I have been asking myself the same question for two years now: “How is identity performed?” I guess the word perform here makes identity seem like a sort of role, or mask, insofar that is not necessarily lived, which can be seen as the operative opposite of performance. Nonetheless, I think the word perform has specific uses, primarily when we are dealing with often homogenous understandings of our identities, commonly produced and propagated through consumable and shareable media. It is the desire to perform identity, as oppose to living it, which makes cultural politics and coalition-building so difficult, for the means by which identity is interpreted and realized is often determined at the axes of political cultures. I will attempt in this post (my first post in a while about race!) to explain what I mean.
Swarthmore’s Black community is relatively small, comprised really of concentric and/or adjacent rings of friend groups. I suppose the entire community itself is one cluster, with a few outliers who have decided, for some reason or another, to completely disassociate or limit their contact with other Black students. This, however, does not delegitimize their experiences as Black people at Swarthmore, or as Black people in general. These students, who have their own lives, have their own perspectives wrought by their own experiences, have their own crucibles of existence in which their identities were forged, tried and tested, are free to come and go from the community, or to completely disengage from it, and this do not mean they are any less Black, that they bear a self-hatred towards their Black skin or their Black forbearers, that they do not hate micro- or macroaggressive racism any less than the community insiders do. Those who belong to SASS, Swarthmore’s BSU, are not legitimized in their blackness, neither are individuals in SASA, the African student group, or SOCA, the Caribbean student group, or anyone who frequents the Black Cultural Center, or students majoring in Black studies, or students who attend summer research programs at the Schomburg Center, etc. Nonetheless, we were always trying to answer the question of “why do they isolate themselves?” wondering what it was about our community which makes it unwelcoming to these students. I will not try to list our conjectures, but it is a question I ask myself often as I attempt to conceptualize my own blackness.
But what is blackness? Is it cultural (eg: Africana culture; what does Africana even mean outside of a purely sociohistorical context in or relating to American (continental) slavery)? Is it biological (eg: pigmentation, hair texture, etc.)? Is it sociological (eg: race as social construct)? Or an uneven mix of all three? Even if we were to define blackness as a sort of lived experience, there are always exceptions, always outliers, which statistically we are prone to eschew as “those who do not belong,” but who nonetheless should always serve as the new margins from which we conceptualize a global, as opposed to exclusive, experience. It is also totalizing for me to give an inevitably faulty working definition for what blackness means, for my experience is not the universal experience, nor is/are the experience(s) of the person or cluster of people at the “center” of Swarthmore’s black student “solar system,” or those of any Black person. The way we experience, understand, internalize and engage with our blackness is different, for the paths of our lives as Black people take meandering paths and it is not the destination which makes us who we are, but the people we become along the way.
Nonetheless, what I want to say in this post is that the production and interpretation of our identities must be allowed to be fluid. It seems that in all marginalized communities, a cultural policy emerges which positions the production of a uniform cultural identity, composed of a selection of politicized qualities, as the best tactic towards cultural renewal or the reclamation of a lost dignity. For one, I am reticent to consider dignity (a nicer way of saying pride, which is, after all, one of the most enticing and therefore one of the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins) an emotion (or even a social construct) worthy of serious consideration, for the concept of dignity (as in, “it is beneath me to act in this way”) can serve as an impetus for the production of homogenous and hegemonic cultural politics. This is not to say that dignity and pride are not important, but that the means by which we develop and contextualize dignity as social virtues can 1) fall within hegemonic discourses (eg: “Straight people do this, and straight people are respected, and therefore, to be respected, I, a queer person, need to do this.”) 2) reject hegemonic discourses in ways which produce nuanced forms of marginalization (eg. “White people do this, and white people are racist, and therefore, to reject racism, I, a non-white person, cannot do this.”) These examples are purposefully vague, but they are often the logic which produces some of the most thoroughly ingrained and insidious of the cultural politics of the oppressed. When you reject “nerd” culture (eg. video gaming, spending time on online chatrooms, fan culture, larping, cosplaying) because nerds are typically portrayed as white, and you understand everything white to be evil, you ascribe non-white nerds the disdain to which you ascribe white nerds in ways which invalidate their experiences as non-white. Not only may they face marginalization within their “nerd” communities, but they now must struggle to find validation within their experiences as persons of color. Another example is tastes in music. I will not say that music is not racialized, or that certain kinds of music do not pertain to or emphasize the specific politics of individual groups (e.g. reggaetón to Puerto Ricans, bluegrass to Appalachia, hip-hop to “urbanites”), and the means by which music, as a rapidly consumable and circulatable form of media, becomes globalized often removes some of the racial or cultural boundaries which marries a certain genre to its creating culture – but to tell a Black girl that she cannot like K-pop because its Koreanness is incompatible with her Blackness is to enforce the very idea that music, and through that, all forms of art, exclusively belong to a certain group. You invalidate her experience as a Black person by questioning her identity because of her tastes, for you outline the box in which identities ought to and must function within. We should strive to be against such kinds of brutal categorization.
