I am who you say I am, and you are who I say you are. Identity is complex.
Power, Performativity and the Social Construction of Difference
We navigate our world – culturally, socially, economically, politically, sexually, nationally, and historically – through our identities. Potentially, we are identified by, and identify with, multiple different identities. Our identities can change over time, and the sociocultural meanings of our identities can shift as historical narratives are created through time and space. To make things even more complex, we all have multiple dimensions to our identities, and different ways of revealing and concealing different aspects of these identities (Coates, 2015; Montoya, 2003; Peters, 2005; Weedon, 2004).
One cannot explore identity without acknowledging the power differential associated with different identities. For example, I am identified as a “white male,” but I do not necessarily identify with this identity, and I can do this because being identified as a white male, in a predominantly white sociocultural geographic context, usually brings me a social privilege, a certain amount of social freedom that allows me to separate myself from this identity. This is not to say that I do not wear social masks, because the construction and use of “masks” is a universal aspect of identity. However, the experience of being masked is not universal. As Montoya notes, “[b]eing masked may be a universal condition, in that all of us control how we present ourselves to others. There is, however, a fundamental difference when one feels masked because one is a member of one or more oppressed groups within the society. When members of the dominant culture mask themselves to control the impressions they make, such behavior is not inherently self-loathing. But when we attempt to mask immutable characteristics of skin color, eye shape, or hair texture because they historically have been loathsome to the dominant culture, then the masks of acculturation can be experienced as self-hate. Moreover, unmasking for members of the dominant culture does not involve the fear or depth of humiliation that it does for the subordinated, for whom the unmasking is often involuntary and unexpected” (2003, p. 73).
A significant aspect of our particular identities is the intersubjectivity between us and others; I am who you say I am, and you are who I say you are; black needs white, male needs female, straight needs gay, etc. An interesting aspect of this intersubjectivity is the “performativity” that Weedon accredits Butler with writing about. This performativity can be viewed as a process of internalization of the behavioral norms associated with any one particular identity. For example, [w]hereas common sense suggest that femininity and masculinity are natural, in this mode of theorization they are culturally acquired through repetition” (Weedon, 2004, p. 7). With this in mind, one can see how identities become necessarily limiting and play vital roles within sociopolitical structures of power; the behaviors associated with particular identities can be viewed as pre-ascribed social constructions.
Racial identities are commonly believed to have biological basis, but there is strong evidence that there is no objective biological basis for “race.” The following was taken from the American Anthropological Associations Statement on Race: “In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them” (AAA, 1998). However, as Coates points out, “[r]ace clearly has a biological element – because we have awarded it one…. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason (2015).
Are you an individual or a multitude? How many identities do you have? How many different masks do you wear? Are you aware of all the masks you wear? What’s under the masks? What are the boundaries like between your different selves? Is there a significant difference between your public self and private self? What are the external influences (sociocultural, socioeconomic, sociopolitical) that are influencing your different selves? How much of your “self” is your creation, and how much of your “self” is the creation of others around you? Can you see how our identities are the outcome of a co-creative process with the world we live in?
Coates, T. (2013) What we mean when we say: Race is a Social Construct. The Atlantic.
Weedon, C. (2004) Identity and Culture: Narratives of Difference and Belonging. New York, NY: Open University Press (Introduction and Chapter 1: Identity and Subjectivity)
Montoya, M. (2003) Macaras, Trenzas, y Grenas: Un/Masking the Self while Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse (Wing, A. K., ed. Critical Race Feminism, A Reader. New York: New York University Press)
Peters W. (2005) Rupturing Identity Categories and Negotiating Meanings of Queer. Canadian Women’s Studies. Volume 24, Numbers 2, 3.