Personal and Cultural Identities

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?)

2 thoughts on “Personal and Cultural Identities

  1. I think this is where there’s the fundamental breakdown in radical feminism with the feminists who reject transgender women as “not real women.” Because of so many of the “womyn only” type of events and groups that grew out of radical feminism (especially in the 70s and 80s), they do see gender is a cultural identity with a specific community. Being “a woman” is a space only available to those born that way, in their opinion. You cannot be adopted into it. As a result, they do see Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as the exact same situation – as people “playing at” being part of a community they have no right to. Ana Mardoll recently had a conversation with some folks on Twitter specifically criticizing to a comment right along those lines.

    Now, I agree with you and think that type of thinking is particularly harmful, nasty nonsense. But your reflection on this does provide some insight into that very odd and disturbing phenomena. I think there’s also something that can be said about how former immigrants see current immigrants as well and the idea of being “adopted” into being American, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.


  2. Yeah, I thought of both those objections while writing, but didn’t want the piece to get any longer. I sort of semi-addressed the TERF position by noting that you can form a community based on gender, but gender isn’t inherently communal. At least I think I remembered to put that in? I’m using the phone app to comment so I can’t actually check.

    Anyway, the example I’d use is two women from different countries. They may choose to form a community, sure, but they are not intrinsically part of the same community just because they are both women–there is no grounds to assume that they share anything in common just because they’re both women. (Indeed, the assumption that all women everywhere had the same issues and needs as middle-class white women in developed countries is the main failing of the second-wave feminism from which TERFs derive.) By contrast, two women from the some country, or a man and woman from the same country, do intrinsically share a common community, namely the community of people from that country.

    But yes, you’re right, the TERF response would be that gender is a cultural identity and there is therefore no difference between Jenner and Dolezal, which is yet another thing they have in common with my Token Conservative Family Member on Facebook.

    As for immigration, that was one of the things I had in mind re: disagreement within a group about who counts. I’d say undocumented immigrants should be counted because it should be as easy as possible to immigrate. Others disagree, because they’re jerks.


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