This is another point: identities are not just the ones which are most politically and academically salient. Race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and nationality are some of the identity markers which are most often discussed and debated, and I’m not going to try and debate their cultural significance (as someone who studies race, gender, class, and nationality, it does me a disservice to say these topics are unimportant) but a person is not just a list of six or seven identities. (People aren’t lists of anything, but that’s a digression.) Identities are not always so legible, and one’s identity ultimately influences the ways they interact with the world. Nerd, jock, and theater-kid, to use stereotypical high-school terms, are identities labels which shape the experiences of those who find themselves within the fluid, semipermeable boundaries which distinguish one identity from another. Some people are on the boundaries of two, and some understand their experiences within both groups to be somewhat coterminous. You can, in fact, be a nerd and a jock, or an Honor student and a class-clown, or a theater-kid and a party-animal. Politicized identities like race, gender and sexuality, are important, and often the loci of the most odious forms of prejudice, but all forms of prejudice are odious. Are humans so inherently intolerant a species that any characteristic which seems foreign offers justification for the marginalization of others? I would argue yes!, but it is only within our a best interests to push beyond the impulse to ostracize, isolate and surveil one another. We must strive towards fluid identities insofar that those whose identities are politicized are allowed to live honest, fair and organic lives free of respectability politics and the marginalizing gaze, but we must also strive towards a complete deconstruction of categorization as a social practice.
How does this happen? As we live right now, it would be a completely alien process to see a person approaching and not scan them subconsciously for information with which you will understand them. It is against your nature as a human being, as a social creature, to do so. This process, as automatic as it may seem, is violent for it strips the body of its meaning, renders raw information human-readable at the expense of the person being watched, analyzed. One reads the body for information which tells us only about ourselves and very little about others. A Black person walking down the street has their body decoded by the gaze, information is extracted from the databank of their skin and compared with what is already known, with what is both familiar and foreign. The onlooker’s mind may wander to images of Black celebrities like Lebron James and Rihanna, and ascribe their characteristics onto them (“Oh, you must be great at basketball!” “You look so exotic. I just love your skin complexion.”) or they may be ascribed that blackness with with the characteristics of negativity which mar Black perception in the media (“Oh, it must have been so hard growing up in the ghetto.” “You poor thing; I’m sure your father loves you, wherever he is.”). To be against categorization is not to exist within a race-blind world, for until race becomes socially meaningless, treating it as socially meaningless only inhibits the progress of people of color. To be against categorization, however, is to engage with one’s prejudice internally, to realize the dangers and detriments of one’s beliefs as they constitute a larger system of information and knowledge, the nationalist and interpersonal campaign against the other as an amorphous entity.
There is no right way to perform your identity, to fit into your skin, to wear your gender like a mask. You reading Native Son six times in one year does not make you any blacker than the person who has never taken an Africana studies class or the girl who thinks that Native Son isn’t very good. Your Twitter rantings about the limitations of third wave feminism does nto make you any more of a woman than the person with whom you feud in the comment sections of the Refinery29 article, saying “I think men have it hard too, and that’s why I’m not a feminist,” making your eyes hurt at her words. Your identity cannot be taken away from you, despite the feeling of isolation that you may feel within your marginalized communities. You must resist the urge to internalize and act on that homogeneity, though. Even if you don’t like anime, hating on someone else for liking it, because it’s “un-Latinx” does not somehow validate your own latinidad, but only proves how narrow your understanding of the possibilities of your existence really are. And to live within so small a world is not at all a bad thing, but you cannot and should not enforce that narrowness on others, less the very communities we build to support the marginalized develop their own doubly- or triply-marginalized folk, and ceaseless discrimination begins anew.
When I was younger and not very kind, I found the Black students who shrunk at my sight at Swarthmore to be traitors. I looked at them and said “If you don’t want to be my friend, I don’t want to be your friend” and went out of my way at times to make them feel excluded. I have since grown a lot, and although I acknowledge that just because we’re Black doesn’t mean we have to be friends, I nevertheless understand that everyone has reasons for their own positions, for their reticence or their excitement to be in a community, and these feelings ultimately do not add to or subtract from the ways that these people exist in public space, under permanent surveillance. If progress moves in any direction, if any spatial logic can be applied to the future towards which I project my hopes and dreams, it is towards a fluidity of the self, of the spirit; a new form of tolerance which becomes its own form of hegemony, which encourages its own schemas of internalization, which resists the very human urge to deconstruct with our eyes and categorize with our mouths. It will be a monumental feat, the likes of which will likely change human civilization immensely and forever. Yet, it is the next bound, the next hurdle we must jump, together, for one another.
Artwork: “Terence Nance III” by Kehinde Wiley