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Identity's Identity Crisis, Part I

Picture yourself sitting alone in a police interview room with two one-way mirrors. Being able to be in two places in this dream, you stand alone behind one of those mirrors, privately observing and assessing yourself through glass smudged and fogged over by your close peering.

Behind the second mirror, others whom you cannot see peer in at you, their glass polarized by assumptions and taped off into a grid of beliefs and expectations.

Identity as self-understanding is you behind that mirror looking in on yourself. Identity as category of belonging is the group behind that other mirror, judging you according to their criteria and putting you into categories. Both aspects of identity have been on my mind a lot, and I doubt it’s been just me.

Some historical context. Here, you'll see how the concept of identity in America shifts from becoming American by shedding all else, to bringing the color and flavor of subgroup identities to the being an American, to an individual’s internal quest-for-self far superseding membership in any group, to ascendance of identification with one’s subgroup(s) over self-identification and all-American belonging.

The 18th and early 19th centuries saw massive immigration waves of Europeans to America and an identity ideal symbolized by a Melting Pot. This industrial-age image pictured all differences that had been forged in inferior environments being smelted in the heat of American superiority and shaped into a unified, American people. E pluribus unum – from many, one. The Melting Pot, and the policies that supported the ideal, neglected to consider that immigrants and their children (or maybe their grandchildren) might value and mourn aspects of “home.” This expression of unity also completely excluded communities in the US that predated English dominance, those that came from places in this hemisphere conquered by the Spanish and Portuguese, and descendants of African slaves whom US law but recently acknowledged to be 100% human.

By the 1960s, the national ideal of American identity was shifting away from that flawed ideal of a fully homogenized America to the image of a Salad Bowl. This ideal elevated each subgroup’s unique characteristics and dressed them lightly, for unity, with laws and a market, according to Bruce Thornton in 2012.

I remember teenage conversations in the 70s that began with, Are you a Jewish (Italian, etc.) American or an American Jew (Italian, etc.)? Which identity was the modifier and which was primary? When we asked those questions we were mostly considering how we saw ourselves, not how others saw us. At any rate, who our people were before, or who we were in addition to being American rose in status from an old skin one sloughs off to a colorful garment equaling or surpassing our Americanism.

This turn toward subgroup identity makes sense when you regard it alongside other historical markers of the time: the Civil Rights Movement, the Indian Rights Movement, the American Gay Rights Movement, protests against the Vietnam War, modern feminism and, for Jewish Americans/American Jews who saw what happened to millions of our people when “we had no country of our own,” the founding of the State of Israel.

At the same time, Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development were turning the concept of identity inward. Erikson labeled adolescent struggles ego identity vs. role confusion, or as I think of it, me vs. all influences outside of me. To Erikson, identity was the opposite of fitting in. A person must struggle against external influences and categorizations in order to “find oneself.” As a result, personal choice began to override tradition’s veto, “self-actualization” became a goal and “enlightened self-interest” stood in for obligation and generosity. Authority lost its authority. According to Time Magazine, even God may have died as the self ruled on high.

During the following decades identity itself went through an identity crisis, swinging back toward a collective sensibility, though a very different one than the Melting Pot idealized. An article by researchers R. Brubaker and F. Cooper, called Beyond “Identity” , states that identity was initially understood as a “core, non-fleeting” aspect of individual selfhood, "invoked to point to something allegedly deep, basic, abiding, or foundational.” The meaning shifted to represent that which makes a person most identical to others. “Identity persuades certain people that they are (for certain purposes) ‘identical’ with one another and at the same time different from others…. This sameness is expected to manifest itself in solidarity, in shared dispositions or consciousness, or in collective action.” We call this Identity Politics.

The authors demonstrate that some thinkers include in the new definition of identity a shifting nature, positing that the concept is central though hard to define, or even a chimera. They cite Charles Tilly of the New School of Social Research and French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss. Tilly “characterizes identity as a ‘blurred but indispensable’ concept…. An actor's experience of a category, tie, role, network, group or organization, coupled with a public representation of that experience; the public representation often takes the form of a shared story, a narrative.’” Levi-Strauss goes farther, characterizing identity “as a sort of virtual center (foyer virtuel) to which we must refer to explain certain things, but without it ever having a real existence.”

To gaze at you, still sitting in that interview room, through this historical lens: Melting Pot intentionally sees you exclusively from the outsiders’ observation room. Salad Bowl merges assessments made through your and the others’ mirrors. Ego Identity sees you exclusively through your own mirror. Identity politics swings back toward seeing you only through the others’ glass, though now the glass is taped-off into much smaller boxes through which to categorize you.

Whew. Essential yet nonexistent, identity: denotes both uniqueness and identicality, can, maybe, be defined (blurrily); is an individual’s bedrock while shifting fluidly; is felt subjectively and determined objectively; and is either the expression and narrative of self-perception or the impetus of group action.

Just when I think I understand identity clearly, I don’t. When I am unclear and confused, I am, apparently, spot on.

