I’m Catholic, and these days that’s hard. I’m an immigrant, though it wasn’t my choice. I’m now a citizen, even if it took a few decades to commit. I’m a husband and father struggling to make more time. I’m Hispanic, but perplexed by the label. I’m a registered independent, because it was easier than choosing. I’m a journalist, yet I never wrote for the student paper. And I’m a college football fan sacked by guilt.
These are but a few of my identities, ones I was born into, stumbled upon or can’t bring myself to shed. They inform my politics, I suppose, and shape how others see me. But asserting them — really staking out any one of them as my thing — feels almost duplicitous. There is always someone with a stronger claim, always a reason I don’t entirely belong. Identity is “negotiated,” scholars assure us, but who really ever closes the deal?
Here we enter the realm of identity politics, a term so contested that even writing it down can exhaust. The demand for recognition from groups united around race, gender, ethnicity or other assorted identities is a natural impulse, and a praiseworthy one. Yet, in its more dogmatic iterations, identity politics can stifle free speech, demonize opponents, infantilize proponents and blow past proportion.
Criticisms of identity politics span the mundane (Look at the silly fake studies I can sneak into niche journals — so clever!) to the philosophical to the practical. In his latest book, “Identity,” Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls identity politics one of the “chief threats” facing liberal democracies, diverting energy and thinking away from bigger problems, such as increasing economic inequality. And in his 2017 book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” Columbia University historian Mark Lilla decries the way left-wing identity movements have embraced the “pseudo-politics of self-regard” and stressed the history of “marginal and often minuscule groups,” all of which makes it harder to articulate a comprehensive liberal project. It’s not just academics making that point, either. “When you get caught in this maw of identitarian feelings and movements,” California Gov. Jerry Brown recently told The Washington Post, “it becomes very difficult to keep at the more general level that unites people.”
How can we come together on anything big, they ask, when we keep slicing ourselves into smaller factions? “Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure,” warns Fukuyama.
It is a stark case, yet it is complicated by recent memoirs, anthologies, political tracts and sociological studies that analyze or affirm particular identity groups. No doubt, the literature of identity can be self-obsessed, isolating and overwhelmingly aggrieved. But with their search for new language and demand for new vantage points, these works, wittingly or not, can also rally us toward a cause consistent with the broad aspirations of liberal democracy. That cause is the individual.
If the logic of identity politics is to divide us into smaller and smaller slivers, that sequence ends, inexorably, with the identity of one. And the only way to protect and uphold the individual — each individual — is through broad-based rights and principles. So, yes, we must move toward a politics of solidarity, as Fukuyama and Lilla contend. But for that solidarity to endure, it must grapple with the politics of identity. The margins are never marginal to those who inhabit them. Identity politics, for all its faults, is not opposed to an encompassing national vision. It is a step toward its fulfillment.
The quest for individuality is evident in Austin Channing Brown’s memoir, “I’m Still Here,” a slim, personal reflection on being a black woman with a white man’s name navigating majority-white schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. Brown professes “kinship and responsibility, pride, belonging, and connection” with the African American community. Yet she also recalls her shock after a childhood move from Toledo to Cleveland that left her suddenly surrounded by blackness. What Brown needs then is not just blackness but the freedom to express it in her own way. “I could choose what felt right for me without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like me,” she explains. “Black is not monolithic.”
Her parents named her Austin, they told her, because they thought she’d get more job interviews if employers expected a white male, and Brown encounters plenty of perplexed white hiring managers suddenly resetting their expectations. No wonder that, in the working world, she craves her individuality once again, especially within organizations that prize numerical more than intellectual diversity. “I became either a stand-in for another Black female body — without distinction between our size, our hair, our color, our voices, our interests, our names, our personalities — or a stand-in for the worst stereotypes — sassy, disrespectful, uncontrollable, or childlike in need of whiteness to protect me from my [Black] self.”
