Saturday, February 20, 2021

Parsing out Identity Claims

Identity is as much about how others see us as it is about how we see ourselves. Identity depends upon how we feel about ourselves, how we present ourselves, and how others read our self presentations. In a society that values individualism as a concept, yet promotes mass production and homogenization in practice, who we claim to be and present ourselves as becomes a critical means of enacting our uniqueness. 

There are all manner of ways we present our sense of identity that conform and disrupt societal expectations. Anthropologists have run ongoing social media descriptions of our discipline's propensity to wear scarves.  Coming of age movies are replete with teenagers dressing against society norms  -punks, goths, sneakerheads. All around us people use clothes to define identity - from politics to religion to hobby to party. Some of these are pretty benign, others (like religious clothing) can elicit strong negative responses. Generally, these styles of self presentation are viewed as individual expressions and, while at times transgressive, are read by others as they are presented.

For close to five decades now social sciences and humanities have debated, discussed, and advanced the idea of the social construction of identity - put simply, that our identities emerge in relation to our social contexts and individual choices.  There are no truly immutable identities, no fixed essential selves. Everything is in a state of becoming. In anthropology we explored these ideas through notions of race and gender. Then, through experiments in textual representation.


Franz Boas was instrumental in undermining the racist social theories that motivated many early 20th century American academics. Long before the detailed genetic studies of the later part of the 20th century, Boas was demonstrating that race was not a biological category, but a social one. Race was how societies decided to group, include, exclude and allocate resources to - not an essential category predetermined in biology.  Even to this day, however, race is popularly considered an immutable essential category - it is an identity that people have, not decide to have. This is an intriguing conundrum that pits an anti-essentialist reality against a popular belief in an essentialized human category. 

How does one resolve the contradiction between identity theories that are premised upon social construction with self-identity. We have many examples of people who self-identity as a one race that others find hard to accept. One of the most infamous is the case of Rachel Dolezal.  Dolezel was born to a white couple, raised in a white family, and for all intents and purposes was/is white. This is all a matter of public record.  

"Dolezel spent years imagining it was all a horrible mistake. 'I would have these imaginary scenarios in my mind where I was really a princess in Egypt and [my parents] kidnapped and adopted me." ... As it turned out Dolezal wasn't an Egyptian princess, but  she didn't let go of the idea that maybe she was't who her parents claimed she was. By the time she finally slipped from under the fundamentalist yoke years latter, Dolezal was well on her way to becoming the person she regarded as her true self, a black American."

At the core of this conceptualization is the idea that there is a 'true self' waiting to emerge. For Dolezal and other race-shifters their intention is to present in accord with their racial identification, not their putative assigned race at birth.  

Critics of Dolezal point out to how she was exploiting the long history of black oppression to surface her own sense of victimhood. Her lack of any real personal connection and experience as actually black was raised time and time again.  Dolezal, however, argues "how I feel is more powerful than how I was born. ... I identify as Black.  Nothing about Whiteness describes who I am."  We have here a contradiction between an individual's self-identification as black, a social construction of identity consistent with the anti-essentialist theories of today, and a popular conception that being Black is more than a self identification, it involves connection and history. For many of the critics it is obvious that one can't just become Black because one has an inner feeling that one is Black. 


Anthropology was fairly blind to gender, except as in division of labour questions, until the rise of second wave feminism.  For North American anthropologists the Rosaldo and Lamphere edited collection, Women, Culture, and Society, marked a transformative recentring of anthropology. In this early moment women, as a sex and as a gender, were brought into focus as core concepts and active subjects. More than that it precipitated a discussion of gender as an identity and an expression. 

Subsequent discussions and research arose around gender identity and the rigidity/flexibility of women's roles in society. This then moved toward a position in which gender was understood as separate and apart from biologically defined sex. Simplistically, anthropological research demonstrated there were more than two genders globally. This led to the idea that there was no necessary, or direct, correspondence between biological sex and gender identity and/or expression. For much of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s anthropology, like other liberal arts, accepted the idea of a biologically defined binary sex (with some genetically defined cases outside the binary) but a socially constructed idea of gender in which there could be multiple socially acknowledged genders. Mainstream liberal arts theorists today challenge the idea of a biologically fixed idea of sex. Instead, the theories talk of gender identity as being something that is an essential sense or feeling an individual has, not an attribute identified at birth by secondary sex characteristics or genetic metrics.

Today gender identity and expression is accepted generally as being a manifestation of an individual's self-identity, not something fixed in a biological or historical experience.  In this manner identity is self claimed through a process that reflects how an individual feels about themselves, not how they might have appeared to others at birth or appear to others today. Here what counts is how the individual identifies and expresses their own sense of gender. 

