This is the vexed terrain this book seeks to explore: to what extent can our various identities be mobilised to accentuate our universal humanity as opposed to separating us off into various antagonistic camps? At what point does refusing to acknowledge the importance of difference become an indulgent and insidious obstruction to what could potentially unite us? When can identity inspire, how can it inflame, what drives it, whom does it empower and what does it enable them to do? These are questions that go beyond philosophy to the central issue of power – who has it, how do they wield it and in whose interests do they use it?Who Are We – and Should it Matter in the 21st Century? is a combination of memoir, personal reflections, and detailed sociological and political commentary on the topic of identity. Gary Younge, an Afro-Caribbean British journalist, draws on his experience of growing up in a place where he didn’t feel he truly belonged, and of later living in France, Russia and the United States, all places where his racial identity was perceived very differently, to better illustrate his point about how one experiences identity differently depending on one’s circumstances. Younge also draws examples from recent political events and from communities from all around the world, alternatively focusing on how gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality or religion affect how people think of themselves and how they are perceived by others.
Who Are We is more a collection of questions than a set of clear answers, but then again, that’s one of the main points Younge is trying to make in this book. When it comes to identity there are no easy answers, and the best we can do is become accustomed to considering the questions complexly. For example, Younge is well aware that there is the risk that identities may become fortresses into which people retreat – and the more alienated and disillusioned they become, the deeper this retreat will be. But the way this risk has been dealt with politically by Left and Right alike often involves completely dismissing differences and points of uniqueness that do matter to people.
There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they should matter, yet holding on to certain non-sanctioned identities has frequently been constructed as a sign of stubbornness, ingratitude or self-exclusion, which of course only adds to the problem. One of the reasons why I decided to pick up Who Are We was exactly because I was frustrated with other writers’ tendency to throw away the baby with the bath water and altogether dismiss people’s rights to think of themselves as different (including Robert Winder, even though I generally did enjoy his Bloody Foreigners). Fortunately, Gary Younge does not disappoint in this regard.
Younge very clearly points out that despite all the current loudly expressed fears about lack of social cohesion and impending Armageddon scenarios, diversity is never a bad thing in itself. He’s also prepared to analyse the role that economic uncertainty and social exclusion play in pushing people into fortresses-like identities. Surely it is not reasonable to expect members of excluded groups to believe nobody sees them as different when all around them they see the role privilege plays in the creation of and access to social and economic opportunities.
I’d recommend Who Are We to anyone interested in identity, power, privilege, intersectionality, and the role these play in society and politics. To get a taste of the book, I’d suggest reading Salon.com’s excellent interview with Gary Younge (many thanks to Amy for bringing it to my attention). I particularly liked this bit:
As much as anything, this book is an attack on essentialism, because one thing essentialists have always tried to do is suggest there is a fixed notion to who and what we are. Actually, we are many things to many people while also being one thing to ourselves.Favourite passages:
On the one hand, we’re all more alike than we are unalike. (…) The ‘other’ is rarely as foreign or as threatening as we are led to believe. Growing numbers of us watch the same shows, eat the same food and wear the same brands. Never have we travelled as much, interbred as much or conversed as much.(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
On the other hand, the ways in which we are unalike matter. For all that is common in the human experience, the differences are stark and, in some respects, getting starker, and it is these differences that are increasingly creating the framework for political activity, public anxiety, and, at times, moral panic.
It is in no small part because the borders of our identities are so porous and fluid that some seek to police them so rigorously. Appeals to the innate, fixed, pure and essential nature or any identity are the stock-in-trade of any fundamentalist and generally have the same effect – to isolate one particular group from the rest of the human race.
Values change, societies develop and their language and behaviour evolve with them. That’s not political correctness but social and political progress. It was not imposed by liberal diktat but establish by civic consensus. Those who are unwilling or unable to move on are welcome to their words and views. But like anyone else who engages in antisocial behaviour, once they act on these impulses they must live with the consequences. Those who struggle with this are not so much living in the past as struggling to accept the present. For what they are really arguing for is the right both to be insensitive and for that insensitivity to go unchallenged. The first is their right – but, like all rights, it comes with both responsibilities and ramifications. The same freedom of speech that allows you to disparage large groups of people also allows those people to mobilise public opinion and legislation against you if you do so.
When it comes to identity, there is always a wolf lurking somewhere. There has never been a time in human history when someone hasn’t been trying to rally one group against another on the basis of their differences.
That’s not the fault of difference itself. The problem is not that diversity exists; it is what we choose to make of it. In short, do we understand our various identities as being an integral part of our common humanity or as something separate, above and beyond it?
There are no straightforward answers and few basic, universal truths as to when the politics of identity may be elevated to great and worthy purposes and why it may descent into venal, vile bigotry. This is not the stuff of broad brushes.
But there are some general principles. First and foremost, this is not simply about understanding people better. It’s all very well creating dialogue, but when people come to the table they have to have something to talk about. Identities are about how we think about ourselves in relation to others. But those thoughts do not come out of a clear blue sky. Identities are rooted in material circumstances. In certain circumstances, whether you are British, black, gay, Iraqi, Hindu or female can be the difference between life and death, poverty and wealth, citizenship and statelessness. Power, resources and opportunity are in play in how we choose to understand (or misunderstand) the value of ourselves and others.