“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray.”—Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers”
Throughout much of my adult life various forms of identity politics have played through the national consciousness: race with the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements; class with various labor and sociopolitical movements, including Occupy; gender with the women’s movement; and sexual preference/orientation with the gay rights movement.
While each focus has been invaluable in raising our national consciousness, bringing folks out of the shadows, and correcting injustices, these categories of identity can also be divisive and simplistic in their either/or-ness. Thus, the recent “Not the Same” protests. Simple classification can ignore more unique, subtle, and complex ways we perceive our own personal identities.
Some years ago, at a national conference on human development, I attended a presentation by a young woman professor (self-identified as mixed race, bisexual) on categories of identity, in which she bypassed the usual polarities. Instead of placing “attraction to women/attraction to men” on one either/or line:
Attraction to women—————————-Attraction to men
she gave each category a separate line, allowing each option its own scale of intensity:
Attraction to women: (weak)————————————(strong)
Attraction to men: (weak)—————————————-(strong)
She did the same thing with gender identity, allowing both “femininity” and “masculinity” their own separate degrees of identification. Clearly her own mixed categories of identity allowed her to develop a much more nuanced and complex approach to identity politics. Someone could be on a spectrum, from very or not very attracted to men and/or attracted to women, or on a spectrum of very or not very “masculine” and/or “feminine.” This perspective helps liberate us from the classic either/or of identity politics.
With that inspiration we can explore a more unified self-awareness while charting in a holistic way a range of facets integral to our individual sense of identity. Such a process allows for diverse, non-polarized, and fluid perceptions of identity, and can chart changes within the whole over a lifespan. This does not ignore traditional categories of identity, but allows each unique person to put them into their own meaningful perspectives and contexts through individual images and stories regarding inherited circumstances, meaningful relationships, and life choices.
What I believe is valuable about this perspective is that it helps us avoid stereotyping and stigmatizing, either of ourselves or of those who are different from us. As each of us recognizes our own multifaceted uniqueness, hopefully we can begin to appreciate the complexities those who are different from us rather than typecasting them into one-dimensional frames sometimes labeled “good” or “evil,” safe or dangerous, familiar or foreign.
So many current conflicts in our world are based on simplistic interpretations of “the other. ”The truth is, no matter how many underrated categories there are with which anyone might identify, ultimately each person’s complex mix of categories is unique, and because of special, interesting, and valuable. Each person, when encouraged to do so, can come up their own categories of identity, their own unique mix and meanings, and their own ways expressing them. During such a process, simplistic labels soon drift away…and deeper points of connection can be discovered within oneself and with others.
In our contemporary culture, a mania for celebrity often borders on the narcissistic. focus on the spotlight leads to a cultivation of personality and popularity that attempts to the best face on every event. All too often such glamorous presentations lead to exposes intimate exposures that reveal the undersides of carefully groomed identities. Meanwhile, the shadows live a multiple of others, some labeled, some invisible, who dare not indulge pretenses and yet need their own recognition.
An extension of this idea of multiple identities within one individual can be found in concept of “intersectionality,” which explores how individual identities connect with systems of oppression. Whether by wealth, health, white skin privilege, patriarchy, or heterosexuality, certain categories inherently provide more advantages, from a step up to a step ladder, but not necessarily guarantee individual success or personal fulfillment.
Hunger for the limelight, lurking in the shadows or pushing up from under can expose various trauma loops in the national psyche caused by splintered communities and individual alienations. Recognizing the uniqueness of each identity attempts to re-balance our focus, away from an individualism that is profoundly egotistic yet conformist or from an invisibility that is starving for communal recognition, and toward an appreciation for the diversity and uniqueness of our many and complex identities, as individuals and as members communities. By recognizing and valuing this unique diversity, we can understand deeply and creatively how we are all connected in the web and cycles of our shared lives.
Around the world identity plays a key role in, as well as a convenient excuse for, ethnic conflicts, corruption, territorial disputes, and discrimination of all sorts. In process, “identity politics” can be used by powerful elites as a distraction from exploitation, profiteering, and tyranny, and as a tool for diverting the “masses” from deeper issues equality and opportunity. Yet in the face of potential climate disasters, the world is shrinking and our collective wisdom is becoming more “global”—especially with the migrations massive populations and the development of communications technology and international economics.
Some are beginning to understand, if not act upon, the fact that we’re all in this together, we share a common fate, and that one key to our survival dwells within our diversity.