Finally climbing down off of six weeks on plague mountain, and can think a little again, so I may be posting here a bit more in the near future. Woop! Getting the gears spinning today: some thoughts on identity, and how it shapes how we behave with regard to politics, particularly intersectionality.
Long post ahoy! Grab a cuppa your favorite bev, and click to to read more . . .
So, this ongoing storm over Caitlin Moran and her crew rejecting intersectional feminism reminded me of a discussion a few months ago on Tumblr regarding race and identity. Nutshell edition: someone was upset about U.S. forms always having a tick box for “African American” when that term doesn’t describe everyone with the same general physical feature set/ancestry. Of course most folks with that feature set can trace their common-era ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, but their more-immediate ancestry can be incredibly diverse, from people who actually live in African countries now, to people in the Caribbean and South America, to, of course, North Americans who are descended from people imported here as slaves.
I’m white (by most definitions–more on that below), and therefore I don’t have a say in what individual people of color identify as, of course, but it seemed to me the complainer’s point was sound–as was the other half of the issue: People with that feature set aren’t all directly African, but nor are they all American. There is, as it turns out, some controversy over whether the term “black” can be claimed by people who aren’t Americans descended from slaves, and I’m not in the position to decide that (though it is interesting that that issue gets applied to Obama.) However, it’s definitely clear that the AA term simply doesn’t apply to, say, a Brit whose most-recent non-U.K. ancestry is from Barbados. If you want to get technical about it, everyone currently walking the planet has some African ancestry, and there are plenty of white Africans as well. How recent should their African ancestry be to legitimately call someone African-x? And where does the line get drawn on skin color and feature set? Is the paper bag test ever used both ways?
As I say, this particular issue isn’t mine, and I’ll leave the decisions and in-depth discussions about it to people who are directly affected and/or have considerably more education and experience on the topic. However, it does raise many other related issues about the nuances of identity, especially as related to intersectionality, and some of those issues do affect me directly.
As I think I’ve mentioned here before, my husband and I are currently in the process of waiting for a (domestic, open) adoption. When we were going through the home study process, one of the aspects we discussed with the agency was whether we’d be open to a transracial adoption. My first impulse was: “Of course. Duh.” My second impulse was: “I’m a clueless white person from clueless white personville. I don’t have the experience to be able to do this right.” But after some discussion and research, I came upon the crux of the issue, for me: I was concerned about whether I could properly teach my child about that aspect of her identity, since my knowledge on it is indirect. And I realized: No, I can’t teach her that exactly. But neither can anyone else.
She’ll be in contact with (at least) her birthmother, and if her birthmother is the same race/ethnicity, then she can have that connection there, but beyond that: what kind of person she wants to be is up to her, and that goes for race as much as any other part of her identity. If she’s Latina, for instance, she’s the one who gets to decide what that means for her. Not us. Not even her birthmom. Certainly not the other Latinas she sees in the media. And not even the other Latinas she’ll meet through school, cultural activities, etc. She will get a taste of how other people do Latina, but it won’t necessarily be something she identifies with. There is no one way to be Latina, and even that term itself is incredibly broad, covering millions of people from very different cultures. She will share many experiences and perspectives with many other people who look like her and have similar ancestry, but her experiences will not be exactly the same, and therefore she will be a different person. The same goes for every other aspect of who she is that has more than one kind of expression and experience. Everything from being an adoptee, to living in the Northwest, to having queer parents will be different for her than it is for most other people, and thus there’s no sense in trying to do more than give her information and guidance as she’s trying things on to see what fits. I certainly don’t wish to downplay or gloss over any aspect of who she is–I detest the notion of assimilation and colorblindness–but I do strongly believe that exactly how that identity will manifest is entirely up to her.
Interestingly enough, not only did that epiphany make me more confident about being able to do transracial parenting, but it opened up a lot of other epiphanies about identity in general, especially the fact that we tend to have rigid definitions for labels, and break things down into binaries when they’re anything but. Having a physical feature set in common with millions of other people whose ancestry is based in a certain region of the world actually means very little in the larger context of who an individual is. But it also does matter. It cannot be erased or subsumed in a clumsy attempt at equality. And that’s especially true when it comes to the fact that millions of people are oppressed based on nothing more than having that physical feature set. If no-one knew that Obama is technically biracial and had no immediate slave ancestry, he’d still get just as much racist garbage lobbed at him as anyone else whose ethnic makeup is more in keeping with the popular image of African-Americans. If the POTUS were dressed down, driving alone, he’d still be more likely to be pulled over by a cop than a white person. Having a white mother isn’t insurance against that. And yet, his childhood experiences were still different from many other black men who would be pulled over, and he has a right to those aspects of his identity as well.
