, hierarchy and oppression. Rather than simply reflecting lived realities, modernist conceptions of gender, sexual and racial identities naturalized and normalized difference and arranged differences within well-defined status hierarchies.
- A reaction against the hegemony of liberal or bourgeois conceptions of “normal” or “normative” identities. These were identities that privileged certain behaviors, including heterosexual marriage or conventional gender roles.
Next, we must understand the extent that identity has become an instrument of power and collective agency.
- As other forms of social affiliation, like private-sector unions, have declined in influence, various identities, represented by advocacy groups and various nonprofit organizations, have become more salient politically and economically.
- Through its ability to create census categories and to identify rights and target and distribute benefits according to various kinds of group identity, the federal government has made recognition of group status all the more important.
- In politics we see a conflict between an older conception of rights that largely denied the relevance of difference in policy formulation in the name of a universalism that is increasingly regarded as inaccurate and misleading, and those who, in contrast, argue that equity demands a greater awareness of systemic inequalities and disparities.
If postmodernism deconstructed older ways of thinking about identity, it also helps explain the rise of newer modes of identification.
It was a new book by Jay Caspian Kang, a child of immigrant South Korean parents who has written for Vice, Grantland, The New Yorker and The New York Times, that prompted me to reflect upon the meaning of identity today and how we might best tackle this topic in our incredibly diverse classrooms.
The Loneliest Americans is an examination of Asian American identity in a society that still largely defines itself in terms of the Black-white binary—an identity that was defined, in large measure, by government diktat and that, generally, fails to recognize Asian Americans as people of color, It also a study of the contradictions and limitations of identity politics for Asian Americans.
How, he asks, can we fashion generalizations about a group that includes “the businessmen turning Flushing into a center of immigrant wealth; the casualties of the Los Angeles riots; the impoverished parents in New York City who believe that admission to the city’s exam schools is the only way out; the men’s rights activists on Reddit ranting about intermarriage; and the handful of protesters who show up at Black Lives Matter rallies holding ‘Yellow Peril Supports Black Power’ signs”?
Much of the book involves questioning certain dominant narratives about Asian Americans: as an undifferentiated cultural group sharing a common history, as the “model minority,” as competent but cold, as perpetual sojourners or foreigners, or as politically passive and inwardly focused. It can also be read as a critique of certain offensive media stereotypes: of emasculated males; dragon ladies; tiger moms; quiet, geeky nerds or desexualized, effeminate self-effacing men; or sexually submissive lotus blossoms.
In addition, the book details the difficulty of describing the forms of racism that Asian Americans confront, given the fact that it differs from the more obvious forms that Black Americans face.
The book concludes by arguing that Asian Americans in particular, but other groups as well, would benefit from thinking about identity in ways that transcend a focus on family or a desire for assimilation and acceptance or even community self-interest, but instead encompasses a much broader sense of solidarity with those at society’s margins.
As the United States becomes a more multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural and, perhaps, multilinguistic society, the question of how identity will be defined and treated remains much in the air. Will ethnic differences erode? Will new forms of stratification emerge? Or will whiteness and Blackness continue to serve as this society’s most enduring dividing line?
A big part of the answer, as Jay Caspian Kang recognizes, depends on how specific groups—above all, the next generation of Asian Americans and their Latinx counterparts—define their identity and engage in politics and in broader cultural conversations.
I can’t predict the future, but I feel safe saying this: the leading indicator of that future will be found on college campuses. Faculty and administrators will be the first to see how our current generation wrestles with questions of identity. With shame, defensiveness or avoidance? With demands for curricular, pedagogical and policy changes? Or in some other ways?
After all, to slightly modify my university’s tagline, what happens here inevitably and irreversibly changes society.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.