Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
We are all familiar with what I will call the “identity reflex.” We all hear the call of some tribe or another. We humans are a variegated lot—differing by race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion, and political and sexual orientation. This is, of course, as it should be. Diversity is a good thing—really.
Still, there are times when the call of the tribe just might be a siren’s call and when an excessive focus on “identity” could lead one badly astray. What is more, I firmly believe that now is just such a time.
At the close of what by all accounts has been a most extraordinary national political campaign—one in which questions of identity have played a huge role—I believe it is important to at least raise (if not answer!), in a gentle and nonpartisan way, the question of what role “identity” ought to play in our politics and in our lives.
* * *
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. A formative experience for me occurred during one of those earnest political rallies so typical of the period. Woody, who had been my best friend since boyhood, suggested that we attend. The rally had been called by the Black Panther Party and was intended to galvanize our community’s response to the killing by the Chicago police of Party activists Mark Clark and Fred Hampton during an early morning raid on their apartment in one of the city’s many all-black neighborhoods. I can remember even now how agitated about it we all were at the time. And judging by his demeanor, Woody was among the most zealous.
This was my earliest glimpse of the truth that racial identity in America necessarily involves an irreducible element of personal choice.
Despite this zeal, it took courage for Woody to attend. For, although he proclaimed his blackness often, and though he had descended from a Negro grandparent on either side of his family, he nevertheless looked to the entire world like your typical white guy. Everyone, on first meeting him, assumed as much. I did too when we had begun to play together a decade earlier, just after I had moved into the middle-class neighborhood called Park Manor where Woody’s family had been living for some time. There were a number of white families on our block when we first arrived; within a couple of years they had all been replaced by aspiring black families like our own. Yet, Woody’s parents never moved, which puzzled me. Then one day I overheard his mother declare to one of her new neighbors, “We just wouldn’t run from our own kind.” Somewhat later, while watching the film Imitation of Life on TV, my mother explained how someone could be “black,” even though they looked “white.” She told me about people like that in our own family—second cousins who lived in a fashionable suburb, and on whom one would never dare drop in unannounced because they were passing for white. This was my earliest glimpse of the truth that racial identity in America is inherently a social and cultural, not simply a biological, construct—that it necessarily involves an irreducible element of personal choice.
Evidently, Woody’s family had also been passing for white in pre-integration Park Manor. The neighborhood’s changing racial composition had forced them to choose between staying and raising their children among “their own kind.” This was a fateful decision for Woody who, as he matured, became determined not simply to live among blacks but, perhaps in atonement for his parents’ sins, unambiguously to become one. The boys in the neighborhood did not make this easy. Many delighted in teasing him about being a “white boy,” and most simply refused to credit his insistent, often-repeated claim: “I’m a brother, too!”
The fact that some of his relatives were passing made Woody’s racial identity claims more urgent for him but less compelling to others. He desperately wanted to be black, but his peers in the neighborhood would not let him. Because he had the option to be white—an option he radically rejected at the time—those without the option could not accept his claim to a shared racial experience. I knew Woody well, and I wanted to accept him on his own terms. But even I found myself doubting that he fully grasped the pain, frustration, anger, and self-doubt many of us felt upon encountering the intractability of American racism. However much he sympathized with our plight, he seemed to experience it only vicariously.
I willingly betrayed a person whom I loved and who loved me in order to lessen the risk that I might be rejected by strangers in my tribe.
So there we were, at this boisterous, angry political rally. A critical moment came when Woody, seized by some idea, enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur to be heard. He was cut short in mid-sentence by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a white boy got the authority to have an opinion on what black people should be doing. A silence then fell over the room. “Who can vouch for this white boy?” asked the brother indignantly. More excruciating silence ensued. Now was my time to act. Woody turned plaintively toward me, but I would not meet his eyes. To my eternal shame, I failed to speak up for my friend, and he was forced to leave the meeting without a word having been uttered in his defense.
That was not exactly a profile in courage on my part, I must confess. Our friendship limped along for years; then I moved away from Chicago and we pretty much lost touch. We never really discussed the incident. Much later I learned that he had been sympathetic to my plight—he fully understood that forced to choose, as he put it, between my friend and “my people,” I would have chosen “my people.” He only wished that I had made him aware of how anguished I was about the whole thing. I never did.
This event of some forty years ago is etched indelibly in my mind, serving as a kind of private metaphor, underscoring just how difficult it can be for us to live in good faith and, also, how vitally important it is that we try. That test of integrity in a South Side church basement, and my failure in the face of it, have helped me become aware of the depth of my need for the approval of others—particularly co-racialists. I willingly betrayed a person whom I loved and who loved me in order to lessen the risk that I might be rejected by strangers in my tribe.
