Can Identity be Chosen or is it In-Born? The ‘Dangerous Deep Waters’ of Identity Politics

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.- Ludwig Borne

I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one ‘race’ – the human race – and that we are all members of it. – Margaret Atwood

The question as to whether a person’s identity is ‘Nurture’ or ‘Nature’ is an interesting one, and considered afresh by Katharine Quarmby in ‘Impostors’ published by Aeon. Quarmby asks how or when a person can authentically claim an ‘identity’ in terms of ‘gender’ and ‘race’ (and other more extreme examples of identity transition).

Quarmby herself not only has ‘mixed race’ parents (Iranian father and English mother) but was also subsequently adopted by parents from different cultural and racial backgrounds:

I was born in the 1960s, after a brief liaison between an Iranian naval officer and an English girl on the South Coast. He offered to marry my mother and take us to Iran. She wanted to go to university, so refused to leave the UK, and instead put me up for adoption. At that time, dual‑heritage babies were ‘hard to place’, in the parlance of today. My adoptive parents were unfazed: my mother is half‑Bosnian Serb, partly Spanish and English; my father is a Yorkshireman. Neither of them minded about the colour of my skin, although the adoption society kept me with a foster family throughout the summer, to see how dark I would become and whether I would develop, as the adoption officer feared, ‘the large Persian nose’.

Caitlin Jenner

Referring to the recent debate over Caitlin Jenner’s very public ‘transition’ from male to female, as well as the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white American woman, who publicly declared herself black, despite evidence to the contrary, Quarmby says:

….the underlying question, as different ‘trans’ identities vie for authenticity, is why we allow some parts of our identity to be chosen, but not others? Though I suspect that part of the growing acceptance of transgender people reflects the fact that there’s no going back.

Her conclusions regarding there being a valid difference between transgender and transracial are not altogether satisfactory though.

First, Quarmby appears to claim that race is fixed by DNA, whereas gender isn’t:

You cannot cross the DNA floor – it’s fixed, unlike gender. Dolezal had a perfect right to immerse herself in black culture and to parent her son by birth and her brother/son. But authenticity matters, even if DNA is on your side.

However, the majority of scientists agree now that ‘race’ is not biological either but a ‘social construct’ like gender. As Nicolas Wade says in What Science Says about Race and Genetics:

Racism and discrimination are wrong as a matter of principle, not of science. That said, it is hard to see anything in the new understanding of race that gives ammunition to racists. The reverse is the case….. The difference between races seems to rest on the subtle matter of relative allele frequencies. The overwhelming verdict of the genome is to declare the basic unity of humankind.

In ‘The Social Construction of Race’ Brian Jones argues that it is ‘imposed’ on people in the USA:

So when I say it’s all made up, I mean it. It’s made up. But that’s not to say it’s not real. It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up…….

Black is something imposed on you in this country. It’s not a self-definition. Look at all those court cases of people trying to define themselves and being told, “No, you’re not that.” Native American tribes have gone before United States courts for generations, explaining that they define tribal membership socially (that is, as people who live on tribal sites and perform tribal practices), not genealogically. But time and time again, the court insists that bloodline is what matters.

This point is backed up by Luca in Race as a Social Construct:

First, race is a social construct contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Second, race has always been defined by the dominant group in society. Third, race indicates differences in status. The status indicated by which race you are, either includes or excludes one from broader social constructs, and disables or enables certain powers.

Second, Quarmby concedes herself that claiming or having an ‘identity’ imposed on oneself that a person has not ‘lived’ is ‘dangerous’ and potentially fraudulent. She shares her own experience of this:

I visited my Iranian birth father in Tehran in 2007. While there, I had to wear the hejab, or headscarf, and a mantoux, a knee-length tunic or coat, just like any other woman. I was often stopped on the street and asked for directions because people thought I was Iranian – on the sleeper train to the historic city of Isfahan, I was pointed to the queue for Iranians, rather than for foreigners. Tempting as it was to ‘pass’, I decided not to. I might look Iranian – half my DNA is Iranian – but I never felt more English than I did in Iran, because that is what I am. Even if I am fully accepted by my birth family, I remain culturally English (and half‑English in ethnic terms). I did not live through the Iranian Revolution, as my half-sisters did, nor through the trauma of our shared father having been tortured and imprisoned. You cannot make this stuff up.

