Identity is complex. But that is simply stating the obvious; we all know this as a matter of personal experience. My formal graduate program was “Multicultural and Organizational Communication” and in a nutshell, I often tell people I studied the performance and communication of identity, and its diverse aspects in different spaces – from individual, group, and organizational perspectives. But formal education aside, as Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci deduced, “All men [people] are intellectuals,” and thus have the capacity to think critically of themselves and their situations.
You may have heard that Raven-Symoné, in a recent interview with Oprah, caused a ruckus in the media because of her rejection or denial of certain labels that would be used for her. Specifically the labels, “African-American” and “gay” were labels she distanced herself from. She proclaimed that she wanted to simply be human, which has become a popular thing to do. (As if the acceptance of particular identities would negate one’s humanity.) And indeed while I generally find these sorts of proclamations quite naïve, her declarations were especially ironic given she seemed perfectly fine with honing the label, “American.”
To be perfectly honest, my first response to Raven’s comments was, “Wow, who is her PR manager?” It seems like a rather obtuse thing to say out loud for someone in her public position, given the support from particular groups she has received, notably from Black or African-Americans. That public relations brouhaha aside, when I think critically about the language Raven-Symoné used and the meanings she created because of it, it would appear that it’s not labels that she has a problem with; but rather labels that have historically and indeed even presently, not enjoyed positions of power.
Why is “American” a label she is comfortable with but not “gay” or “African-American?” Or if she for her own identity politics does not use “African-American,” as many people don’t, “Black American” is available to her, is it not? I suspect the rhetorical meanings and differences between those latter two terms is not what she is concerned with.
There will be some who suggest that that whether it’s hyphenated identities that have to do with race or ethnicity, or it is forthcoming association with minority sexualities – these things are divisive to humanity and community. But if that is the case, isn’t national identity and the politics that goes with it, also divisive to the human experience? I suspect that this identity-blindness some people want to promote has nothing to do with making us realize our oneness as human beings. But rather it is about having people in historically “othered” bodies negate their experiences and to some extent feel shame because of it. The erroneous conclusion being that differences, our collective differences, do not matter; when in fact they do.
I do not buy into erasure of differences in identity because while we can think of ourselves as the same, and in the fundamental context of humanness we are; we are also different. There are real consequences for our differences. And I believe we were created differently and rather than choosing to ignore that, I choose to on one hand study those differences in my human observations. And on the other hand, I also spiritually celebrate them as a testament of God’s immense beauty and diversity in creation. The problem has been and always will be the power struggles that exists and ensuing marginalization based on identity differences, not the differences in and of themselves.
All labels, all identity is not an individual choice for better or for worse; they are always socially constructed and dynamic in nature. You don’t have to accept any labels you don’t want to – you are a human with choices, and as Gramsci proclaimed, an individual with the capacity to consider those choices. But the reality of society is that it sooner or later reminds you that even if you don’t see yourself as these labels, they exist nonetheless. And like it or not, you will be inflicted with them.
And perhaps that’s okay even if these identities are problematic and some still have so much power over others – which is why those of us concerned with disadvantaged bodies do the work that we do. And even if celebrating diversity is not your cup of tea, perhaps it’s okay too especially if you’re in a particular position of privilege where ignorance can be bliss, at least for a time. But for many ordinary people, completely ignoring labels at best may result in a mental, emotional, and psychological confusion. And at the very worst, even physical death. If you don’t believe me, turn on the news and think about what you see, critically.