I’m about to plunge into a delicate topic on which I am decidedly not an expert. It’s something that’s been needling at me for a few weeks, and I’m going to spin out my thoughts on it, but I haven’t even read up on whether there’s actually anything to this–it’s just where I am at the moment with something that’s been bothering me.
Last night I was reading about Gregory Markopoulos (not to be confused with the filmmaker of the same name). Effectively a con man, Markopoulos changed his name to Jamake Highwater and claimed to be Native American, writing both fiction (including a Newberry-nominated children’s book) and nonfiction about Native American culture and tradition, all of it nonsense. And despite warnings from actual Native American activists that he was full of shit, and exposes in Akwesasne Notes and the Washington Post in 1984 that exposed him as a fraud, white people continued to eat up his stereotype-laden, “noble savage”-style bullshit for years after–as late as the 1990s he was working as a consultant on Star Trek: Voyager (and now you know how Chakotay happened).
Reading about this helped solidify some tentative ideas about identity I’ve been kicking around every since my Token Conservative Relative on Facebook(tm) posted some “gotcha!”-type bullshit about “liberal hypocrisy” in embracing Caitlyn Jenner and rejecting Rachel Dolezal. Of course there’s no hypocrisy here, the two cases are obviously different because gender and ethnicity, although both components of identity, are fundamentally different.
But how are they different?
The idea I’m sort of tentatively playing around with is that there are (at least) two kinds of identity, which I’m calling the personal and the cultural. Personal identity is, well, personal–obviously, like any system of categorization, it’s culturally constructed, but it is performed by the individual and entirely up to the individual to determine. Gender pretty clearly falls here, as it has no necessary communal aspect. Certainly one can build and participate in a community defined by gender, but one’s gender does not derive from that community–the community doesn’t tell you what your gender is, you tell it.
Cultural identity, on the other hand, derives from a particular community, and can only be claimed by members of that community. One cannot meaningfully claim to be British if one is neither from Britain, living in Britain, nor descended from British people. The only way to legitimately possess a cultural identity is to be born or adopted into the community from which that identity derives, and the feasibility of being adopted varies greatly depending on the community in question. For example, one can be born Jewish, adopted and raised Jewish, or one can go through the conversion process to become Jewish, but there is no conversion process by which a white person can become African-American. (Nor should there be; it is up to a community to decide whether it wants to let people join and how difficult it should be.)
The notion of claiming a personal identity that is not yours is fundamentally nonsensical. It’s personal, and so to claim it is to possess it; it is yours if you say it is. This isn’t true of cultural identity; to claim to be part of a community that does not accept or acknowledge you is a lie.
As I said, these are tentative thoughts, and I haven’t read anything academic on this distinction or anything like it. This is me looking at the moral question of claiming identity, and so I approached it the way I do most moral questions, which is taking my intuitive response and gnawing at it until I can fit some sort of principle to it. Feel free to tell me how I’ve gotten it completely wrong–these ideas could use a lot of refining, and I’m well aware that they’re a massive oversimplification. (Among other things, the way I’ve worded it treats communities as monoliths; what happens if some members of a community accept someone and others don’t?)