An identity is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” People give many different kinds of answers. Sometimes individuals do not acknowledge characteristics that they probably should recognize as aspects of their identity.
It may not always be good for something to be an identity: for instance, some would criticize the tendency for partisan affiliations to turn into identities rather than ordinary opinions.
Answering the question “Who am I?” is relevant to the other civic questions, because:
- You must consider who you are in order to figure out what “we” you are part of.
- Sometimes the “we” is defined badly, and that is the civic problem. People are excluded unjustly or included against their will.
- Even when the “we” is right, it may encompass differences of identity that create or reinforce injustices.
Interests, opinions, and identities are interconnected but are not the same.
- Interest: “I want/need …”
- Opinion: “We should …”
- Identity: “Speaking as a …”
When interests conflict, they can be negotiated, and it is sometimes possible to design and maintain systems to manage interests fairly. When opinions conflict, they can be discussed, and well-structured conversations may (sometimes) convince individuals to converge on the same opinions. When identities clash, it is not clear that individuals should negotiate, compromise, or give reasons for their differences. But it can be controversial whether a given characteristic, such as adhering to a religion, constitutes an interest, an opinion, an identity, or more than one of these. Disagreements about such questions can lead to disputes about whether individuals should be open to negotiation and responsive to arguments, or not.
It can be problematic to talk about identity in general terms. Some identities are vastly more significant to social justice than others. For instance, racism is the USA is not just an example of an identity-difference. You can imagine two random groups that don’t happen to like each other and who demonstrate bias or division. That is a challenge, but it is not a equivalent to issues involving conquest, colonialism, apartheid, slavery, terror, and subjugation.
Nevertheless, we can also gain some insights into important differences among identities by developing general theories of identity. Two general theories are worth contrasting:
- When two groups of people act and think very differently and have little contact, a powerful identity distinction emerges that can be hard to bridge.
- When people are very similar, intimately connected, and liable to mix or exchange places, there is a powerful incentive to erect and insist on identity distinctions.
Examples of (a): Europeans encountering indigenous peoples, and vice-versa. Examples of (b): Modern antisemitism in Europe or the invention of race in 17th century Virginia. Slavery came first; racism followed. The first rationale for enslaving people from Africa was religious: Christians could enslave “heathens.” But once the enslaved people converted, a different rationale was necessary. For a few decades, colonists tried the idea of “hereditary heathenism” (Goetz 2012), but that was incompatible with core Christian doctrine. So they invented, or re-invented, race. Since then, whites and African Americans have been in constant and intense interaction and have exhibited profound similarities. White privilege is a “common pool resource” in the specific sense that it benefits all white people, whether they want it or not, yet any of us can undermine it by promotion equity. All common pool resources are fragile, and it has taken concerted, sustained effort to maintain white supremacy in the face of actual similarities and actual interactions.
A synthesis? Identity distinctions are made by people in response to incentives created by institutions (such as states and markets), power differentials, network ties, and path-dependence, among other factors (Wimmer 2008).
Identities are made, but it does not follow that they are easily unmade. They become powerful realities. E.g., modern Americans racially classify a photo of a face in less than one tenth of a second and form affective reactions to that classification (Kubota & Ito, 2007).
Power influences how identities are created, but it does not follow that identity-creation is necessarily bad. It can be creative and empowering. Audre Lorde (1984): “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”
- Equity analysisTufts’ Equity in America website allows you to choose demographic characteristics and social outcomes and see how they relate. By comparing such results, you can detect differences among groups and ask whether they manifest injustices. Choose several topics, run comparisons, and discuss.
- Story of SelfThe experienced community organizer Marshall Ganz advocates a process called Public Narrative that involves for thinking about one’s “story of self,” “story of us,” and “story of now.” The “story of self” portion is especially relevant to questions of identity and the issue “Who am I?” You can create a story of self using these … Continue reading
- GenderDictionaries currently define “sex” as a biological category–connected to “reproductive organs and structures”–and “gender” as the “behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” in a specific context (Miriam-Webster). Thus what gender means varies by culture and is subject to change. However, these definitions and distinctions can be contested from a variety of … Continue reading
- Multiracial democracyThe “North Star” of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University is “building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society.” This ideal combines: A commitment to democratic forms of governance; A recognition of racial inequity as a basic obstacle to full democracy; An embrace of the full creative participation of all people; … Continue reading
- Intergroup contactIn 1954, Gordon Allport proposed that prejudice (particularly racial prejudice) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom, or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort … Continue reading
- Race and racismContents Background Race is a social construct. The racial categories that are widely used today have histories; they were not recognized before the late Middle Ages. They are closely connected to the history of colonialism and slavery. They arose with what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls “racialism,” the false “view that humans naturally divide into a … Continue reading