Identity and Possibility

We are born without any labels. Depending on when and where a person is born, a number of labels are assigned. I did not choose to be white. I did not choose to be a boy (and, now, a man). I did not choose to be heterosexual. I did not choose to be an American. All of these labels represent historically-variable and socially-constructed things that, taken together, comprise identity. The identity is imposed and learned. There is nothing essential about these categories. They are, nonetheless, social facts.

I could emphasize the labels assigned to me and embrace an identity that I did not choose. If I embrace my white heterosexual male identity, and pursue this as a politics, then I become racist, sexist, and heterosexist person. Yet, as a person who is forced to wear the white heterosexual man label whether I embrace it or not, I am still marked as an oppressor. I must take the blame for something I did not choose to be. If I attempt to refuse to wear the label, then I am denying my privilege. Thus, I am not even allowed to complain about this situation, because to do so is an expression of privilege. 

However, I am not stuck on the horns of a dilemma. I can choose to be an person who criticizes and struggles against the oppressive structures that have made me a white heterosexual man. This is morally compelling because these are the same structures that make a person a black homosexual woman, with all the forms of oppression that come with those labels. I can recognize, to take one of those labels, that we do not live in a colorblind society while, at same time, believe that it would be desirable to live in a society where color labels are no longer applied and carry no meaning except as facts in history books.

I have come to wonder whether those who are oppressed by the imposed categories of a multilayered system of oppression are actually pursuing radical politics by embracing the labels assigned to them and retreating into groups based on them. I understand why Martin Luther King, Jr., in combating the psychological trauma of white supremacy, told children that their skin was beautiful. But was King seeking to reify the prevailing racial categories and build a new society based on the color differences the oppressor originally developed to maintain the capitalist order? No. Clearly he wasn’t. So why are others?

Am I allowed the observation that none of these labels are essential and to express a desire for a world in which there are no labels? Or am I making an error in thinking this is, or for wanting it to be possible? If the latter, what is my error?

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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