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.



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