We live in an age where identity politics matter a great deal, and yet we are incredibly sloppy when it comes to thinking of the implications of our identity obsessions. For example, as I write this my Twitter is telling me that English diva Sam Smith has declared his gender pronouns to be them/they. This is by no means an isolated occurrence, as there are a great many people who use plural pronouns to indicate that they do not view themselves as either one of the binary of male/female, regardless of what their anatomy tells them. To be sure, it is by no means unusual for there to be people who do not meet the various expectations and stereotypes for the genders, and for these people there was a sorting process by which people could be recognized for the sort of male or female that they were, whether they were good or bad at it, or (like eunuchs, for example) judged as defective in one sense and therefore more trustworthy in other senses. Nor has our racial understanding been entirely precise, as it has been quite possible people to pass differently depending on what aspect of their background they wanted to emphasize. A man who was 1/8 black may have been legally black in the Jim Crow south (or North), but he could have likely easily passed himself off as white without anyone else being the wiser for it, had he wanted to.
In some ways, our current cultural obsession with identity has difficult cross-currents that have not always been closely examined. For example, to the extent that someone identifies as gay or lesbian from the point of view of sexual orientation, that person may not have reflected on how this relates to their non-binary gender identity or that of others. Logically speaking, a gay or lesbian who declared themselves non-binary would be a hypocrite in that they would desire their partner to be male or female but consider themselves as both or neither. Either that or some other word would need to be invented that provides for a less contradictory identity between who one is attracted to and who once fancies oneself to be. Nor are these problems between contradictory or not sufficiently nuanced identities only a matter of contemporary concern or dealing with questions of gender identity or one’s sexuality. No, these problems have existed for a long time, since people simultaneously want to put others in nice boxes but also find reality a far messier proposition.
For example, it has long been forgotten by most people that Irish and Italian people were not always considered to be white, and in the eyes of a great many people Jewish people still are not. Why is this so? Clearly if one means origins in Europe to make someone white, this would not make any sense, because Italy and Ireland and the various diaspora populations of European Jewry were all just as European as their neighbors in Germany or France or Great Britain. Similarly, Spaniards and Portuguese today as well as criollo populations from Latin America are all “white” in terms of ethnicity if this means having European DNA, however much such people may be lumped into categories such as “Hispanic” in terms of contemporary identity politics. This is just as ridiculous as putting Southeast Asians like Thai or Vietnamese with East Asians like Chinese or Taiwanese or Koreans or Japanese with Pacific Islanders descended from Polynesian voyagers who landed in Hawaii or Samoa or Tonga in one catch-all combination as Asians/Pacific Islanders when the history and culture of each group can be wildly different based on a variety of factors, and when some parts of the group have longstanding historical grievances and rivalries with others and wildly different economic and educational attainments in the United States.
How did this happen? It is quite easy to understand that once the Irish and Italians were acculturated that they no longer were to be seen as anything other than white because there was insufficient difference between their conduct and behavior and culture to view them as separate than the European American mainstream. One can easily see this happening with Hispanic populations or Asian populations that have reached sufficient levels of English knowledge and economic success that they are fully accepted as friends and neighbors and potential spouses. What is it that keeps some cultures from enjoying this process? Why are some cultures, even with some differences (like predominant Catholicism as opposed to Protestantism, or differing shades of skin) able to pass much easier into the mainstream than others are? What is it that keeps some people as outsiders whose culture prevents them from being or feeling completely accepted by others? In many cases the desire and effort that is taken to avoid being assimilated is itself seen as sufficient evidence that one does not really wish to belong to a mainstream culture and therefore that one is not to be accepted as part of it. That which persists in being viewed as a foreign body which delights in its separateness is that which makes itself a target by those who view such separateness and alienation as threatening and unacceptable. This may not be fair, but it is a consistent pattern that one can see in many places across human history.
This too is an identity problem where there may be a great deal of contradictions and paradoxes. Those who desire to keep themselves as hip and cool feel irritated and threatened by the way that their in-speak tends to become quickly obsolete as it is copied by people who are clearly not hip or cool and therefore loses its cultural value to those who want to stay ahead of the curve and present themselves as a superior class to ordinary squares. Likewise, different aspects of culture may be appreciated by a mainstream that does not necessarily appreciate the group of people from which those cultural traits come, where the same song performed by its original artists may only be able to be played on race radio while the same song performed by a Pat Boone may be able to achieve massive popularity. Yet when this happens it is worthwhile to wonder what is unacceptable. In the 1950’s, any black artist may have been less than entirely acceptable in the mainstream pop scene, but in the 1980’s a Dr. Dre who was dressed in a snazzy suit was accepted as a classy black gentleman where the same man as a member of N.W.A. was clearly not culturally accepted within mainstream white society. And so it goes, with the question of identity being made problematic by the way that people may not always understand or accept what it is that holds them back from mainstream acceptance, and simultaneously ashamed of and proud of what makes them distinct, simultaneously wanting to remain separate from everyone else by claiming various identities but also wanting others to remain in nice and tidy boxes that are easy to identify and characterize. We want to be complicated ourselves, but want to see the world divided simply into friends and enemies, clearly demarcated identities, and easy labels. And we do not see how we contradict ourselves in this asymmetry. We never have, after all, and do not seem any closer to it now than we did in those long ago times when we did not consider the Irish to be white.