In a way, at that moment and often later in my life, I was passing too—that is, hoping to be mistaken for something I was not. I had feared that to proclaim before the black radicals in the audience that this supposed white boy at my side was in fact our brother would compromise my own chance of being received among them as a genuine colleague. The indignant brother who challenged Woody’s right to speak was not merely imposing a racial test (only blacks are welcome here), he was mainly applying a loyalty test (you are either with us or against us), and this was a test that anyone present could fail through a lack of conformity with the collectively enforced political norm. I now know that denying one’s genuine convictions for the sake of social acceptance is a price society often demands of the individual, and all too often we willingly pay it.
* * *
I recall this story about Woody because his dilemma (and mine) conveys an important truth about race and identity in American society—a truth that has wide application beyond the bounds of my personal experience. What made Woody’s situation so difficult is that, given the expectations and stereotypes held by others, there seemed to be no way for him to avoid living fraudulently—either as a black person who was passing for white, or as a white person who was trying (too hard) to be black. Actually, it now seems clear to me that he was neither. Woody, like me and like all of us, was a human being trying to make his way in the world, struggling to find himself and seeking recognition on his own terms. As his close friend and frequent companion, I had become familiar with, and occasionally shared in, the pitfalls of his situation. When seeing us together, people would assume that he was white and I was “the kind of Negro who hangs out with white boys.” I resented that assumption.
I have had to face the problem of balancing my desire not to disappoint the expectations of others with a conviction that one must strive to live authentically.
Since then, as an American intellectual of African descent, making my living as a teacher and writer during a period of great transformation in our society, I have often experienced this dissonance between my self-concept and the socially imputed definition of who I am supposed to be. Many of us, I dare say most, in one way or another have to confront a similar dilemma. I have had to face the problem of balancing my desire not to disappoint the expectations of others with a conviction that one must strive to live authentically.
This does not make me a heroic figure; I eschew the libertarian ideologue’s rhetoric about some glorious individual who, though put-upon by society, blazes his path all alone. I acknowledge that the opposition I am presenting between individual and society is ambiguous: the self is inevitably shaped by the objective world and by other selves. I know that what one is being faithful to when resisting the temptation to conform to others’ expectations by “living authentically” is necessarily a socially determined, even if subjectively experienced, version of the self.
(I wish to reiterate that, while I am speaking from personal experience, the phenomenon at issue—wherein identity becomes the enemy of authenticity—affects all of us, and is by no means restricted to the issue of race.)
In On Liberty John Stuart Mill offers a radical, passionate defense of the norm of unencumbered public discussion. All Americans should acquaint themselves with Mill’s profound argument, which holds that individual persons must be allowed to express themselves freely, except when harm results for discrete individuals. Mill’s point is cultural as well as political; he is concerned not only with oppressive laws, but also with an intolerant culture:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.
Growing into intellectual maturity has been, for me, largely a process of becoming free of the need to have my choices validated by the brothers. After many years I have come to understand that, until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd, I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or about life—to know my calling, to perceive my deepest value commitments, and to recognize the goals most worth striving toward.
The socially contingent features of one's situation are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which one must yet construct the edifice of a life.
The most important challenges and opportunities that confront any of us derive not from our cultural or sexual identities, not from our ethnic or racial conditions, but from our common human condition. I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a citizen. In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can identity alone provide much guidance for my quest to adequately discharge these responsibilities. The particular features of one’s social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of one’s life. They do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated; it must be a product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of this existence for which no political program or ethnic category could ever substitute.
Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, the socially contingent features of one’s situation—one’s racial heritage, family background, or sexual orientation, for instance—and the prevailing views and attitudes about such identity tropes held by other people in society—these things are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which one must yet construct the edifice of a life. The authentic expression of a person’s individuality is to be found in the blueprint that he or she employs to guide this project of self-authorship. And the problem of devising such a plan for one’s life confronts all people, whatever their race, class, ethnicity, or other identifying category. By facing and solving this problem we grow as human beings and give meaning and substance to our lives. A personal program overly dependent on the contingencies of identity falls tragically short of its potential because it embraces too parochial a conception of what is humanly possible, and of what is humanly desirable.
This is an especially important consideration for those of us who belong to historically oppressed and stigmatized groups. Ironically, to the extent that we blacks see ourselves primarily through a racial lens, we may end up sacrificing possibilities for the kind of personal development that would ultimately further our collective racial interests. We cannot be truly free men and women while laboring under a definition of self derived from the perceptual view of our oppressor, confined to the contingent facts of our oppression.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce says this about Irish nationalism:
When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by these nets. . . . Do you know what Ireland is? . . . Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.
Wearing one’s racial identity too heavily can work similarly to hold back young black souls from flight into the open skies of American society. Of course there is the constraint of racism also holding us back. But the trick, as Joyce knew, is to turn such nets into wings. One cannot do that if one refuses to see that ultimately it is neither external constraint nor external opportunity, but rather an indwelling spirit that makes it possible to fly.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.