The cry for individual identity can be no louder than in Wesley Yang’s piercing collection, “The Souls of Yellow Folk,” which gathers a decade’s worth of the writer’s essays and magazine profiles. Yang describes “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility” carried by Asian men in America but also rejects the stereotypical and internalized notions of Asian Americanness. “Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values,” he writes. “F— filial piety. F— grade-grubbing. F— Ivy League mania. F— deference to authority. F— humility and hard work. F— harmonious relations. F— sacrificing for the future. F— earnest, striving middle-class servility.” Yang relishes this angry and unyielding side of himself, he explains, and pledges to “bear any costs associated with it.”
His writing is packed with a fierce and refreshing ambivalence. He lashes out at identity politics as “a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.” Yet for all his skepticism of collegiate identity activism that argues less by honest debate than by delegitimizing anything deemed offensive, he wonders if perhaps he’s just grown accustomed to “life’s quotidian brutalities,” which younger people now feel empowered to reject.
Yang lingers on the crucial role of language in defending identity. It can be counterproductive, he argues; the ever-expanding definition of white supremacy, for instance, only dilutes the power of the charge. But Yang recognizes that the much-mocked terminology of campus identity politics — “microaggression” and “safe space” and the rest — caught on precisely because it elicits a throb of recognition. “The terms were awkward, heavy-handed, and formulaic,” Yang writes, “but they gave confidence to people desiring redress for the subtle incursions on their dignity.”
Language does not just defend identity; it can recognize it, too. In “Unbound,” sociologist Arlene Stein’s sensitive study of young transgender men in the United States, she notes how often her subjects may not have fully grasped who they were until they actually heard the words. Ben, a 29-year-old whom Stein follows through his chest-masculinization surgery, had identified as a tomboy early in life, then a lesbian, but “about six months after he learned that there were transgender people,” the author reports, “he began to identify with the label.” Stein, a professor at Rutgers University, highlights how the burgeoning language of the transgender experience — “what are your pronouns?” — makes the goal of better aligning one’s body with one’s identity feel more attainable.
But new collective classifications can also clash with individual self-understanding. Late in the book, Stein attends a transgender conference of academics and activists, and she is overwhelmed by difference and nuance. “Once stable gender categories are being sliced and diced and shattered into a million little pieces,” she writes, and notes the dozens of gender options available to us, whether catalogued by city governments or by Facebook. “Here, at the conference, there are even more categories to choose from, so many that it often seems that our gender identity is so deeply personal that the only thing each of us can say for sure is that we alone possess it.”
Ben embraces the trans label but still finds it lacking. “I can’t even say that I can neatly put my finger on exactly what words describe who I am,” he tells Stein. “Trans man, yes, that’s typically the box I fit into. But does that really describe who I am? No. I think that it’s more complicated than that. I’m sure more words will come out in time.”
Language can limit and exclude. But language also holds out hope for individual freedom.
Lilla doesn’t want new words, just the restoration of old ones. Lamenting the “speaking as an X” approach to political engagement among American college students, whereby personal identities sanctify opinions, he argues that citizenship should be the preeminent American identity, providing a “political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments.” The demands of identity politics can be met by elevating citizenship, he explains, with its call for full enfranchisement and equal rights. That is, he explains, “all we should have to appeal to.”
The Franklin Roosevelt era was a time of such solidarity, Lilla recalls wistfully, when citizens were involved in a “collective enterprise” to protect one another against risk, hardship and the denial of essential rights. This vision “was class based,” he writes, “though it included in the deserving class people of any walk of life — farmers, factory workers, widows and their children, Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners — who suffered from the scourges of the day. In short, nearly everyone (though African Americans were effectively disenfranchised in many programs due to Dixiecrat resistance).”
Ah, that parenthetical, two quick keystrokes that say so much and offer so little. When society can bracket off the plight of a particular minority group from the warm embrace of “nearly everyone,” then the case for identity politics seems clear.