When people face discrimination en masse, there’s a strong tendency to circle the wagons. Group identity becomes critical, because building up an army to take on one’s attackers is an immediate need. But that can, of course, lead to accusations of disloyalty or infidelity to the cause if someone either doesn’t quite exactly identify the same way as most of the group, or someone who may fit that identity, but considers it only one aspect of themselves, and not the sum total.
There’s a legitimate concern about people who want to pass or otherwise downplay the aspect of themselves that’s being targeted, because it’s easier to question whether they’d be willing to put themselves on the line to save others with whom they may share a given trait. Yet, when it’s very clear that the person in question is fighting the good fight, and isn’t actually hiding who they are, demanding rigid adherence to a specific set of identity markers makes no sense. Conversely, there actually are people who try to claim an identity that isn’t truly theirs to claim because they romanticize oppression or some cultural aspect of the identity in question. See: thousands of white folks who have absolutely no Native American cultural connections, yet who identify as such solely because one ancestor four generations ago was Cherokee, and they think Indians are cool.
This particular issue is why, as noted above, I identify as white instead of claiming my own NA ancestry (one great-grandmother was Cherokee, another Chickasaw.) I wasn’t raised anywhere near a rez, and any cultural knowledge I have is secondhand, at best. Honestly, I know more about the culture of Pacific Northwest tribes because I researched them in some depth for the book I just finished. So I can’t claim a cultural connection. And since my Irish genes trumped my NA ones, I’m fish-belly white, with all the attendant privilege. (I am disadvantaged in a hell of a lot of other areas, but race ain’t one of them.) My lack of desire to truly identify with that part of my genetic makeup isn’t because I’m ashamed of it, or wish to pass to dodge discrimination. Rather, it’s because I respect it that I’m not going to go pretending to be something I’m really not. I feel a great sadness that I didn’t have access to that culture because it was assimilated out of my ancestors, and it is something I like learning about, but my participation in NA culture at this point is purely as an outsider who wants to be an ally.
And it’s that concept–allies–that is, I think, the key to getting rid of the worst aspects of identity politics. If we can start judging who’s on “our side” not by what vital statistics they posess but by their words and deeds with regard to any struggle for rights, not only will we end a lot of the petty infighting, but we will have a broader base of support. And, best of all, everyone will be free to identify as who they are, rather than shaping it around unreasonable expectations for solidarity.
For example, I’m 100% in favor of intersectional feminism, especially in regard to participation by people who are trans* (however they identify.) If a given trans* person is contributing to the perpetuation of sexism, then no. But that goes for cisgendered people as well. I’ve complained before about the sisterhood myth, and it’s definitely the case, here. Neither chromosomes nor secondary sex characteristics define a woman, and they certainly don’t define a feminist. Indeed, that’s the heart of feminism right there: understanding that women are individuals, and not a hive mind, and merely having a uterus doesn’t guarantee a feminist sensibility. Nearly all who are perceived as having a preponderance of female-coded traits will at some point face sexism, but that alone is no guarantee that they’re allies in the fight against it.
It is true that certain subsets of the very broad category of female are more likely to face certain types of sexism, and it is of course natural that those who share those traits will bond over that shared experience. Dealing with sexist health-care providers during pregnancy and birth, for instance, is clearly going to be an issue most dear to women who have been pregnant. But that’s not an issue all women face, nor is it an issue that “belongs” only to those who have been affected by it. It doesn’t take direct personal experience with discrimination to want to end it. I won’t speak for women who have been pregnant–I leave those words to them–but I will definitely speak up for their rights.
And truly, isn’t that at the heart of virtually every fight for social justice? Isn’t it supposed to be about empathy, and an understanding that we are stronger when we work together for mutual benefit? Coalescing into affinity groups makes perfect sense on a granular level, but trying to broaden that out into huge umbrella categories like race, gender, orientation, etc. gets icky, fast. I may be able to play No True Scotsman on some very specific things, but I’m hardly in a position to speak for all white people, all people with a uterus, all bisexual women, all writers … you get the picture. The question on everyone’s lips shouldn’t be “are you just like me?” but “are you willing to fight for me?” Yes, statistically speaking, it’s more likely that people sharing an umbrella trait will be allies, but it’s hardly set in stone. So long as a given person isn’t trying to hijack your movement (in which case, they need a judicious application of cluebat), seems to me it’s much more useful to hand them a set of tools and point them at a good place where they can be useful.
It can be scary, I know, to trust allies who are different from oneself, especially if that difference makes them look like the enemy. But none of us can do this alone. We need to be allies for each other, and that compels us not merely to offer our genuine, good-faith alliance, but to accept that alliance when it’s offered.