My reality is to live between two worlds as a transracial adoptee. As those Aboriginal elders say, kinship comes down to descent, identification and acceptance. I tick some of those boxes, but not all. I didn’t want to run the risk of being accused of being something I couldn’t, truly, say I was. Just as Borrow exoticised Romani life, wilfully refusing to see slavery before his eyes, anyone claiming blackness or any other ethnic identity who has not lived it is playing a very dangerous game.

Although I agree with her conclusion here, surely that also applies to transgender people though? Anyone ‘transitioning’ their ‘biological identity’ from male to female (or vice versa), who has not lived being female (as in being recognised as female by other biological females and males) is also playing a ‘dangerous game’? Germaine Greer, and others, have argued that transgender women are not women and that saying they are plays into the hands of sexist gender stereotypes.


From my own ‘lived experience’ as a woman and mother, who has lived in several different countries, of a mixed race child (Tibetan and English), to claim a fixed, singular cultural and/or racial identity, even when a person does not necessarily speak or read the majority language fluently, or who grew up in a completely different culture and country (regardless of whether or not one has the ‘racial heritage’) seems particularly hard to accept. In addition, the idea that one’s culture or identity can solely be traced to the ethnicity or culture of one’s parents alone is a pervasive one and yet, the basis and reality of such claims are tenuous and open to question. Quarmby’s article is a welcome step in the direction of looking at such issues from her own ‘lived perspective’ and being honest about how she doesn’t necessarily accept the homogenous identity that is foisted upon her by others’ fixed ideas of ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’.

Quarmby’s final paragraph on the inherent dangers of identity politics is

If identity is the currency that allows us to speak and be heard, and if white people, in particular, feel that they are automatically dismissed because no part of their identity is valorised, what next? After all, many white people have fought and even died in the universal struggle for human rights – in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. That should never be forgotten. In a brilliant essay for the New Left Review in 1996, the historian Eric Hobsbawm cautioned against the ‘deep waters of identity politics’. The essay is as fresh now as it was then. We must look beyond our self-interest in minority silos to wider, universal interests, he wrote, and I agree.

As Hobsbawm states:

‘Never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense become hard to find in real life’. Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain. And they find it in an identity group. Hence the strange paradox, which the brilliant, and incidentally, Caribbean Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has identified: people choose to belong to an identity group, but ‘it is a choice predicated on the strongly held, intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice but to belong to that specific group.’ That it is a choice can sometimes be demonstrated. The number of Americans reporting themselves as ‘American Indian’ or ‘Native American’ almost quadrupled between 1960 and 1990, from about half a million to about two millions, which is far more than could be explained by normal demography; and incidentally, since 70 per cent of ‘Native Americans’ marry outside their race, exactly who is a ‘Native American’ ethnically, is far from clear. So what do we understand by this collective ‘identity’, this sentiment of belonging to a primary group, which is its basis?

Precisely. The answer to that question leaves one swimming dangerously in deep waters with no real land in sight.



Iranian Women Are Taking to Facebook to Protest Against Compulsory Hijabs (VICE article)

“Since May, the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom” has gained more than 770,000 “likes” — of which more than 514,000 are from users based in Iran. Countless women have sent in personal stories accompanied by photos or videos of them shaking their hair in the wind. Some turn from the camera, but others face it straight on. Passport-style photos of young women wearing hijab paired with hijab-free offerings, the contrast startling.

“Being a woman in Iran means that there is always some kind of pressure inside you, at the age of seven you are banned from showing your hair. If you want to go to school you have to cover your hair, and when you want to sing, singing solo is forbidden for women as well,” 38-year-old Alinejad told VICE News. “When I was in Iran I used to create a moment of freedom in any public place when I didn’t see the police around, and I called it ‘my stealthy freedom’,” she added, explaining how the page got its moniker.”

“Human rights is not thinking about the majority. If there is one single woman that is suffering from rights abuse you have to be their voice. I know that there are a lot of women that believe in hijab, but compulsory hijab [still] affects those women who believe in hijab, and those men who are not forced to wear hijab. Because compulsory hijab can make a separation between families, and creates tension. There are a lot of women, just because of the way they dress they judge each other. Hijab affects men as well because it’s an insult to men because it says men can not control themselves.”

Storm in a Teacup: The Curious Case of VICE, Carrie Shirley and the Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama is getting some ‘feminists’ into a frenzy again, this time over a story published by Broadly, VICE about an American woman, Carrie Shirley, who alleges her mother ‘went on a date’ with the Dalai Lama in 1973 while he was visiting England.