Race and gender are categories that adhere, in popular perceptions, strongly to notions of a biological innateness, but with different outcomes in terms of claiming identity. How an individual feels in their inner self is not accepted as proof an individual is of the race they claim. However, how an individual feels about their gender identity is considered reasonable grounds to accept their self identification as the gender they feel they are.  This suggests something about the differences between the social category of race and that of gender. I would suggest, that what is happening is that race is understood as historically contingent, biological referenced, but ultimately something that emerged out of an historical process of, for example, being black in North America. Gender is conceived simultaneously more abstractly as a state of being and particularly as an individual experience and expression.  This is not to say gender is not historically contingent. Rather, it is to point to how we respond to, and enact, these categories of our self to reflect this kind of meta-difference between race and gender.

[Note: subsequent to writing this, a reddit reader shared two articles that make a claim for an idea of transracial identity in a way similar as is made for transgender. There is an intellectual grounding for seeing these 'trans' identities in similar ways, however, in our current moment few people popularly accept transracial as authentic. As observed above, I suspect the difference lies in the way one articulates to a collective historical identity while the other references a more personal and particular identity.]


Indigenous North American is a category that is racialized, historicized, and individualized in ways that complicate simple self-identification.  Like race, being Indigenous implies and requires historical connections.  Unlike gender one can't simply declare their inner self tells them they are Indigenous. Being Indigenous is further complicated by legal regimes that define who is and who is not Indigenous under law (both Indigenous laws and nation state laws).  Being indigenous is conceptually closer to having a racial identity than it is to a gender identity.  However, North America's cultural intrigue with family history and heritage add a nuance to how Indigenous identity gets played and expressed.

A lot of people in North America delight in discussing their family heritage.  Genealogy is a big thing.  It's like a treasure hunt, finding an ancestor of some note hidden here or there in the genealogy. Lots of North American families have their own lore of an 'Indian' in the family tree. Prominent examples include individuals like Elizabeth Warren and Joseph Boyden. But they are not alone. Many families of  carry this kind of North American folk tale. I suspect it has something to do about the construction of an 'indigenous' settler identity - a way of justifying one's place on someone else's land; an attempt to create an organic connection to the new nation states that were built out of Indigenous lands in North America. This kind of heritage 'Indian Story' is akin to the many ethnic histories North Americans claim as their own. But it doesn't make one Indigenous. 

In the CBC radio show, The 180, Kim Tallbear, talks about why, even if the family lore can proven by a DNA test, it still doesn't make you Indigenous 

"People who are not actually members of indigenous community, tend to define indigeneity or Native Americanness as a racial category. Now for us, those are umbrella categories which help us talk to one another, relate to one another, but our primary sense of belonging, and identity, is our particular indigenous or tribal community. They don't use the word tribe up here, but in the U.S. we do, so somebody might say 'I'm a member of the Métis Nation,' or 'I'm a member of this particular Cree band,' I would say I'm Dakota."

"There is this national sort of story, and this I do see becoming more prominent in certain parts of Canada too, that you have people with no lived experience in indigenous community, they can't even name any indigenous family or ancestors, but they have a family myth about a Cherokee great-grandmother, or they're descended from Pocahontas, you get that a lot on Virginia. So I think it's another kind of claim to own indigeneity, to try to have a moral claim or sense of belonging on the North American continent and so that's the context in which these tests are so popular."

Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel has written about how Indigenous Identity can be defined through a 'peoplehood' approach:  connected, committed, and claimed. That is a person is related in some manner through family and history to an existing First Nation. This person is involved in their community and maintains active linkages. The community itself acknowledges them as a member and claims the person as their own. People outside that intersection of 'c's might have Indigenous heritage but, by this model are not Indigenous qua Indigenous. 


As humans we end up making all kinds of claims to identity. Many such claims are simply accepted at face value. One may be a runner or a back country hiker and that may form a critical aspect of one's sense of self identity. One may take personal meaning from one's occupation. For others, membership in a religious organization is the defining feature of their sense of self.  These identities may intersect with each other, even potentially contradict themselves, in the embodiment of the individual. Such identities are primarily self-claimed and claimed with out issue by others.

Indigenous identity is not, however a simple matter of individual choice or self election. To be Indigenous is about more than heritage, it is fundamentally a living connection and commitment to an existing community. People may have lost their way, had their connections broken, but that doesn't mean they are excluded. Our Indigenous histories are replete with accounts of people who lost their way and were brought back home.  To be Indigenous is thus something one can't really self-identify into. One is Indigenous, one does not become Indigenous. 

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