Host, Kathleen Barry:
The title, Who Are We, signals a questioning about identity and begins an exploration of its “vexed terrain.” Gary Younge, columnist for the Guardian and The Nation and the author of two previous books, lifts our understanding of identity from the taken-for-granted where it is too often treated as a fixed and done thing. Instead, Younge brings us into layers of our identities from micro to macro, from the personal to the political, revealing paradoxes both in how we know ourselves and how others (too often wrongly) ascribe identity to us.
He begins by personalizing his own identity as a Black man who as a child was told so many times to “go back where you came from” as if he did not come from Great Britain, where he was born, that he ceased to think of himself as British until he was older. In that one brief story, Younge encapsulates many of the major themes of this book which include recognizing that identity is both historical and personal, porous and paradoxical. Yet it is, too frequently, reduced to fixed categories by others who are self-proclaimed gatekeepers of a particular identity. They are the ones who insure that you will be othered out if your identity does not fit their criteria.
Why does the complexity of identity that Younge explores matter? In an increasingly globalized world, where currency links states, and banking failures in the U.S. ignite financial crises around the globe, how we know who others are may be as important as how we know ourselves. Where writers on identity may focus their attention on one way we know ourselves – national or racial or gender, etc, and others prioritize one identity over another, (in the 1960s feminists called it the “who- is-the-most-oppressed” strategy), Younge brings out the complexity of all of our identities and we see them changing in time and place. He remembers, for example, when he was in Paris at the age of 22 faced with “the most racist experiences of my life.” But a year later in Leningrad which was fraught with food shortages and rationing, he felt rich when he exchanged the British pound for rubles. Because he did not look like the ordinary impoverished Russian with his “plaited hair, Levi’s and Converse trainers,” he became a symbol of Western wealth. And because he was not classified with the Africans there, he was spared most of the racism they suffered.
Remember, he’s not telling us who we are in the way that fundamentalists of all stripes do – from Rush Limbaugh to the Workers Revolutionary Party he joined as a teenager. In the year between high school and college, he went to the Sudan to teach English to refugee students. Living in and learning an Arab culture while experiencing how Arabs of different classes saw him, he abandoned the rigidity of the WRP for more nuanced and richer understanding of race and class, nation and culture. He found it in lived experience. Now he engages his readers in an approach to identity that is changing, fluid and historically located.
Most importantly, identity is not only about the multiplicity of ways that we know ourselves; it is about how the world encounters us and what that does to us. One chapter is built around the othering of Judge Sotomayer by Senator Jeff Sessions and his fellow Republicans during her Congressional confirmation hearing for her “wise Latina” statement. In trying to discredit her for being biased, they revealed their entitlement of being white and male as the norm, begging the question of what bias is. Likewise, can the charges of women physically abusing men actually be equated with men’s abuse of women? When power is dislocated and disguised, the multiplicity of identities can be stripped away.
Is there such as thing as multiracial identity? Not, Younge will tell you, when Tiger Woods claims it in a way that makes it unique to him. I would wonder, is that the egoism from which his sexism and womanizing originated? Identity is located in community. For example, colored identity in South Africa included Muslims, Christians, Indians, and Malays who were bound by restrictive laws and exclusions. But was colored a religious or cultural or racial identity? How do we conceptualize a multi-cultural identity?
In turning to the social construction of women, we are introduced to the Irish Rose of Tralee contest, as Younge examines changing identity of Irish women from one controlled by the Catholic Church to one represented by Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robertson. Simone deBeauvior pointed out decades ago that women are the only group who have not had a “we.” But a strong feminist movement in Ireland has created the kind of solidarity required for identity to take hold and ushered women into unprecedented changes in one generation.
Or consider how the fear of terrorism is manipulated into the “particularizing and pathologizing” of Islam where issues of mosque locations and women’s headscarves are treated as huge state crises provoking the question of what is at stake both for religious fundamentalism and for those states. This kind of particularism serves whom in a world where corporations are now the power brokers? And as we are reminded, we don’t vote for corporations, which separates us even further from political power.
When Younge says of identity that “the tension between who we are, what we make of it, and what we might do with it is rarely resolved…” I see that as a challenge to step out of our predefined roles. What cinches the significance of the wide breadth and deep penetration of this book for me is that ultimately Younge rests all of the perplexity and paradoxes of identity in our common humanity. I take this to mean the oneness of human interconnection and hence our responsibilities to and for each other, as I believe Younge does.