Identities Are Hard to Get At

Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

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Against Seeing Everything as an Identity

A chart of the frequency of the word "identity," "nationality," "ethnicity," "race," and "performativity" over time ... "identity" becomes fashionable after 1960 and especially 1985
Google ngrams is a fun toy as long as you dont take its dates too seriously! (They refuse to work with librarians to clean up their data or with paleographers to OCR old books more accurately).

Some kinds of academics like to talk about “identities.” Literally, that means the things which you point to and say “I am.” But many academics use it to mean other groups that people get sorted in to. In chapter 2 of a book I recently reviewed, Guy Halsall calls class, gender, age, nationality (“ethnic identity”), and free or servile status “identities”. My friend James Baillie (who is absolutely not responsible for this essay) uses the term in the same way to describe different kinds of people in the UK today. The blogger and medical doctor Geeky Humanist wrote the following paragraph on “gender identity”

What do I mean by woman? Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. … Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.

Geeky Humanist has some ideas which are strange to me and which I don’t understand as well as I would like to. I don’t think she is saying that a man is anyone who says he is a man, and she definitely does not think it is any person of the male sex, she seems to understand “gender identity” as something more like sexual orientation. I think that calling gender and class and nationality “identities” and just identities confuses people about how power and societies work.
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