What is Identity

Ophelia Benson

Politics on the Left has been roiled for decades by questions about identity. Many thinkers and activists have criticized the turn to identity politics from the good old days of solidarity and labor struggles (for instance, Todd Gitlin in The Twilight of Common Dreams). An obvious response to that criticism is that labor struggles haven’t always done a brilliant job of including women and nonwhite people, to put it mildly. Critics call this “identity politics” in a pejorative sense; fans call it “intersectionality.” The idea is that there is more than one axis on which to lack privilege, and social justice requires taking all of them into account. One word for these multiple axes is identity—woman or man, black or white, same-sex oriented or other-sex oriented.

But what does identity mean? What are we talking about when we use the word? It’s clear enough if it means those large categories (race, sex, sexual orientation) and maybe some others (nationality, ethnic background, class), but it doesn’t always mean that, and it isn’t always clear enough.

Identity as “category with more or less privilege” is a political meaning of the word. It carries with it ideas about justice and fairness, reform and improvement, oppression and empowerment, dominance and equality. It’s difficult to encounter the words race and gender at this point in our history without those political implications—which is why some people get impatient with those words. It’s possible that everyone feels impatient with them at least sometimes: they’re a constant reminder that we humans are just not very good at universalized equality.

Then there’s the complication that some of the categories are entirely or mostly a matter of birth—race, gender, nationality, ethnic background—while others are somewhat more optional, such as religion. Every word of that could spark a fight on Twitter because it’s all hotly contested, but to put it crudely: it’s easier to hide or change one’s religion or nonreligion than it is to hide one’s race or sex.

In short, we all have some categories of identity that place us on a hierarchy whether we like it or not. Some of us want to demolish the hierarchy; some want to climb it; some argue that the hierarchy isn’t really a hierarchy or that it withered away long ago. That’s identity in a public sense, though. It also has a private sense, in fact it’s peculiar in meaning two quite opposing things: our membership in various social categories and our own personal sense of who we are.

The internal sense is always vulnerable to the public, social sense. No matter how we see our own true authentic selves, we can’t compel other people to see them the same way. We can try to explain what we’re really like underneath, but we know it’s futile. That fact itself shapes our sense of self. Knowing how other people see us—including how people see us as women or men, black or white, and so on—shapes our understanding of what we are.

In a way, we’re all at war with each other over this: we’re all struggling over who gets to define our identities. We want to be free to define our own selves, but the world sees what it sees, not what we see. We’re all selves and we’re also the world—we’re the misunderstood self and we’re a member of the world that misunderstands.

Rachel Dolezal is an interesting illustration of this paradox. Dolezal had been president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for several months when her parents told a newspaper that she is not in fact black. She resigned from her NAACP job, and her contract to teach African studies at Eastern Washington University was not renewed. She, however, continued to say that it’s not as simple as “not black,” let alone “white.” That’s not her understanding of herself. She told Allison Samuels in an interview in Vanity Fair:

“It’s taken my entire life to negotiate how to identify, and I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of studying,” she says. “I could have a long conversation, an academic conversation about that. I don’t know. I just feel like I didn’t mislead anybody; I didn’t deceive anybody. If people feel misled or deceived, then sorry that they feel that way, but I believe that’s more due to their definition and construct of race in their own minds than it is to my integrity or honesty, because I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms.”

Dolezal is caught in the gap between our inner sense of our selves and our external, apparent, social selves. In one way, it seems as if she ought to be completely free to identify as whatever she likes, but in another it seems obvious that she can’t expect the rest of the world to see her identity the way she does.

If racism did not exist and had never existed, Dolezal and everyone else probably would be free to identify as black despite having white parents. If racism had never existed, then race would have less (and different) meaning and could be a matter of adoption as well as birth. One could “convert” to a different race just as one can convert to a different or no religion. It’s because race carries with it so much history of stigma, exploitation, exclusion, and genocide that it has so much meaning and thus can’t be put on or taken off like a sweater.

Yet Dolezal’s attempt seems like a blow against racism and for solidarity. It suggests fantasies about what might have happened if millions of German Gentiles had decided to identify as Jewish in 1938, or if millions of Hutus had declared themselves to be Tutsis in 1994. But even then, they wouldn’t have been the right people to head Jewish or Tutsi human-rights organizations. Dolezal probably could have lived as black even after her parents told the world she wasn’t if she hadn’t held a leadership job in the NAACP. Solidarity is one thing; taking over the boss jobs is another.

None of this makes any real sense, frankly. It’s not what an intelligent planner would have arranged. It’s the product of the chaotic history of a primate species that has flourished thanks to its ability to cooperate and live in groups despite being really bad at living in groups. We have enough of the ability to do it—just barely—but not enough to do it fairly or reasonably or kindly. As Europe struggles with its attitudes to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, carrying their foreign identities with them, it would be nice to think we could someday manage to do it better.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


Identity is a far more complicated concept than it appears at first glance.

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