Reflecting on the events of this past weekend, I’ve realized many things about myself and the world around me. One of them is that things aren’t as solid as we often perceive them to be. This is, of course, common sense, but I don’t think that it’s something we intuitively realize in our day to day lives. For example, most people understand that we’re biological organisms that change and grow our entire lives — that we’re not static entities independent of, and removed from, the material conditions that surround us — and yet we tend to cling with an iron grip to many of the most ephemeral and artificially constructed concepts. And the most insidious of these is identity.
I’m more confident than ever that identity is a phenomenon that’s influenced by a myriad of internal and external conditions and experiences, and that even some of the most seemingly concrete aspects of our identity are little more than shackles that we as a society unconsciously place on ourselves. That’s not to say that certain things aren’t beyond our control, but I’d argue that what’s in our control is a lot more than we might imagine, that much of our identity is fluid and malleable.
One of the things that I’ve been learning about over the past few months is Marx’s materialist conception of history and the idea that “the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production.” While Marx’s theory was set within a specific context — that of the complex relationship between the production and reproduction of material requirements of life and the historical development of human society — it has much wider implications. For example, I’m of the opinion that things such as identity are conditioned, at least in part, by the historical and material conditions that we find ourselves in, and that changes in those conditions can fundamentally alter our identity and the ways in which we express ourselves, and vice versa. Not in a rigidly deterministic way, however, but in a complex and symbiotic way.
This idea isn’t necessarily new. The Buddha, for example, developed similar ideas about identity in his teachings on karma, dependent co-arising, etc. In short, he viewed our sense of self as a continuous process—something which is always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli. Furthermore, he observed that there are times when our sense of self causes us a great deal of suffering, times when we cling very strongly to that momentary identity and the objects of our sensory experience on which that identity is based in ways that cause a great deal of mental stress. But his focus was primarily on how to relieve the suffering of the individual by mastering this process of “I-making and my-making” while Marx’s focus, the bodhisattva that he was, was primarily on how to relieve the suffering of society by changing the material conditions that support it.
What really got me thinking about all of this, though, were the potential contradictions I saw inherent in “identity politics.” The Socialism 2009 conference had a fair amount of talks centered around LGBT rights and racism, and I completely support equal rights for, and treatment of, everyone, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But during some of the talks I started to feel a bit uncomfortable.
The main reason for this, I believe, was that many of the speakers and audience members were separating people into classes based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., and I started to feel alienated by my own gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. being that straight white males have historically been the most exploitative and oppressive class the world has ever known. I began to feel as if I couldn’t relate to others because I was on the outside looking in — even though politically we shared the same views — simply because of being born a straight white male. I even felt attacked at times when people attacked these aspects of my identity in an indirect way. I mean, I know that they weren’t talking about me personally, yet being a part of the very class that has systematically exploited and oppressed blacks, women, gays and lesbians, and whole plethora of others classes caused me to feel alienated nonetheless. It wasn’t that “I” was being attacked, but by clinging to my identity of a “straight white male” as a fixed thing, I found myself becoming alienated from the very people I was supposed to feel solidarity with. It wasn’t an omnipresent feeling, either, but it was strong enough for me to be aware of its psychological impact. And these feelings lead me to question who “I” was.
Pragmatically speaking, I see the need to differentiate between these things for the sake of communication, and as long as the words themselves don’t become fixed entities corresponding to permanent realities, there’s no problem. But when these labels become representations of things which we then habitually cling to without acknowledging their limitations, I think they can become a serious problem. Hence my wariness of identity politics.
The way I see it, identity politics that separate individuals and groups into various classes run the risk of becoming antagonistic due to the contradictory nature of the various classes themselves, especially if these distinctions of class become solidified and clung to as concretely, independently existing things. In other words, identity politics can actually reinforce the barriers in society that alienate one class from another by artificially segregating them into separate classes to begin with.
Case in point. When I was young, I came home from school crying and I asked my Mom why I wasn’t black. Although I don’t remember any of this myself, she told me that when she asked what was wrong I told her that I was upset because the kids at school said they wouldn’t play with me because I wasn’t black. Up until that point, I grew up in a hotel in Detroit with a very diverse mixture of tenets. Being the only kid in the entire hotel, I got a lot of attention from everyone and I was never really exposed to the racial conflicts that existed in the outside world.
For me, in my little world inside that hotel, we were all the same—black, white, men, women, American, Filipino, etc. Almost everyone treated me as a part of their community and I saw them as part of mine. But I imagine that the kids at my school — kids who were exposed to different and less sheltered circumstances — were already acquainted with the harsh realities of racism. So even though I didn’t know anything about “race” at the time, and all I wanted to do was play with the other kids and have fun, the idea of race as a class had the unfortunate effect of setting me apart from my own community.
For the majority of my life, I never truly understood that identity wasn’t a fixed thing—that my “white” identity wasn’t something I was born with, but something which arose out of the historical and material conditions I was born into. And now that I’ve begun to questions these things, I’m beginning to see that my sense of identity and subsequent feelings of alienation are being perpetuated, at least in part, by the very set of identity politics which seeks to destroy these kinds of social barriers.
I can’t change the colour of my skin (well, not easily anyway), but I can just as easily identify myself as a “human being” as I can a “straight white man.” Of course, doing so isn’t going to make me classless, but it’ll at least help me to avoid falling into an essentialist trap in which I’m not able to explore my own sense of identity in a fluid and dynamic way—a way that won’t alienate me and prevent me from connecting to all of my people.