Last year, I took the University Studies sophomore inquiry course, American Identities. On the first day of class, the professor requested that students introduce themselves and, with the course title in mind, include an identity with which each individual connects. She made sure to deliberately mention that what is shared as part of one’s identity doesn’t have to be a racial descriptor.
Nearly every student, however, described themselves by their race. Some responded passively: “I’m just a whole bunch of white. Clearly nothing special.” Non-whites made up about half of the classroom and also identified themselves by race. The professor interjected part way through to remind students that, while racial identity is important, one may also provide another facet of their identity. One declared herself a mother, another a student, another a brother, another a vegan. I identified as a musician.
Last year, a presentation titled, “New Campus Thought Police” took place at Portland State featuring PSU professor Peter Boghossian, author and philosopher Christina Hoff-Sommers and comedian Dave Rubin. During the discussion, Hoff-Sommers exclaimed, “Forget your identity; transcend your identity!” Her powerful statement is quite a slap in the face to the identity politics so prevalent in society today.
People cling to their notions of identity, perhaps in an effort to show the world where they fit and what they’re about. In PSU classrooms, students are being taught what it means to have certain identities (racial, sexual, religious, etc.), and these lectures tell us what to think in terms of where various identities fit into a hierarchy of oppression.
However, if you are willing to think independently, you can transcend this rigid form of thinking. You can decide whether or not to allow these ideologies to infiltrate your life in a way that undermines your power and potential as an individual.
While the “hierarchy of oppression” school of thought is well-meaning and sympathetic toward those who have it rough, I hardly find it progressive—especially in telling people where they fit on a scale of oppressed against oppressor and linking it to personal identity. When these parameters are expected to define a person’s sense of self, people can overanalyze every interaction, police language, and berate others’ opinions because they’ve been taught that being a good person means buying into oppressed/oppressor dialogue and acting accordingly.
Identity politics is a formula for neuroticism and high emotional tension. One is led to feel either unjustified guilt or victimized in a merciless world, and this is not productive thinking. Assuming these general ideas in terms of black and white is dangerous and produces real division in our society.
Ponder these ideas for yourself, but envision this: You are an uber-liberal, fully immersed in a leftist campus. You hear professors, student leaders, and your fellow peers carrying on about white privilege. They contend that every white person has had it easier than others in life, what they have was given to them, and that white people are inherently racist and taught to be so.
You mention these issues to one of your white friends, and they begin to feel uncomfortable. They grew up in a small town, up to their neck in poverty and suffering. They moved to Portland, got three jobs, and found the ability to make their way in life. They see many examples of successful minorities, often lauded and upheld, while they are personally cornered for not acknowledging their privilege. You tell your friend their feelings are not valid because of their oppressive whiteness, and the two of you never speak again.
Have you ever unfriended someone over political disputes? Why? Is it not OK to associate yourself with people who think differently than you? Doing so may give you insight as to why you believe what you do, and may even help you strengthen your arguments in the process. And heaven forbid you have a change of heart. It’s healthy to change your perspective when encountering reasonable and substantiated arguments, to put yourself and your notions of identity aside.
Although I’d be hesitant to call myself a Wiccan, I really dig one of its main tenets: Do and believe whatever you wish, but do no harm. If people feel harmed by intangible ideas, they evidently don’t have enough confidence in their own beliefs to avoid reacting with strong emotion. This is not a concern of yours; rather, it is metacognition that needs to occur on behalf of the offended.
My point here is not to pick a side or defend anyone, as we should all have both the wherewithal to defend ourselves and the willingness to change our minds for the better. Extremists of every persuasion have personal motivations and emotions that drive them. What are they? Why does the person on the other side have such hate in their heart? What experiences led them to think this way? They may need a caring person, perhaps yourself, to explain a more empathetic point of view. Shutting down dialogue will only anger and entrench an already chosen stance.
The point? It’s not about you. Your identity doesn’t matter. What matters is how you behave and the ripples you create in the world. Your experiences matter, but by subscribing to a particular identity you can severely limit your opportunities, experiences and worldview. Transcend your identity by giving serious thought and empathy to other points of view. Free yourself. Forget your identity.