Analysts have used the concept of identity to explain Britain’s “Brexit” vote and the rise of Donald Trump, as people respectively vote for “being British” or to “make America great again.” Identity is certainly a factor--among other factors--in violent encounters between police and black Americans in the U.S., and in attacks attributed to Muslim extremists in Europe.
Against such a backdrop, nerves are on edge about how people identify themselves and what narratives and judgments they and others attach to identities.
Indeed, lots of stereotypes about identities, and social media echoing opinions about how people whose identities that have become hard as billiard balls are careening through social discourse and caroming off the equally hardened identities of others. It is no wonder that many thoughtful people end up hiding their opinions, avoiding dialogue with others, to avoid criticism.
I am not an anthropologist, but I’m guessing that a sense of identity is as ancient as the first human tribes. Society assigns us certain identities, but we also discover or perhaps invent identities throughout life. Any of our identities--and mine include college graduate, Christian, Southerner, and one who has been unemployed--can create bonds with some people, or cause stereotyping, and even provoke antagonism with others.
Identities also come attached to narratives--stories that explain them, justify them, place them in the world and in history. Narratives of white Americans may include the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock or waves of immigrants arriving through Ellis Island, as well as a selective American dream of prosperity built on the backs of slaves. Southern identity’s narratives include the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the condescension of Northerners; on the other hand, there are narratives created by whites who fought for Civil Rights.
Even among white people who concur that racial injustice is the United States’ unfinished business, there may be disagreement about identity. Some whites wish to renounce racial identity and be “color blind.” Others, among them a white friend of mine, believe we whites should openly “check the white box” and acknowledge the privileges we have received from that identity, as a step toward dismantling the system of white privilege.
No single approach may be best. An erosion of the idea of race may have some negative effects, such as cutting off dialogue about race-based injustice, or leading to the substitution of religion, economic status, nationality, or neighborhood as a basis for privilege. Alternatively, continued hardening of identities could lead to more stereotyping, tribal behavior, and polarization.
More important than particular identities may be how people act within these identities and among them. Are identities used to build defensive walls or uniting bridges? What values animate our identities--hate and suspicion or compassion, forgiveness, justice and humility?
For me, for example, the challenge of being a white American and a Southerner is to be one who cares about the persistent and damaging legacy of US slavery and is willing to make it my business to redeem that legacy. Even as we need an awareness of how our identities allow others to manipulate us and activate narratives that hurt others, we also should examine how our identities can be forces for social healing.