Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Unpopular Opinions on Identity Politics

This week: Writers question our understanding and misuse of identity politics, and whether we need to rethink how we talk about cultural appropriation.

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The many claims we lay on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First Kanye West made a few outrageous statements, then Childish Gambino dropped a song, now there’s an old picture of Drake in blackface and a popular TV show got cancelled because of its star’s racist tweet. Closer home, we’re debating the politics of former President Pranab Mukherjee indulging the RSS and whether Veere Di Wedding is a feminist movie.

Breaking down my identity into different demographic metrics was one of the first things I picked up in college. I was a ‘woman of colour’ and an ‘international student’; I am cis, straight, upper caste and class. It was, of course, a result of my privilege, that I’d never had to think of myself in these terms before. Before that, gender had been my only lens to understand why certain things in my life were different from others’ (ie, males). But now race mattered a lot. And learning to navigate it was difficult.

The reality of not being alone in this hit only recently, thanks to this profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. The profile’s author, Larissa MacFarquhar, quotes Adichie’s friend, Chude Jideonwo describing the social anxiety of his first year at Yale, “When I came to Yale, I didn’t know that a person who wasn’t ‘he’ or ‘she’ was ‘they,’ and I felt like I was walking on eggshells, I didn’t know what firestorm I was going to walk into. People didn’t just hold opinions—those opinions were the sum of their personality. I felt that either I agreed with them or they would shun me.”

Right after, comes a quote about race from Adichie herself,

“Sometimes people are reluctant to ask you a question, because they don’t want to ask you anything that’s racist,” she says. “You’re not allowed to say you don’t know, and you’re not allowed to be curious. There are many circles in which asking a black woman about her hair is considered very offensive. Now, there are ways to do that and be offensive, but half the time it’s that people are just sanctioned and left confused. I just feel like we can’t even talk about race.”

It’s hard to say if the profile is flattering. While MacFarquhar doesn’t diminish Adichie’s fame, she also doesn’t shy away from exposing the upper-middle class, liberal American life Adichie clearly leads now (whether she herself admits to liking it or not). The profile lays bare some of the author’s concerns about raising her daughter – when to indoctrinate her with feminism? Is racism worse for a child or sexism? Is this a trade-off to be considered at all?

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

After criticising the hypocrisies of American culture and embracing the belonging she feels in Nigeria, Adichie clearly ends up spending more time in the former and now has to surrender her child to the same system that she has so openly picked apart.

It’s also easy to see a certain romanticisation of Nigeria, especially Igbo culture, that the author seems aware of, but uninterested in unravelling. She’ll admit Igbo culture is more patriarchal but still feels an affinity for her own culture, because it is her own. After going through the ordeal of her father getting kidnapped (but returned safely after the ransom was delivered) she grapples with what seems like near-constant anxiety, all clearly related to life in Nigeria. And yet she wishes to raise her child there.

It’s a lot of pressure – to reconcile your personal desires (especially the unexpectedly pedestrian ones like a doctor-husband and suburban house) with the radical, straight-shooting feminist who don’t need no man. It shouldn’t be. Because as we all know, nobody said feminists can’t marry or want children or do ‘regular’ stuff, as long as they choose for themselves. But too many of us have argued the case for false consciousness for way too long to ignore doubts that say ‘marriage is a patriarchal construct’, etc etc. Is it one person’s job to try and dismantle it all in her own life, though? Even if she has a career built on preaching about feminism?

Like Sam in Dear White People, Adichie, at least in this profile, is painted as someone burdened by her own decision to be the final arbitrator on all things race or gender related, respectively.

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Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to come under fire from one faction of fans or another for anything she says. Credit: Reuters

Identity politics is not about one-upmanship

Part of the problem Adichie seems to be facing is that various groups, who identify with different aspects of her identity, expect different things from her. Nigerians want her to promote their sense of national pride. Her global audience of women, especially women of colour, wants her to challenge white notions of beauty (and power structures that bolster white men). Women everywhere expect her to raise all women up with her words and actions. There’s a lot of pressure to be ‘authentic’ and free of all the macrostructures that bear down on us as individuals. Although, expectedly, everyone ends up drawing boundaries around their activism, choosing to maintain a small inner island of ‘problematic’ behaviour for a variety of reasons.

In a piece titled ‘Identity politics has veered away from its roots. It’s time to bring it back’ Kimberly Foster writes, “A worldview that moves us closer to equality doesn’t stem from living in a certain kind of body. It emerges from pursuing a certain kind of politics.”