The identity of identity has been shifting throughout my lifetime. The Age of Aquarius dawned when I was a child. I am two years shy of escaping mis-categorization as a baby boomer, which caused interesting identity-category dissonance in me. I grew into a young adult within Tom Wolfe’s Me Generation. In my thirties and forties, I began to feel Identity Politics’ tectonic rumblings.

In Identity Politics, each sub-group vies for visibility, resources, recognition, opportunity and repair of past wrongs. As if Erikson never turned us inward, it elevates our categories-of-belonging far above self-understanding. I’ll dare to say that self-understanding has been repurposed as a tool to determine which sub-groups we are qualified, and therefore mandated, to join.

That latter aspect of the shift into Identity Politics caught me unawares. Recently, I read two questions on Facebook answered with resounding “no’s”: “Can Black people ever be Racist?” and “Can white people ever not be racist?” I jumped up and away from my computer when this came up on my newsfeed. How could any intelligent person think these things? Hurt, shocked and confused, I vowed to stay away from social media for a while. Something huge made no sense to me.

In discussions with young, politically attuned friends, I learned that my misunderstanding resulted from believing that identity still meant that which makes each of us unique. Wrong! In Identity Politics, a people (Black, white, gay, Latino/a) isn’t a series of unique individuals. It’s a category, a subgroup that by virtue of existing, competes with others for limited resources and standing. Some terms point to this shift: unlike "gay" or "lesbian" or "Trans" or "Queer," the term LGBTQ+ could only refer to the subgroup. Likewise, the currently embraced term Latinx can only refer to the collective.

Remember when news broke nationally that the Spokane, WA, NAACP chapter exec was white even though she self-identified as Black? This demonstrates perfectly the hierarchical shift from “finding ourselves” to accepting membership only in our proper categories. Through the others’ one-way mirror, Rachael Dolezal sitting in our interview room would have been deemed guilty of sneaking in where she did not belong. What she saw peering in through her own mirror was irrelevant. Dolezal is a real-life Yentl, except that instead of being a woman hiding her sex to study like the men around her, Dolezal hid her European-ness to be an activist just like the African-Americans around her. (She grew up among adopted siblings who were African-American, lived and went to school mostly with African-Americans and self-identified far more with Blacks than as white.)

In the current swing of the American identity pendulum, we don’t get to choose. I even wonder whether the recent acceleration of protection for LGBTQ+ rights resulted in part from a full swing from regarding divergence from hetero-normalcy as a personal choice to seeing it as an inescapable reality. Through an Identity Politics lens, denying one’s “objective” category is frowned upon, and trying to get away with that additionally categorizes a person as untrustworthy.

Another change in academic and political parlance played directly into my misunderstanding of those social media exchanges: “Racism” no longer refers to an individual’s ethnocentric beliefs. (That would be bias or bigotry now.) It now refers to the structural, institutional and material circumstances of society that bestow privilege and deny access according to racial membership.

Is your head spinning yet?

In the shift from Salad Bowl to Identity Politics, competition among subgroups has replaced complementary coexistence as the ideal. Policies develop from the premise that American-belonging is a zero-sum game -- for some to win some must lose in equal measure. Many political leaders and their industrial and religious counterparts are hammering wedges between subgroups as deeply as possible. We may be as far today from e pluribus unum as we have ever been. Right now, I see Americans most unified in distrust of our institutions and disdain toward groups competing with our own.

This is the source of what I’ve been calling my “generalized anxiety.” I fear that our society is being torn to shreds. I do think most people would agree that there is a wealth gap as wide as Asia dividing Americans, but there is vast disagreement about whether this is cause for celebration (I could win Powerball and become one of them) or a demon greedily sucking the country’s resources and opportunities dry. Even more than the divisiveness, though, I fear the tyranny that will sail (or is sailing) easily into power when our society shreds. Divide and conquer, mythologized as far back as the Garden of Eden and through pantheonic battles, is happening here, now. To us and with our complicity.

I would be remiss not to share concerns specific to my politically identified lens as a Jewish American (or American Jew). Followers of both “left” and “right” ideologies are showing open signs of fearing, blaming, distrusting, despising, using and/or rejecting Jews. With whom is it safe for me to align, I wonder, stymied by lack of a clear answer. This inhibition that keeps me from throwing my lot in with other groups is an obstacle for Jews such as myself who might otherwise join wholeheartedly with other subgroups for greater power. It's another wedge hammered in deep.

Part II, will examine my experiences with the personal, social, political and economic consequences of shifting American-identity ideals. I’ll turn inward for a bit, describing my current do-over of ego identification vs. role confusion and I'll ponder opportunities to weave ourselves a stronger unified fabric of identity in America. I’ll close here with an original poem that emerged as I awoke from sleep last week. Clearly, these questions are playing themselves out in my mind’s subconscious and creative processes.

In White

In white I am

Anglo not Semite

Never freed enslaved

Gassed burned in flames.

In Jewish I am

Ancient not stupid

Feared despised blamed

Lucky, not to be gassed today.

In Black he is

African Caribbean freed

Enslaved presumed feared

Damned, if he’ll ever be burned again.

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