Who am I?



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.

Aspects of identity (e.g., race and gender) intersect.

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:

  1. You must consider who you are in order to figure out what “we” you are part of.
  2. Sometimes the “we” is defined badly, and that is the civic problem. People are excluded unjustly or included against their will.
  3. 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. 

  1. Interest: “I want/need …”
  2. Opinion: “We should …”
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.” 


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