academia, feminism

Identity (It’s Complicated)


The concept of identity is complicated, at best. Why aren’t white people called “European American”? Why aren’t Asians and Latin Americans known by their respective colors (or shades of brown)? When we talk about black people, what do we actually mean? I identify as an African American woman. What does it mean to identify? In an article by Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper titled “Beyond ‘identity’” (2000), the two theorists complicated the question of identity as a category of analysis. They argue that “the prevailing constructivist stance on identity—the attempt to “soften” the term, to acquit it of the charge of “essentialism” by stipulating that identities are constructed, fluid, multiple —leaves us ill-equipped to examine the “hard” dynamics and essentialist claims of contemporary identity politics.” (1) In other words, these theorists doubt the existence of identity based on the many, complicated definitions of identities across academic disciplines.

Surely, this complication of identity will be a shock for women, especially women of color, who are constantly oppressed and exploited because of their identities. As women, we are paid less than men (often justified by our ability to birth children), we are sexually abused, battered, and are offered less opportunities for social mobility. As women of color, we face what Frances Beal calls “double jeopardy”, the uncomfortable and problematic socio-cultural position of being black (or of color) and female. If identity does not exist, why are we being punished because of it?  

For people of color, our brown skin is an empowering reminder of historical tragedy, past racial struggles for human rights, and the very real continued struggle against all forms of oppression. For men and women who are not of-color, oppression and exploitation are also very real; we must not discount any struggle based on our racial and sexual differences. Like bell hooks says in her book title: Feminism is for Everybody. We must work together towards this inclusive feminism to reject all forms of oppression. Until then identity will be a hazy, complicated signifier used to enforce social, political, and cultural dominance.