My Identity is a List of Links

Today’s WTF sexist loons? is brought to you by the Daily Mail:

The female orgasm is the natural mechanism by which men assert dominion over women….

And I for one welcome our new battery-powered overlords.

Hattery-tippery to Feministe. More links, and some talk about racial identity and identity politics more generally, below the fold.

Finally, Changeseeker has written Part 1 of a guide for white people on being a better antiracist ally. Good reading, but of course I’m only responding to the part with which I have a quibble:

Europeans created the concept of “race,” created “Black” people (who were actually Africans or African-Americans) and “White” people (who were actually Europeans or European-Americans) and then an entire system of social “rules” to determine how “Black” people and “White” people should or would be allowed to live their lives. For this reason, I don’t call myself “White.” I don’t choose to identify myself with the socially-constructed, political notion of “Whiteness.” I’m not ashamed of my ethnic heritage, per se, or of being myself as a European-American. But, since the category of “White” was created only for the purpose of oppressing people who are not “White,” I don’t identify myself with it. You could make the same decision, if you wanted to. Not to deny “Whiteness” as a system of privilege and power that is destroying our nation, but simply to disavow your desire to participate in the maintenance of that system while knowing that you are doing so.

The shop clerk who doesn’t follow me around the store, the cop who lets me off with just a warning, and other notional tools of white supremacy are not responding to my ethnic identity as a North-European-Mutt-American (which is also a social construct), but to my race; they could care less about my self-identification. There are two ways to get them to not respond to me as White:

  1. Engage in racial drag; or,
  2. Wave the wand of magic anti-racist enlightenment every time I meet someone new.

Not practical answers. Since my assigned race influences my life whether I want it to or not, I don’t think it makes any sense to run around telling people “oh, I’m not White, I’m Euro-American”.

I doubt Changeseeker would deny that the way one is racially categorized has significant impacts on one’s experience in society, regardless of one’s personal level of antiracism/internalized white supremacy/etc., or that she thinks we can change the way we are identified by others (though obviously she’s welcome to correct me on this) – I think we just have different concepts of identity. She appears to see identity statements as claims about the speaker’s desire or affinity, while I usually interpret them as claims about the speaker’s interactions with the world, including the way other people respond. These aren’t mutually exclusive metaphors, and neither of us is wrong, but when there’s significant tension between personal desire and social response the distinction becomes important.

If identity is a claim about my interactions with the world, saying that I’m not White is a lie, and all kinds of un-PC as it means I am denying my own privilege. If identity is a statement of desire and affinity, saying that I’m not White is a perfectly sensible and progressive statement whose truth value cannot be determined without a detailed, intimate examination of my antiracist commitments. Conclusion: when making statements about racial identity, it is important to be clear about what “identity” actually means.

I’ve done most of my thinking about socially-foisted identity in the context of trans allyship, which is an interesting contrast because the power dynamics are different. If I deny my assigned race, I risk being seen as denying my privilege in an offensive way; when a transwoman denies the gender she was assigned at birth … well, some people (coughcoughMichFestcough) do see her as denying her male privilege in an offensive way.

Shit. I hate that I’ve just argued myself onto sort of the same side as MichFest. But I really, really need to get back to work, so I can’t resolve the cognitive dissonance right now. Maybe some Gentle Reader can help?

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Dr. Shellie :: Snubbed by Zuska! :: August :: 2006 on 29 Aug 2006 at 10:37 am

    […] Congratulations to Zuska, who has moved to ScienceBlogs. Sadly, Dr. Shellie has fallen off the Blogroll. What, am I not at least as much of a "feminist-y womanist-y science and engineering blog" as Dr. Chuck and Inky Circus (though yami out-feministed me with ease by being able to casually toss off the line, "I’ve done most of my thinking about socially-foisted identity in the context of trans allyship")? Bah. Perhaps this is retaliation for accidentally sending SEVEN duplicate emails asking to be added the first time (radio blogs has a very slow response time, unfortunately)? All 25 of my loyal readers are encouraged to head on over and put in a word for me. (Or 24. I think one of them is Zuska.) Comments » […]


  1. R Mutt wrote:

    Someone on K5 posted another Nirpal Dhaliwal article

    I wouldn’t take either too seriously: it’s just another bit of London meejah incestuousness. His wife is a columnist who’s posted an interminable series of my-boyfriend-is-such-a-doofus articles about him. These articles seem to be a somewhat desperate attempt to say, “no, I’m actually a roaring tiger alpha male”, with a bit of trolling and feminist-baiting mixed in.

  2. yami wrote:

    Well, of course – the Daily Mail is the trolliest newspaper evar! Still sexist and loony, though.

  3. kerrick wrote:

    Well, gender and race are different oppressions. They can’t be simply equated that way. For one thing, when young “men” decide they want to move through the world as women and take steps to achieve that, this does have an instant effect on their experience of male privilege— they’re now being treated as gender traitors by nearly everyone. Whereas when young white men decide they want to move through the world as nonwhite, they usually simply appropriate the trappings of other cultures and ethnic groups without actually calling into question their white privilege. White boys dressed “gangsta” don’t damage their white privilege much; they’re still more often seen as harmless and innocent than young black men dressed the same way. This is a symptom of the fact that gender privilege functions differently than racial privilege.

  4. yami wrote:

    Well, yes and no – the fact that they’re different oppressions is what allows one to mine them for insights about mechanisms they might have in common.

