Essay 14: Division By Identity
Last week we slew the monster that is microaggressions. In addition to transferring the power to determine how you feel about a situation to someone else, microaggressions place the focus on one’s own needs rather than those of others, exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing to move forward toward our common purpose.
The next obstacle in our path is what is often referred to as identity politics, but I believe is better termed “division by identity.” This refers to the separation of the population into specific groups based on race, religion, ethnicity, culture, or gender. These delineations are by their very nature subjective. They represent a specific and limited list by which to separate people. If the DNA code for our genes were as visible as our skin color, we could add many more categories by which we could distinguish and separate ourselves.
No matter what mechanism is employed to do so, separating humans into groups is problematic. There are serious ramifications of this urge to divide. Witness the increasing rancor in our country as identity groups face off against each other. We need to peel back the layers of this division by identity if we are to find a way out of this major source of contentiousness.
Let’s first consider the concept of family. How would you define family? You might suggest that a family consists of grandparents and parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren. What about great-grandparents? Or great-great-grandparents? Or great-great-great grandparents? How far back does your “family” go?
Most of us generally limit the idea of family to grandparents on one end and a few generations going forward on the other. Only a minority of us have met our great-grandparents and almost none of us earlier generations. The farther back we go in time, the thinner the connection. Nevertheless, we should recognize that what we define as family is subjective. All of humanity likely arose from a single source–a man and a woman–or a few such matings somewhere in Africa, perhaps two hundred thousand years ago. Our concept of family might be considered unjustifiably narrow since all of us are, at the least, distantly related. As hard as we might try, we cannot deny our biological connection to each other.
Still, we naturally coalesce into tribes. Sometimes those tribes are the identity groups with which we are familiar–racial, religious, or ethnic. We form groups based on sexual preference and gender. We surround ourselves with those of similar opinions–we refer to these as political parties. Other times we join because of common interests. Think Sierra Club, AARP, and the NRA. Variety, it is said, is the spice of life. Our differences provide a broad spectrum of music, stories, foods, and experiences. If we were all the same, every movie might as well be in black and white.
Sadly, some of those differences that we celebrate have led to divisiveness. Are we permitted to share the habits and customs of groups other than our own? Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of dress, habit, or ritual particular to one culture by another. When entities choose to use an image or artifact associated with a specific culture for the benefit of promoting their brand, commercial or otherwise, they are often accused of cultural appropriation, of “ripping off” that culture for personal or financial gain. A similar reaction occurs when entertainment studios choose actors to play characters of a specific race or culture who are not of that race or culture.
The common denominator in all forms of cultural appropriation is that a group is offended by the usage of their artifacts or customs by some entity outside of the group. What is the basis for that reaction? As we discussed in last week’s essay, Thank You, Will Smith, it is impossible for any one of us to be offended unless we permit it. We decide our reaction to words, acts, or events. Cultural appropriation is a variation on a theme. It is no different at its core than a microaggression. Someone or some group has decided to be offended, or put another way, has chosen to relinquish control over how they react and respond to a situation or event, even though in the majority of cases the “appropriation” of whatever cultural symbol was involved was innocent, not an effort to denigrate. Cultural appropriation belongs in the same heap of discarded terrible ideas as microaggressions.
Of all national divisions, race predominates. Everyone is well aware of the history of slavery and racism endured by black Americans. One can legitimately argue that we still don’t share the same opportunities in work or education, that although markedly improved, the playing field is still not level. Dividing us into groups, though, will never improve the situation. All it will do is perpetuate conflict by continuing to pit one group against another with ever-changing alliances. It reinforces stereotypes and misconceptions. No problem will ever be solved by maintaining divisions for the purpose of allocating resources.
For the forty-plus years I have been a physician in Washington, DC, most of the people with whom I have worked have been black. From the tone of our current culture, one would assume that as a white man I could not possibly have comprehended what any of them had endured in their lives because I hadn’t walked in their shoes. Following that logic, none of them could have appreciated what had transpired in mine. Yet we have not remained apart, separated by race. We have shared our lives, our family stories, our illnesses, and our triumphs. It is no exaggeration to say that we care about and even love each other. How could we not? Our lives have become intertwined and entangled. The message is not that racism is extinct and that no racial issues remain. Rather, the message is that through shared experiences race–and all the separators we have chosen to recognize in our culture–become diminished.
No person should face discrimination for any reason. I believe that we should, as the Pledge of Allegiance states, live in one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We will never get there if we continue to insist that instead of one humanity we are first and foremost Christian, Muslim, Jewish, White, Black, Brown, Asian, Hispanic, Progressive, Conservative, Democrat, or Republican.
Only two categories of people exist, the good and the not-so-good. No single distinction–race, ethnicity, religion, or gender–can help us distinguish the two. Good people, who in number exceed the not-so-good people by orders of magnitude, come in all flavors. It’s easy to generalize, to condemn a group of people with whom you are unfamiliar and about whom you have heard only awful things. Once you get to know one of the good people in that group, you quickly realize that the “facts” you have been fed about that specific tribe cannot possibly be accurate. Hate and bigotry are learned.
We can and should celebrate and appreciate our differences in culture. We can and should respect the rituals and traditions that have shaped us. But we should vigorously reject any distinction that puts us at odds with each other. We possess the essential tool to move away from division, to end this separation into one identity group or another. That tool is the knowledge that our shared goal is to move from selfish to selfless, from inward to outward-focused. It is the ultimate magic wand.
Next: Why Bother To Do Anything?
When: Wednesday, June 22, 2022