All things have properties; however, they are not innate to the thing. Rather, properties are how an item relates to the rest of the universe. An item is dark because of how it interacts with light. A thing is heavy because of how it interacts with gravity. A particle is fast because it speeds past slower particles.
We can easily understand this about things; but we we talk of people, we act as if identities were innate. We classify people by properties: race, religion, gender, political affiliations. Like all properties, these are really descriptions of how people relate to each other and not inherent facts of the person.
Identity is a social construct. If you were black female, or a white male born in isolation, never having seen another human before, would these concepts have any meaning for you? It is society, not the individual, that necessitates categories. You do not categorize a population of one. Society constructs classifications and people perform identities within these constructs. We come by our individual sense of of who we are through both what we project and what is reflected back upon us.
When we perform an identity, we perform for three audiences: ourselves, our others, and society. Take racial identity for an example. You recognize your own race. If you accept this identity, you perform your race for yourself. You conceptualize your vision of who you are and act accordingly.
That is not to say you do this independently. These are social constructs and society will steer you to what society expects. You also perform for the others that share your identity. They may or may not accept your identity. Finally, you perform for everyone else.
In some cases, all three audiences align. In others, an individual might find themselves at odds. A multi-racial person may see themselves as part of the black experience. Other black people may see the person as “passing,” or not really black. Wider society might lump the person with “coloreds” and not see the difference.
While identity is the combination of performances for these three audiences, history has demonstrated these are moving targets. Social norms and categories that serve as bed rocks for personal identity shift. This leads to breakdown for individuals as they become unanchored from norms that defined them. It causes conflict between groups and generations as they define categories and identities differently. Categories and properties that matter to one audience might be irrelevant to another.
For most of modern history, there has been desire for consistent identities, typically for oneself if not for society at large. A large part of western philosophy and the following Enlightenment has been around expanding people’s right to an identity. Democracy demanded people become citizens and individuals. The Enlightenment called for people to explore and classify everything, including themselves.
Consistent identity is facing a crisis. In the last decades established social signifiers such as gender, race, and orientation have been blurred, blurring how people identify themselves and how their adoptive groups receive them. From the profound, what was once considered biological truths are being re-examined as we question the essentials of race and gender; to the mundane, as people diagnose themselves through online quizzes to be members of this tribe or that personality disorder.
With the rise of Hip Hop and urban culture, many inner-city youths saw themselves as part of a common culture defined more by urban and economic realities than race. Inter-racial relationships were no longer taboo and whole group of individuals were now identifying as multi-racial — either by lineage or by cultural association.
This was met with backlash from both sides: the groups who saw their cultures being “appropriated,” and wider society who thought these voluntarily “urban” people were just going through a phase. ”Urban,” of course being code for “black.” The arguments always devolved into essentialist arguments of what was black enough to be really black. People who identified as black were accused of acting white, visa-versa, and all combinations in between.
Black culture at the time, and still, is a lightening rod. Black culture is a legitimate, rich, and hard won reality. It represents centuries of oppression and adversity; surviving, creating, and innovating in spite of this oppression. But like all culture, it is also just information–freely transmitted, copied, mutated, and adapted.
It is no wonder that food, music, language, art, perspectives, trades; that were all rooted in black culture have become popular the globe over. Now we have the reality that a person who grew up in Korea in the last 20 years has never know a world without Rap. It is one of the most popular genres on her radio. All her favorite musicians are rap artists — many of whom are Korean. She feels like hip hop is a native to her as Korean. Granted, she might not know its rich history — but it doesn’t change her truth.
Is this cultural appropriation — or simply culture?
The very complaint of appropriation is the flip side of the claim of being a “poser,” all coming back to crumbling essentialist arguments. How black do you need to be before you can identify as part of the black experience? In the last couple of years, the battle ground has shifted to gender. Catlyn Jenner didn’t grow up as a girl, does he have a claim to being part of the real women experience?
These questions of cis vs trans all stem from the idea that these cultural signifiers are stable and that there are clear boundaries where people can be certified as qualifying for one race or gender. These ideas, while artificial, are defended as the natural order — else wise we are left with a murky land where people can try on an shift identities as they move through life and society.
If we abandoned binary gender and race, then everyone becomes trans-gendered and trans-racial. This is uncomfortable, but it is a more accurate truth. Hight is non-binary. Everyone is not short nor tall — but there are short and tall people. Not everyone is male or female, but there are males and females.
In Los Angelos, being 6’2” is tall; but to the NBA, it is short. Much of your social identity is constructed by society’s acceptance of your performance. If society accepts you as tall, and the other tall people accept you as tall; then you are tall. If you move to Denmark, that might change.
Imagine if you had to describe your whole personality in just a few words. Try to capture the people you know into two buckets: all good or all bad. Human personalities are complex. We are generous, flawed, kind, vengeful, patient, determined, short-tempered, people. Depending on the day, the mood, or what we were just dealing with minutes before; we present totally different versions of ourselves.
A person may be broadly consistent, but how they express their personality will very radically throughout a day, let alone their lifetime. Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a popular trope because it is a truth that we see in ourselves. If our personalities, which are just one part of our identity, are so fluid and able to evolve; then it follows that our identities are just as in flux.
Many people want to feel like people are consistent about who they are. If people could adopt races and genders they way we try on cloths — would the person you knew as a white man last year being less honest if they now wanted to be identified as a black women?
If a man says that she always felt like a women, then people may accept it as the person making this claim is saying that their female gender is an innate truth that just wasn’t properly expressed. People might be suspicious, how can they truly know if she has always been a women inside and not just confused. It is mocked as something to be accepted out of liberal politeness.
But this claim is just as fallacious. It legitimizes the performance of another identity based on the claim that this is a “truer” innate characteristic of the person. It is really the tension caused between a personal expression and a social acceptance. Society values consistent identities. A claim of being “always” a women agrees with that consistency.
If you performed as a women some days, as a male or fluid on others; you risk acceptance of your identity; but as society keeps breaking down labels and our bedrock categories shift faster, we are creating a society in which transitioning between identities will be as normal as moving between cliques. We will start to see it as part of the normal growth process. Some people will gravitate to identities easily and early, staying with them their entire life. Others might take longer roads, or be life long chameleons. In reality, this has always been the truth. Recognition of this might make it easier for the future fluid identifiers and allow us all the empathy we need to live in such a world.