    But, thanks for articulating the difference. You’re right, it is important – and gets me off of MichFest’s side, to boot, phew! :)

  5. Mel wrote:

    And…not all “black” people are African or African American. Making that kind of assumption is a great way to make annoy Haitians, for example.

    What about people in the Caribbean (who identify pretty variously), or Europe, or South America (and Brazil has more than a few blond, pale-skinned Latinos, as well).

    Race and ethnicity are both social constructs, but they are not interchangable. And playing semantic games doesn’t alter how other people perceive us, as you point out.

  6. yami wrote:

    Well, I think what Changeseeker is trying to describe is more like Professor Zero’s story than a simple semantic game:

    Later in the evening, I told this story to a Creole neighbor. Yes, I know, he said. They could not figure out which race to classify you as, because you do not seem to have a race. If you want to maintain any particular racial classification, you must also maintain the behavior and attitude the people who see you believe correspond to that classification. You look white, and you appear to have descended from a mixture of ethnicities. But race is not just a visual marker of difference, it is a practice.

  7. yami wrote:

    … and: I was totally thinking, in this post, about racial classification as something that’s mainly done by white people. D’oh!

    Anyway. The trick of affirming one’s European-American ethnic identity while refusing any racial identity might help some people tone down or erase their practice of Whiteness; I’m not sure it would for me, or at least, not now. I think I’m at a place where I need to spend more energy noticing and acknowledging the ways in which I practice Whiteness, before I can successfully strip them away.

  8. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Do I get voted off the craton for suggesting that you abandon group identity all together, and actually take the time to get to know the people with whom you intereact as individuals?

  9. yami wrote:

    No, you don’t. Treating people as individuals is always the best answer/goal; that’s not in question.

    The immediate question is whether I am capable of abandoning group identity, given that I have at best limited control over how I am pigeonholed by others, or whether it’s a sort of shadow that I’m just stuck with.

    The broader question is how best to deal with social constructs that hamper one’s ability to treat others as individuals. “Let’s just treat everyone as individuals, la la la!” has a shitty track record.

  10. Lab Lemming wrote:

    “Let’s just treat everyone as individuals, la la la!” has a shitty track record.

    Is it any worse than the alternatives?

    Every attempt I know of to dehumanize people for the cause of good has been co-opted by the forces of evil, profit, or laziness.

  11. yami wrote:

    I’m totally puzzled by your dichotomy here, how does thinking/talking about the effects of group identity constructs prevent one from also treating people as individuals? What’s dehumanizing about a critical examination of race?

  12. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Because that is how it was preached at me in college?

    Because its usurptation by political propagandists and marketers makes no concession to the individual?

    Because, in my experience, people who consern themselves with the attributes of a group have trouble not forming preconceptions about people whom they associate with said group.

  13. Changeseeker wrote:

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to comment on your very interesting and thought-provoking response to my post. What I was getting at in the paragraph you cite (and you are so right that I needed to be clearer about what I mean by identity) is that I am calling for a paradigm shift by reminding us that “race” is a socially-constructed, political notion while privilege is a system of practices. I can seek to reject privilege when it is apparent to me. (I will address this idea in Part 2.) What I was shooting for was to suggest that in order for privilege to be apparent to me so that I can reject it, I have to be able to recognize it (a la comment #7) as a response to a socially-constructed, political notion based on NO actual deserved quality. Whiteness perceives itself as deserving. European-American individuals, on the other hand, have no basis to perceive themselves as any more deserving than any other ethnic group on the planet.

    Now, obviously, I know that daily practice at every level in U.S. society privileges European-Americans as “White” with or without their conscious awareness, admission, or acknowledgment, let alone any embarrassment or guilt. And yes, the first step is an ever-increasing awareness of this functional reality.

    But this functional reality is based on (according to the UNESCO study) a “social myth.” The realization of “race” as a myth in no way mitigates the damage done by its perpetuation as a concept. It just makes it that much more unconscionable or even heinous, while being totally ridiculous. How can a person think they deserve privilege because of their skin tone? If there was any sense to this, I would lose privilege in direct proportion to the sun tan I’ve been getting.

    I don’t tell people “I’m not White.” For exactly the reason you’ve brought up. It’s not immediately understandable as a statement given where most people in the U.S. (on all sides of the issue) reside. What I do is tell people that “Whiteness” is a meaningless social construction devised for the purpose of exploiting people of color for the enrichment of people that look like me. (Again, I might have and probably do have African heritage–as many people who look like me do–but I still get the benefit of “White” privilege, as long as I don’t tell people “I’m Black.”)

    There is no need to abandon group identity. Each of us belong to many groups and group identity is short hand (a code) for understanding another individual’s experience/reality/self-perception. The difficulty has never been “difference” per se. It is the fact that we declare difference and then socially impose an entirely arbitrary hierarchy on it (men over women, “White” people over people of color, etc.). Then, those who find themselves privileged by this hierarchy imagine that they are indeed better than those “beneath” them on the ladder and therein lies the problem.

    When I use the term “people that look like me,” I am challenging listeners to remember that they can’t make simple sense of “racial” difference without my complicity. So I don’t say “I’m not White.” I just choose not to identify myself using that term, but rather create a series of teachable moments related to “race.”

    I know that most European-Americans are not prepared to do this at this time. Nevertheless, what I was nudging them towards in my post was the possibility of considering that their “race” is a “social myth” deserving no privilege and that keeping that idea foremost in their minds at all times will move mountains in their lives.

  14. yami wrote:

    Changeseeker: thanks for the response :)

    I always think the best conversations are the ones where you have to stop often to digest. Which is to say, it might be a bit before I can respond to your response…

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