Who Are We-And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Who Are We-And Should It Matter in the 21st Century? , by Gary Younge ($17.81)

Amazon:  From those who insist that Barack Obama is Muslim to the European legislators who go to extraordinary lengths to ban items of clothing worn by a tiny percentage of their populations, Gary Younge shows, in this fascinating, witty, and provocative examination of the enduring legacy and obsession with identity in politics and everyday life, that how we define ourselves informs every aspect of our social, political, and personal lives.

Younge–a black British male of Caribbean descent living in Brooklyn, New York, who speaks fluent Russian and French–travels the planet in search of answers to why identity is so combustible. From Tiger Woods’s legacy to the scandal over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, he finds that identity is inescapable, but solidarity may not be as elusive as we fear.

An hour long discussion with the author can be found here.

The comments of an Amazon reviewer:

The author is a well-traveled Columnist for the Guardian and the Nation
magazines. He holds British citizenship and shares with us here some of the
things he has learned as a result of having lived and traveled for extended
periods of time in several countries (UK, the Netherlands, The West Indies,
Sudan, and the U.S. among others). This is his attempt to unravel the enigma of
identity, and to do so without resorting to a psychological explanation or a
strictly psychological framework.

And although he makes a big dent in increasing our understanding about the phenomenon, especially regarding the invisibility of powerful (or majority groups, usually spelled white), I am still not sure that avoiding psychology entirely was the most efficacious approach to
the topic of identity. That said if one reads between the lines, his take easily could be described as an oblique attack on the powerful, or majority groups who use their power for (among other stratagems) to selectively deny that they have an identity at all.

One of the best examples in the book is white denial about being guiltless about slavery — since as they collectively put it, “they were not around at the time.” Yet, Younge points out that this is a typical tactic of powerful groups since in the same breathe as their denials, they have no problem taking credit for more culturally enlightening and elevating behaviors that occurred at the same time as slavery? This kind of selective denial, according to the author, is just one of many tactics powerful groups (spelled white) use to evade the implications of their own neutralized and universalized identity.

Other tactics include calling anything that involves whiteness as “tradition,” “heritage,” or simply “history.” His conclusion is that although everyone has an identity, using white subjectivity as the canvas upon which the humanity of the rest of the world is written gives
whites a powerful unacknowledged and unwarranted advantage in the identity game. What the powerful do is typically seen as being universal and thus race-less, and identity-less, but in fact is no different than any other race or identity.

Another important tactic of the powerful (again spelled white but can be extended to any group) is to appoint a gatekeeper to promulgate political, social and economic edicts that ensure the purity of their identity by building walls to keep others out. On this issue, the author gives us a book full of meaningful anecdotes and vignettes that emphasizes how minor and superficial differences are enlarged and exaggerated to give them pregnant and unwarranted importance and meanings. The best of this lot in my view is his suggestion that
no one went out to attack all “short-haired Christian white men” in the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City? However, several “Muslim looking” men (two of whom were actually Sikhs) were killed in the aftermath of 911, and many others had to go into hiding fearing for their life. The author’s explanation is that powerful groups preserve unto themselves the right to grant identity to “individuals” or to the “collectivity” depending on the nature of the act in question. If it brings honor they will
claim it in the name of the collectivity; if not, it is seen as the act of a colorless individual. Again, whites have the right to selectively choose “to be,” “or not to be,” an identity depending on how it reflects on whites as a whole. But even white criminals are “humanized” in ways that non-whites are not. The U.S. spend an inordinate amount of time rolling out an explanatory and justificatory biography of Jeffery Dahlmer. However, had he been non-white, we could imagine that the focus would have been only on the fact that he was a
murderous cannibal.
The upshot of Mr. Younge’s treatment I believe is correct: It is that identities are rooted in material conditions, viz, political, social and economic resources and circumstances. The true power of identity is reserving the right to make up the rules of entry and meaningfulness, which he calls (racial) ideology. Somehow he closes on an optimistic note that belies the research in the book. Three Stars.

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