Lilla hails the American civil rights movement for taking citizenship seriously, for urging the nation to live up to its principles, and he argues eloquently that “there can be no liberal politics without a sense of we — of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other.” In a November 2016 New York Times op-ed, from which this book originates, Lilla chastised the Hillary Clinton campaign for succumbing to “the rhetoric of diversity” rather than appealing to commonality, to our “shared destiny.” Still smarting from electoral defeat just days earlier, liberals assailed the piece and its author. Yet it was a useful exercise, forcing us to consider who counts in that “we.” To be meaningful, that “we” must become more capacious, more inviting, than U.S. history has so far allowed. Attacking identity politics for its “turn toward the self,” as Lilla does, seems less than fair when those selves have enduring reasons to feel excluded from the whole. When they fit in a parenthetical.
Fukuyama’s view of identity politics is broader, encompassing not just gender politics, campus upheaval and resurgent white supremacy in the United States but also the nationalist uprising in Europe and the spread of political Islam. He explores the philosophical origins of identity politics, lingering on Friedrich Hegel’s notion that human history is driven by the struggle for recognition. (It’s not a real Fukuyama book until Hegel makes a cameo.) Until about the 1960s, Fukuyama writes, identity politics implied a more individualized pursuit of self-esteem and personal potential. But with the rise of the civil rights, feminist and environmental movements and, later, of advocacy on behalf of disabled, Native American, immigrant and gay rights, identity politics became “the property of groups that were seen as having their own cultures shaped by their own lived experiences.”
Now, he believes, identity politics has become a dangerous distraction. He applauds contemporary movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter for “changing culture and behavior in ways that will have real benefits for the people involved,” but he argues that identity obsessions make it harder to address large-scale socioeconomic problems. “It is easier to argue over cultural issues within the confines of elite institutions than it is to appropriate money or convince skeptical legislators to change policies,” he says. Identity politics also places a lower priority on “older and larger groups whose serious problems have been ignored,” he writes, pointing to the travails of America’s white working class. And most troubling of all, Fukuyama contends, left-wing identity politics has stimulated white-nationalist identity politics. “The right has adopted the language and framing of identity from the left: the idea that my particular group is being victimized,” Fukuyama writes. Lilla, meanwhile, argues that “those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election.”
Yet if you accept even some of the challenges motivating modern identity movements — for instance, that police violence against minority groups is disproportionate, or that sexual assault and workplace gender discrimination are prevalent and systemic — then worrying mainly about a white-nationalist and patriarchal backlash, or about the despair of the white working class, arbitrarily elevates the anger of one group over that of another. And interpreting #MeToo or Black Lives Matter as driven by “cultural issues” rather than by questions of justice, fairness and even survival may reflect, dare I suggest, a certain privilege of the academic perch.
To gaze upon the landscape of liberal identity politics and conclude that this is why Donald Trump won — that overzealous activism on the left backfired and gave us Charlottesville, “lock her up” and “build that wall” — is to grant identity politics both too much power and not enough. It also underplays a longer story. Recall how the nation’s first black president was deemed an outsider, a criminal, a stealth socialist, an anticolonial activist, a foreigner, his very Americanness rendered retroactively suspect, years before Black Lives Matter was a thing that mattered.
Fukuyama agrees that citizenship must be the cornerstone of a renewed national identity, one based on constitutionalism and equality, an identity that embraces diversity yet is not defined by it. But what happens when citizenship is itself part of the contested terrain of identity?
In “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,” a sprawling study of Hispanic identity in the United States, journalist Ed Morales stresses the “in-between space” that Latinos inhabit, crossing racial, national, cultural and gender identities and sometimes falling into the cracks. Though Hispanics embody an “unstable constellation of ethno-racial realities,” he writes, they have become “racialized through doubt about their citizenship.” Legal status, as much as ethnic or cultural prejudice, has become a new mark of difference for Latinos in America. In this light, calling for citizenship to be the primary national identity forces its proponents to confront the challenge of the undocumented, of asylum-seeking parents and their children, to determine who can be part of America and why.
