Monday, June 29, 2015


What's Your Identity?


People talk a lot about their identity and the identities of other people. The huge controversy about Rachel Dolezal shows how confusing identities are.
Begin with what everybody says these days that "identities are socially constructed." Here is an example: if in the late 1700s the leaders of different American states had decided against uniting into one nation, the identity of being a citizen of the USA would not exist today. All of us would be citizens of whatever state we belonged to. But notice that this social origin of the identity of being a US citizen does not mean that individuals can simply choose to call themselves citizens of the USA. In order to be a citizen you need to follow complex rules and procedures. What you want to be or identify yourself as is of relatively little importance.
A second lesson from this public debate is that there are different kinds of identities. Some rest on facts. You can only claim the identity of being a centenarian if you have actually lived 100 or more years. Some mornings I get up with serious aches and pains and I feel as if I were 100 years old. But that does not make me a centenarian. That identity rests in facts.
Being male or female used to be one of those identities depending on certain facts. The interesting thing about Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender persons is that we have decided that how one feels on the inside is a more significant criterion for gender identity than one's external genitals.
Gender has now become an identity that we can choose and it is a different kind of identity from one's national identity which one's choices alone cannot determine.
But the case of Rachel Dolezal shows that there is a third kind of identity which the bearer of that identity has no part in determining. These are identities imposed on us from the outside, by other persons. The court system, for instance, identifies certain persons as felons. In a number of cases, the court is mistaken. A prisoner is called a felon even though justice miscarried in his case and he is innocent. But he may spend the rest of his life incarcerated, or unable to vote, or, if he is able to leave prison, unable to find work.
Being black is sometimes a matter of personal choice. Some descendants of African slaves had so many white ancestors that they can "pass" and enter the population as a white person. They choose to be whites in spite of the facts about their ancestry. Other descendants of African slaves have dark skin. Their hair is not straight by nature. Given those external marks, white society imposes on them the identity of a "Black." The litany of all the faults that Blacks may be suspected of is too familiar to rehearse once more. This identity is not supported by facts. It is certainly not chosen by the people who get stereotyped with this identity by Whites. It is imposed by white society.
If descendants of African slaves can identify as whites, why cannot a white person identify as black? In so far as color identities are subject to choice, no one can fault Rachel Dolezal. But she cannot claim that she has been stereotyped in the terribly negative and undeserved way that most African – Americans still find themselves stereotyped in North America and elsewhere.
It is not clear to me that she is claiming that. If she is, is she lying? Well she might just be misinformed or confused. To accuse her of lying, one must be able to show that she is deliberately misrepresenting her experience. Outside of her family not many people are in a position to accuse her of that.
Some observers have drawn the lesson from this public debate that we should stop talking so much about identities. The lesson I draw from it is that the concept of personal identity is complex and subject to many confusions. One should step very cautiously when one enters the terrain of personal identity.