Carrie Shirley ‘allegedly’ on a date with HH the 14th Dalai Lama

The Tibetan Feminist Collective (TFC), Students for A Free Tibet and International Campaign for Tibet have gone into hysterical overdrive on social media to ‘defend’ their spiritual leader in the name of ‘feminism’. Their main issue they say is the story is false and that the woman is ‘white’. Yet, ironically, they have done more to promote this story than VICE could ever have dreamed of. How’s that for being utterly counter productive!The TFC  posted on their Facebook page that it was ‘disgusting’ and:

Do they not see how this kind of condescending post marginalizes the plight of Tibetans and consequently diminishes genuine conversations about gender equity in Tibetan Buddhism? Was Broadly always this shitty, and we never noticed until today?

Anyone who knows VICE and their readership will understand that they specialise in provocative, satirical and sarcastic journalism. When I first read it I thought it was satire. I fail to see how this VICE article with a silly headline, that also rightly points out the sexist patriarchy of Tibetan Buddhist culture, ‘marginalises’ the plight of Tibetans and diminishes ‘genuine conversations’ about gender inequality. The fact that the same article considers the view of Buddhist and feminist academic Rita Gross is evidence that they are taking the issue seriously. Religious patriarchy is far more responsible for the ‘marginalisation’ of Tibetan nuns and women over several centuries. Such excessive reaction to something relatively small in the ‘big scheme’ of what is happening in Tibet makes the Tibet issue look ‘marginal’ and ‘petty-minded’. The Shanghaist also found the story ‘highly questionable’ and ‘potentially defamatory‘.

In response, VICE amended the article by stating:

“In light of recent discoveries, the man in the photo above may or may not be the Dalai Lama during his visit to Cambridge in 1973. Broadly cannot verify that it is. However, the women in the photo swear that’s who he claimed to be. This is their story.”

At first glance, the photo does not look like the Dalai Lama, who is normally seen in robes and a shaved head. However, has anyone even considered the possibility that Ms Shirley’s mother may have met the Dalai Lama in England and that he may have worn a wig and lay clothes to hide his identity while he was there? I know and have heard of several Tibetan Geshes and Khenpos who come to live or study in western countries and don’t wear monastic robes (not out of any deception etc. but out of a desire to blend in and not draw attention to oneself). It’s not that unusual or disgraceful. In addition, Ms Shirley has not accused the Dalai Lama of any gross misconduct but did say he was a bit of a ‘pest’ and ‘awkward’ around women.

Far more interesting a story (and worry) is the sexual harassment of female Buddhists by other Tibetan male monastics and lamas, which is often swept under the carpet as non-existent despite numerous similar stories to the contrary. Some have tried to say the photo is of Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, alleged to have pestered and harassed several female students. However, Mary Finnigan, who has written about Sogyal Rinpoche before stated on social media that:

It doesn’t look like Sogyal — even young Sogyal –apart from anything else the young Sogyal didn’t wear glasses and the nose looks wrong. But he was in Cambridge UK in 1973 — shortly before he moved to London. ~it would not be beyond possibility that the young Sogyal talked a lot about HHDL which might have confused this woman — and it is dead certain that if it was Sogyal she encountered he would have made a play for her. We all know that Sogyal is a sex pest.

In addition, there are many Tibetan male lamas (some monastics and some not) who are married to and/or actively pursuing relationships with ‘white women’. Are they racists as well? Groan.

What a storm in a teacup. Ironically, putting so much attention on this story is counter-productive. Many people will laugh at it and the petty battles of ‘politically correct feminism’, even more than they already do now. VICE must be feeling grateful at all the extra publicity they’re getting for a piece which is clearly part humour and part serious. The politically correct, regressive Left need to stop taking themselves and everyone else so seriously and lighten up. The Dalai Lama would probably be first to laugh at this story, true or false. In the meantime, centuries of religious patriarchy and sexist oppression continues which Carrie Shirley and her mother have had, and will have, ZERO influence on.

So the question remains, is that really the Dalai Lama in the picture or is Ms Shirley mistaken?

Perhaps the sunglasses obscured her vision. Or perhaps she is delusional as the photo below mocks. However, since the article was first published on October 11, there has been no official response to it from the office of the Dalai Lama.