The anti-immigrant zeal of our era also enhances the political potential of a Latino community that activists have often had difficulty mobilizing. “Trumpism creates an obvious organizing target,” Morales writes, yet he acknowledges that “the diversity of Latinx racial, class, and national origins” poses the main obstacle to Hispanic unity. Indeed, for all his emphasis on the political will of Latinos — whom he hopes will develop common cause with African Americans in a “collective blackness” of shared marginalization — even Morales reverts to the pull of individuality over group identity. “Awareness that one’s self possesses multiple possible subjectivities or identities resists categorization,” he writes. Or as Yang puts it with typical bluntness, “Though I am an immigrant, I have never wanted to strive like one.” Sometimes fending off labels can be an identity, too.
This rejection of essentialism, of some force ostensibly tethering a people, is the thrust of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Lies That Bind,” a memorable tour through the history and philosophy of identity based on religion, nation, race, class and culture. Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, understands the integrating power of identity — “we’re clannish creatures,” he writes — but also recognizes its bent toward destructive social hierarchies. Identities can become “the enemies of human solidarity, the sources of war, horsemen of a score of apocalypses from apartheid to genocide,” he writes. “Yet these errors are also central to the way identities unite us today.”
Appiah, too, dwells on the individualism behind our various collectives. “People may join churches and temples and mosques and announce sectarian identities, but when it comes to the fine points of belief, it can sometimes seem that each of us is a sect of one.” And he regards that identity as inherently volatile, shifting over time. Cultural identity, for instance, is not an immutable inheritance; it is acquired, spread, transmitted, mixed, messy. “That it has no essence,” Appiah writes, “is what makes us free.” This is the identity not of the group but of the individual cutting across countless groups, whose salience varies in different moments and circumstances.
Scholars of intersectionality emphasize how a mix of identities can leave individuals vulnerable to multiple forms of systemic oppression and discrimination, while other writers go so far as to dismiss individuality itself as a fiction. In her book “White Fragility,” a catalogue of how white Americans’ racial deflections — I don’t see color, I was brought up to treat everyone the same — only affirm white advantages and “invalidate” nonwhite experiences, lecturer Robin DiAngelo spurns individualism as another Western ideology, a “story line” that erases the significance of identity groups. DiAngelo even includes an author’s note anticipating how white, nonwhite and multiracial audiences may receive her arguments. (I must say, being told in advance how I will react to a book invalidates my experience as a book critic.)
By contrast, individual identity as a means to broad-based rights is the kind of identity politics that Fukuyama finds most constructive, yet the one he worries is most threatened. “Universal recognition has been challenged . . . by other partial forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, ethnicity, or gender, or by individuals wanting to be recognized as superior,” he writes. “Unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict.”
But there is no working our way back, only a lengthy path forward. Identity politics, by underscoring the inconsistencies of our grand national visions, shows how far there is left to travel. “I am grateful for my ancestors’ struggle and their survival,” Austin Channing Brown responds archly when people emphasize that things have gotten better. “But I am not impressed with America’s progress.”
In the end, though, there needn’t be some trade-off between our individual and collective identities, as DiAngelo suggests and Fukuyama fears. “Each person’s sense of self is bound to be shaped by his or her own background,” Appiah writes, “beginning with family but spreading out in many directions — to nationality, which binds us to places; to gender, which connects us with roughly half the species; and to such categories as class, sexuality, race, and religion, which all transcend our local affiliations.”
It may be that identity politics comes down to the individual, but that the individual quest for dignity is easier within a group. Less exhausting.
For my birthday recently, I received an Ancestry.com kit. I was born in Lima to Peruvian parents but with some Spaniard roots, and I’ve often wondered, half in jest, whether I was more Inca or conqueror. A few weeks after I spit into a tube, the verdict came: 52 percent Spain, just 28 percent Andes.
Such tests are hardly definitive, but the result was still a shock. What did I know of Spanish history and culture, beyond some school-age texts? Was I less connected to my Peruvian origins, less part of the north-south dynamic dominating the Hispanic-American experience? God forbid, must I begin cheering for Spain’s la Roja along with Peru’s blanquirroja?
Then I calmed down. DNA does not equal identity. Better to treat this new insight as yet one more layer, one more ambiguity in a whole that is always rediscovering its parts.
No one has yet asked for my pronouns, but I’ve realized there’s only one that fits: It’s me.