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Why Do Social Identities Matter?

Why Do Social Identities Matter?

To be is to be recognized, Hegel argued. And the reason, by his thinking, was not so much psychological as epistemological. It is not that we are hopelessly social creatures or weak-minded souls, that we hanker endlessly after acknowledgement and appreciation, but rather that we cannot know ourselves reliably without confirmation that what we think we know is true. We might, after all, be delusional about our capacities, our brilliance, our charisma. We need the judgment of others to confirm our self-understanding.

But what if the feedback we receive from others is wrong, perhaps intentionally so? What if I am seen and interpreted through some bogus category of social identity that confers more, or less, attention and prestige on my ideas than they rightfully deserve? Hegel is concerned that recognition is non-reciprocal between master and servant: masters take respect as their deserved due, their experiences worthy of attention, and their beliefs deserving of assent, while the views and interior lives of servants is beneath notice. This has a noxious effect on civil society, Hegel surmised, affecting not only our relations with others but the very development of our capacities and subjective lives.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre glossed Hegel’s point in this way: “The road of interiority passes through the Other.” What Sartre called “the Look” tells me who I am as an object in the world, filling the content of what Sartre called my “situation” within and against which my own self-making occurs. Sometimes, of course, before I can utter a word, I find myself “recognized” as inferior, pigeon-holed as a “type.” Through the veneer of conventionally defined identity categories, we may be severely misjudged, with reverberating effects. Without the opportunity to exercise my powers of discernment and have them fairly assessed, my capacities may atrophy. I might then appear incompetent simply because I lack the confidence of the comfortably dominant. I may project indecisiveness because I am dubious about how my claims will be received. Or conversely, my visible identity may confer an aura of expertise and trustworthiness that is in reality totally undeserved, and that encourages cognitive laziness on my part.

The categories of lord and bondsman that Hegel is concerned with may most clearly be translated in terms of class; but the same dynamic can play out in regard to race and gender, those most everyday forms of visible identities by which we navigate our social worlds. Race and gender, after all, can peg us as born servants or likely masters. These forms of identity have long been taken as reliable indicators of our likely temperament and intellectual capacity. The fallibility of our race and gender identities as reliable predictors in these matters is becoming more well-known. So, wouldn’t we be better off without them? Or downplaying them as far as humanly possible?

What has come to be known as identity politics gives a negative answer to these questions. If social identities continue to structure social interactions in debilitating ways, progress on this front requires showing varied identities in leadership, among other things, so that prejudices can be reformed. But the use of identities in this way can of course be manipulated. Certain experiences and interests might be implied when in reality there are no good grounds for either. For example, when President Donald Trump chose Ben Carson, an African American, to head up the federal department overseeing low-income, public housing, it appeared to be a choice of someone with an inside experience who would know first-hand the effects of government policies. Carson was not a housing expert, nor did he have any experience in housing administration, but his identity seemed like it might be helpful. When the appointment was announced, many applauded it, assuming that Carson must have lived in public housing, and neglected to investigate any further. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee claimed that Carson was the first Housing and Urban Development Secretary to have lived in public housing, and called Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi a racist for criticizing Carson’s credentials. Carson’s appointment helped to make President Trump appear to be making appointments with an eye toward an insider’s perspective, unless one checked the subsequent news outlets that explained Carson’s actual background. In fact, Carson never lived in public housing. As a neurosurgeon, it is far from clear what in Carson’s background prepared him for a role leading the federal housing department other than the superficial feature of his racial background.

Clearly, social identities are not always misleading in this way, but they can be purposefully used to misdirect. They can also be used to manufacture or heighten conflict. Allowing housing discrimination to continue to flourish has created significant differences in real estate values across neighbourhoods with different ethnic and racial constitutions, causing the most substantial part of the differences in wealth between groups. These differences, and the related differences of interest that result, are not a natural outcome of racial differences, but the product of real estate policies and practices that segregated neighbourhoods and orchestrated economic disparities that would cross multiple generations. It is important to understand the conflicts of interest that result from such differences as produced by political policy, rather than being reflective of natural or pre-political conflicts. While our shared identities can signal true commonalities, we need to ask: what is the true source of these commonalities?

A further complication results from the fact that social identities are always complex properties, with multiple intersecting parts. I have a national identity, or as in my case, and increasingly common, a couple or more. I also have some form of gender, race and ethnicity (or again, races and ethnicities), age, sexuality, class status, health status, and religion. And most of these will be, most of the time, perceptible in one way or another to those I encounter, especially if I decline to assimilate in dress or otherwise work to conceal them.