Is the Dalai Lama Sexist or has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

“You’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs any more,” said Yo-less. “It’s speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.” ― Terry Pratchett

“The world will be saved by the Western Woman” – the 14th Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama offended US Liberal-Left gender equality campaigners this week, over the ‘scandal’ of him making a suggestion that any potential female successor to his role “must be very, very, attractive”. In a BBC interview, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists said there was no reason why a future Dalai Lama could not be a woman – but she would have to be good looking otherwise she would be “not much use”.

The 80-year-old’s remarks – which he made in an interview with the BBC reporter Clive Myrie, as he talked of succession, or reincarnation – provoked accusations of sexism that plagued the remainder of his tour of the UK, which ended on 22 September.


After watching the interview, it is clear that the Dalai Lama meant it as a joke, albeit an insensitive and potentially sexist one. However, this is not the first time.

In an October 2013 interview with CBS News he was asked about having a female successor and said, yes, of course. He also talked about his weakness for beautiful women (just looking) and joked about married women spending their husbands money. Which the interviewer challenged at the time. This statement was worse than the BBC quote so this is nothing new.

In addition, the Dalai Lama has also been accused of promoting and perpetuating gender stereotypes by suggesting that women and mothers are naturally more compassionate than men:

“In that respect, biologically, females have more potential….Females have more sensitivity about others’ well-being. In my own case, my father, very short temper. On a few occasions I also got some beatings. But my mother was so wonderfully compassionate.”

While many women (and men) might agree with this statement. In ‘Are Women More Compassionate than Men?, this claim was refuted by Emma Seppala the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University:

In short, compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across these studies. But that doesn’t mean that men and women experience or express compassion in the same way–and that’s where the science gets interesting. We might just be prone to seeing compassion through a feminine lens, and so miss the ways in which men try to alleviate suffering.

Some Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala (understandably rushing to defend their inspiring, spiritual leader) have claimed the Dalai Lama meant ‘attractiveness from within’. Yet, earlier in May, the Dalai Lama was even more explicit about how only pretty women need apply. Stating they should also be ‘blonde’: “mischievous” and “her face must be very attractive [or] nobody [will] pay much attention.”

Putting to one side whether ot not the remarks are sexist or not, is it that surprising than an 80 year old celibate monk who has grown up in an all-male monastic and patriarchal culture and environment make such a gaffe? No. At best, the Dalai Lama could be accused of making a joke that sadly has some truth in a world where a woman’s physical appearance has more value than what she says or does. At worst, he might be accused of being insensitive in the way a friendly Grandfather says things they don’t realise are potentially offensive and prejudiced.

However, in comparison with the Islamic Mullahs of Saudi Arabia and Pope Francis of the Catholic Church, the Dalai Lama has a long way to go to catch up with the extreme levels of sexism and misogyny they and their religious institutions condone and encourage. This is yet another example of how many on the Liberal (or Regressive) Left so often get their targets wrong in the name of political correctness.

On the other hand, some might argue that a more objective critique of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism has been long overdue. Some US-based Tibetan activists in the Tibet freedom movement have a tendency to immediately accuse white people of racism and supremacy as soon as they dare to criticise or ‘call out’ xenophobia or sexism in Tibetan culture or society (as if sexism were ethnically or culturally specific). It’s difficult to see how any statement that encourages one to think that women will only be worthy of listening to if they are considered ‘physically beautiful” or generalises that women spend too much of ‘their husband’s money’ could be glossed over as requiring a specific cultural or ethnic lens. That is a racism of ‘lower expectations’. Intersectionality politics will indeed ‘eat itself’ in the end.

Nonetheless, without glossing over the comments, it is fair to say the Dalai Lama, who is a self-declared feminist, is no more sexist than Charlie Hebdo weren’t racist. Maybe their jokes might appear a bit insensitive to some people (who have the sensitivity of a small baby who needs to be wrapped in cotton wool) but frankly, equality campaigners should be a lot more worried about the ‘Thought Police’ (on the Left and Right) who seek to censor and silence the comments of people (who are neither sexist nor racist) in the name of political correctness and not ‘causing offence.’ The rise of ‘Victim Culture’ where everything is potentially offensive should be resisted. The ‘outrage’ about the Dalai Lama is yet another example of harmless, benign comments being used for a regressive ideology that is far more sinister than suggesting men like to look at pretty faces.

Republished from the Huffington Post UK at