October 7, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 15
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Lauren Swayne Barthold
When a black man gets arrested by a white police officer for trying to enter his own home or when a Latina receives a nomination for Supreme Court Justice, there is endless discussion about the legitimate scope of racial and/or gender identity.
When such occurrences are juxtaposed with the expectations of some that we are “done” with race, shrill accusations of “identity politics” are made. But is orienting ourselves in terms of identity a bad thing?
It was often said that George W. Bush got elected because he was the sort of person with whom you could sit down and have a beer. But when President Obama invited two men to join him for a beer, the beer became less a symbol of shared identity. Instead, it was a call to overcome conflicts that arise from different identities. However, the President’s likely hope was that the “beer summit” would not result in the transcending of identity but in the forging of a wider one: American.
In other words, what’s really at issue is not identity itself, but how to discern its appropriate scope within a given situation, and whether to widen or narrow that scope. After all, even those most vocal against “identity politics” extol the virtues of some sort of identity: American, Christian, white, male, western, etc. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which we all lived identity-free lives and where identity served no useful socio-political role.
If identity is something we cannot do without, then we need to think more carefully about when and how it might be valid. That is to say, identity can both set us apart as individuals and elicit a universal connection with others. The crux of the matter between those who decry identity politics and those who defend it is less a question of whether identity should play a role and more a question of how it shapes our interactions.
Sometimes identifying with another who is more like me than not is effective in overcoming oppression and/or affecting socio-political change. The suffragist and native people’s movements serve as examples for how bonding with others of the same particular identity can extend justice more broadly. When we identify with another based on shared experiences, it can be a powerful tool for social change that yields both individual and communal flourishing.
But sometimes identifying with another’s particularities causes me to exclude, ignore or oppress those who don’t share such commonalities. In this case, identity could become a problem. There’s a legitimacy to concerns that a police sergeant was primarily motivated by his “white identity” or that a Latina Justice might make a decision based solely on her “Latina identity.” But does this mean all appeals to identity are suspect?
One of Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s helpful examples during her hearings was that there’s a different time and place for following two goods: a private citizen working on behalf of her own “identity group” and a judge who is required to act on behalf of justice. These two necessary but competing aspects of human existence don’t grant us license to ignore one to the detriment of the other. Sotomayor never maintained that one’s identity or experiences should dictate or necessitate a specific legal decision. Still, experience does play a role in knowledge. Identity, as that which is forged by experience, makes us who we are, for better or worse.
So our challenge is to know when to build upon the resulting experiences of particular identities and when to suspend them as much as is humanly possible. But even when we are asked to suspend our prejudices—whether as a police officer or judge—does this mean forsaking identity altogether?
I don’t think so. For even when we choose to act, say, as a judge rather than a Latina, we are still claiming, indeed stepping into, an identity—as witnessed by the actual donning of the justice’s robes. By identifying as a judge or police officer we hope to make the best decision at that moment. Again, the ideal is not to transcend one’s identity but to choose the most appropriate identity for the situation.
It’s not easy determining which of our identities should be emphasized or diminished and when. But recognizing that they can be both fecund sources of knowledge as well as hindrances to solidarity is a start. We need more clear-headed discussions about how to encourage the former and prevent the latter.
Dr. Lauren Swayne Barthold is associate professor of philosophy and advisor to the new gender studies program at Gordon College. She and her husband Pablo Muchnik and their two children live in Beverly, MA.