Some argue that these complexities of social identity negate their epistemic significance, or complicate the latter beyond all reasonable utility in intersubjective interactions. And further, since varying aspects of my identity can be used to mislead, as in the Carson example, it would be best to ignore our identities as far as we possibly can. We should strive, as the saying goes, not to see colour.


Let us walk our way off this cliff by considering what objective features even mercurial, changeable, and complex social identities do have. After all, social identities are, by definition, social: they are embedded in social relations, emergent features of our inherent sociality, with effects that are largely produced by our varied social contexts. And social contexts and relations can be studied and measured to yield predictable differentials correlated to identities. And social contexts can also be changed.

First we can agree, I suspect, that most aspects of our identities are not volitional. We have not chosen them, nor can we change them. Social identities are not like voluntary affiliations to a sports team or a political ideology. If I have citizenship in the United States and pay taxes to the U.S. government, then I have U.S. nationality no matter how dis-identified I may be. I gain benefits every time I travel with a U.S. passport and, whether I want these or not, it is impossible to avoid these benefits completely. Furthermore, in most cases, our bodily shapes and movements reveal our gender, age, and disability or able-bodiedness, and sometimes, of course, these can also suggest our sexuality. For most of us, there is only so much re-training we can do to appear to have a different identity: the leg will drag, the protuberances will protrude.

Photo by William Eckersley

Now, of course, the meaning of these signs is an altogether different matter. Whether age generates contempt or deference will depend on the operative meanings associated with it in any given context. One may be tempted to label these variations of meanings as cultural, but I suggest we remember that they are first and foremost historically produced and evolving. Cultures are constantly changing, influenced by forces both internal and external, but individuals alone cannot effect much change by themselves. And this again indicates a

non-volitional feature of our social identities. I cannot by myself change the meanings associated with skin colour in my society. I can join with others who are endeavouring to do so, but as we know, this is a difficult and long process. One option some do have is to move. I can choose to live in a neighbourhood or a city with fewer expected micro-aggressions against my racial identity or my accent, or I could move to another country, as W.E.B. Du Bois chose to, as a way of escaping negative social reactions triggered by my appearance and my actions. But unless I have the ability to move, the sedimented histories of race- and ethnic-based hatreds and fears, and the enduring attitudes of superiority have the potential to infect every representation, every encounter, every job interview.

The meanings and significance associated with our perceptible identity differences, then, have been produced by historically based experiences and formations. Mexicans in Germany report much less prejudice than Mexicans in the United States, since in Germany Mexicans generally come as students and are not associated with a dispossessed, conquered population forced, since 1848, into low-paying, derided jobs. The situation is the reverse in Germany for Turkish folks. Many of our unconscious or semi-conscious associations between given races and ethnicities and their intellectual capacity or moral temperament or likely form of employment have been developed through macro-historical events like wars, enslavement, colonial annexation of lands. These events were real, but the effects they had on social relations and social ideas were often to conceal significant facts. The sphere of meanings may yet appear to be in the sphere of ideas, and hence subject to concerted efforts of change. But there is another aspect of our social identities, or some of them, that is even more resistant to change. This is the aspect I will call our positionality, or the way in which we are positioned in the social caste hierarchies that exist in our society. To be born white is to be positioned at the top of a racial caste system. One’s position can be affected by other mediating elements, such as class most importantly, but whiteness almost always confers some advantage over others. Consider what kind of advantage this is. One must once again focus on the historical to get the full picture; racial advantages cannot be understood if they are reduced to discrimination in the present moment. The white half of my own family immigrated to the United States from Ireland and the British Isles in the 19th century, predictably penniless. But as whites, unlike others, they could immediately become citizens, vote, and have a say in their new communities. They could also take advantage of the available homesteading opportunities, by which landless immigrants could become property owners in the space of a single generation. The land my great, great grandfather and his brother were able to gain title to, through severe conditions of labour and dogged endurance to be sure, did not make the family rich, but it ensured survival and dignity. And, eventually, it was able to bring most of the family into the middle class. Such advantages for white families continue to accrue across the generations because of low inheritance taxes and ongoing discrimination in employment and housing that falls below the radar of equal employment laws or the fair housing act.

Thus, one’s position in a caste hierarchy must be understood in relation both to the past and the future – creating one’s current economic position through previous social policies and practices, even if these are now eliminated. And where one’s position is today has an effect into the foreseeable future toward maintaining one’s comparative group advantage. These are objectively measurable features of our social identities. The meanings of race may no longer be understood as immutably biological, and yet the historical production of racial rankings and differential social positions may prove to be almost as recalcitrant as we once thought biology to be.

