What is… identity?
After the 2016 US election result, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla declared ‘the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end’. He and others believed that Hillary Clinton’s focus on identity politics – appealing to minorities as such rather than trying to unite Americans behind a singular vision – cost the Democrats the election. The question of identity seems ever-present and increasingly vexed in 21st century life. One cannot get a passport, job or social media account without answering a list of questions clarifying one’s gender, ethnicity or race. Or at least, what gender, ethnicity and race one identifies as being. Facebook offers 71 gender identities for users to choose from, or change to, ranging from ‘male’ and ‘female’ to ‘bigender’ and ‘two spirit’. It appears there are now more options than ever to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
For all the apparent choice on offer, however, in some ways identity is increasingly fixed. Historically, feminists and anti-racists fought to overcome the limits placed on them because of the identities ascribed to them regardless of how they felt about it. Today, identities are often embraced and championed even though they are seen as accidents of birth. Many trans and non-binary activists claim they have no choice in what they identify as. Contemporary cultural norms seemingly dictate that the differences we are born with, be that race, gender or sexuality, should be acknowledged as core to who we are and acknowledged by others, especially when the identities in question come with oppression by wider society.
Theorists of intersectionality debate the relative oppression of different and overlapping identities, leading to what critics have called ‘the oppression Olympics’, and tensions abound between black women and white feminists, middle-class lesbians and working-class men. Inevitably, as feminism has become institutionalised, white, heterosexual men assert they are left behind and a burgeoning men’s rights movement has emerged. Some have even suggested that the rise of white nationalism in the US is a reactionary mirror image of the politicisation of racial identity that has grown under the auspices of identity politics.
Identity can even mean people are denied choice, by being categorised according to externally imposed identities, especially if seen to be privileged, and often assigned the label of white, heterosexual, cis-gender by others. In turn these categories are used to explain your actions and opinions, your unconscious bias, mansplaining, whitewashing fatalistically attributed to your sexuality, gender, skin colour.
Is there any place for a universal humanism in all this, uniting people regardless of their various identities? Is there any escape from the identities we’re branded with, whether in the form of racial prejudice or imputed privilege? Are we defined by who we are, born a certain way? Or do our experiences make us who we are? What does identity mean today?