Foster uses Rose McGowan as an example of what can go wrong with identity politics. McGowan is a survivor of sexual assault and a big part of the #MeToo movement. But when a trans woman publicly confronted McGowan about past transphobic comments, McGowan not only refused to apologise but went on the offensive against her critic, drawing on her identity as a survivor to ask the audience for their support and sympathy. She went as far as cancelling her book tour because she found questions about her own oppressive behaviour unbearable.

If you’re really fighting for equality, then your trauma probably shouldn’t be used for one-upmanship against someone else’s marginalisation. As Foster points out in the very beginning of her essay, originally, identity politics denoted actions by those “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression”. But, as Foster points out, “treating identities as credentials discourages critical self-reflection.”

Adichie, of course, should probably already know this. But comments about trans women’s experiences being different from cis women’s and other dismissive remarks about post-colonial studies, have led others to suspect a lack of empathy. As readers, we’ve given a lot of credence to Adichie’s words because she writes from a Nigerian, black, feminine perspective – all important aspects of her and others’ lived experience, but that in itself does not (should not) make her an authority on any of these things. Relieving us and her of the impossible pressure of practicing perfect politics.

Foster’s words are worth keeping in mind as we glorify some people for their opinions and ask them to hold forth on things that are increasingly out of their experiential range: “Thoughtful conversations and meaningful activism require a measure of openness that the current paradigms for identity politics don’t always allow. We have to make sure that our exchanges do not reproduce oppressive power dynamics, but every challenge is not oppressive.” (Emphasis added)

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Can black men do blackface? Credit: Twitter/Pusha-T

What we get wrong about ‘cultural appropriation’

Drake in blackface, white women wearing saris or bindis, Kim Kardashian in cornrows – cultural appropriation makes us mad. But, chances are, that some of you don’t consider all these examples ‘cultural appropriation’. Drake is half-black so maybe not? Maybe white women wearing saris makes you feel like they’re appreciating South Asian culture. Personally, I hate when film roles meant for turbaned, bearded Sikh men are given to Bollywood actors who dress up for the roles (in the past, often to mock Sikh men). But, I’m not sure my outrage or discomfort applies to Sikh men who have cut their hair and shaved their beards but put them back on for a role. Or even those instances where a Sikh man’s appearance is not donned to mock but to actually play a fully sketched out character.

More often than not, cultural appropriation is difficult to pinpoint because it’s hard to establish cultural ‘authenticity’. For South Asian kids who grow up in the US and endure teasing for the colour of their skin, their ‘stinky’ food and ‘weird costumes’, seeing the people who mocked them now using bits and pieces of the very same culture is obviously infuriating and hurtful. For their parents, who migrated to the US as adults, or even South Asians in South Asia, the same gestures may mean cultural appreciation, not appropriation. Our individual identities overlap and divulge in unique ways, and there’s no consistent metric for which aspect of ourselves we’ll feel the most affinity for in any given situation. So rules of thumb are difficult to implement.

In ‘I’ve Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here’s What I Got Wrong.’ Connie Wang breaks down the problems with how we talk about this stuff. She writes, “talking about cultural appropriation the way that we have seems to have made us more callous and closed-off on all sides. It has simplified our differences instead of shining a light on our complexities.”

It’s more complicated than our instinctive outrage leads us to believe. Wang writes:

“The point is that it is not black and white. There is no neat answer, especially one that fits into a tweet or an Instagram post. What there is are two convenient responses: shutting it all down if anything feels remotely wrong, or doubling-down on the idea that “every culture appropriates” and blatantly ignoring how culture-swapping can be used to reinforce imbalanced power dynamics, strengthening dominant cultures and keeping marginalized ones in their place.”

So what does one do?

Well, firstly, Wang warns that addressing the symptom (ie, the culture thief) might feel good, but does little in terms of impact (ie dismantling the system that allows specific people to profit off others’ cultures). Wang puts it better. “In other words, spending energy calling out a Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry for casual displays of racism is like trying to stop yourself from barfing when you’re dying from the flu”.

On a personal level, identity politics is difficult because it simultaneously elevates your individual experience to something unique and thus, fundamentally unsharable; but also tells you that there’s a community you can identify with and be a part of based on a singular aspect of yourself. Managing the two is difficult if you start to buy into the immutability of your own experience. Besides, if you acknowledge that your experience is unique to you and others could never truly get what you go through – where do you go from there?

Reading these pieces made me wonder if I’ve jumped the gun a few times, reaching for the most offended aspect of my identity instead of taking a step back to consider other factors – external and internal.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
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