Photo of Hans-Georg Gadamer

A final, very important aspect of social identities concerns their relationship to our way of being in the world, so to speak. By this we might use the term “subjectivity” to signify the ways in which we might be likely to interpret, notice, or react to new information or events. As an immigrant from Latin America on my father’s side, some events in the news are foregrounded for me over others, ringing in my ears repetitively as I try to go to sleep. I cannot help but check the claims of conservative politicians against what I know to be true from direct first person experience. I feel an emotional identification with certain players over others in the ongoing refugee dramas. The other features of social identities that I have outlined thus far may be understood as caused by externalities: our visible or otherwise perceptible somatic features by which others slot us into categories that are presumed to have certain meanings and significances; our inherited social position in the hierarchy of group identities that confer differential possibilities. But our social identities also constitute important elements of what Hans-Georg Gadamer called our “hermeneutic horizon” – the background of experiences that influence how we interpret, judge, and even notice events around us. Our dispositional attitudes, cognitive tendencies, and ready-to-hand frames of reference are, at least in part, related to group identities.

We might call these various aspects of our identities, then, the historical, the positional, and the hermeneutic. Together, these should challenge overly individualistic approaches that rely on volitional capacities for self-making. We do engage in self-making, but as both Marx and Hegel emphasized, the tools we have at our disposal in this task are for the most part not of our own choosing. *** To return to a topic raised earlier, how can we offset the tendency of these identities to be politically manipulated? Or simply turned into a sufficient reason to vote for one candidate, say, over another? Identities are widely understood by the general public to be indices of experience. A black president should be likely to understand the on-the-ground ramifications of racism better than a white president; a woman should know more about the challenges faced by working women, such as the difficulties posed by sexual harassment on the job. Candidates can make use of these assumptions, but in truth, identity and experience is only a rough and defeasible correlation, as most are well aware. Girls can grow up surrounded by brothers and learn little about typical girl activities; some white folks are raised in racially exclusive enclaves, while others who attend primary schools with diversified populations absorb varied influences. We can use identities as a general guide to what a person may be likely to know, but such assumptions can be so misguided as to be offensive if not used with caution.

Yet let us not go too far with these utopian imaginings about how cautious broad members of the public are. If we bring in the non-volitional aspects of social identities – historical, positional, and hermeneutic – we can explain some of the current differences in public opinion, and understand political manipulation as operating (still nefariously, to be sure) on already existing divisions. Opinion polls on matters relating to race continue to show significant differentials with political relevance: most whites today accept inter-racial marriage, but only about half see racism as significant in the criminal justice system, as opposed to the great majority of black and brown folks. Unless you’ve seen unprovoked police hostility and violence with your own eyes or heard a detailed account of an experience from a close friend or relative you may be sceptical about how often such things occur, especially if your own experiences with the police have been cordial. Controversies about whether the #metoo movement has “gone too far” also divide public opinion. Identities continue to reliably track differences of experience as well as motivations, and the latter inform our interpretive judgments in myriad ways. Yet, because of this very fact, what we should conclude from a better understanding of the realities of social identities is that it is not irrational to vote with identities in mind. It is legitimate to assume that a candidate who shares our identity will understand the social position we occupy, the resistance we encounter, and how recalcitrant that resistance is. Because of the complex intersections of identity, sharing just one aspect – ethnicity, say, but not gender or class – may not yield much commonality of experience. But it is not foolish or benighted to consider social identity relevant. So consider again Hegel’s point, that our intersubjective dependency is driven in part by our need for epistemic confirmation. From whom can I reasonably expect to gain useful confirmation or disconfirmation of an assessment I made of a given encounter? Not from just anyone. Social identities matter for epistemic reasons, and these reasons inform and affect our political cultures. For Hegel, the capacity to engage in civic life – with open and free debate in the public sphere – is not important merely so that we can express our interests, but to discover and in some cases establish our interests, as individuals or as groups. However much our selves are historically created and subject to structural or systemic dynamics, we can have a hand in their further and future development. But this requires an understanding of who we are, how we came to be, and where, beyond our differences, we may yet establish a shared set of goals. Linda Martín Alcoff is professor of philosophy at Hunter College, City University of New York. She specializes in social epistemology, feminism, and philosophy of race theory, and her latest book, Rape and Resistance, was published last year by Polity.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.


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