The Violence of Constructed Identities

A recurring assertion of the contributors to this blog, as evidenced in the quote on the banner from Jean-Francois Bayart, is that identity is not something inherent or static. Identity is constructed, malleable, temporal. The implications of this assertion are many, and the reality of violence, both recent and past, makes those implications even more significant. 

When India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, whether people were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh not only determined the new international boundary between India and Pakistan (as generally majority Hindu and Sikh areas became India and majority Muslim areas became Pakistan) but also determined who became the object of violence. Perhaps out of fear, revenge, or greed, some people identifying with each community slaughtered people in another community because they identified the other community as a threat. Since millions migrated at this time from the places where they were known by others, their identification as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, which determined whether they should be attacked or not, was not always clear. Names and physical traits of hair and dress that can reveal identification as Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim can be altered. So, the identification that clearly determined whether a person was a threat became hard to determine clearly.

In the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, and the commentary following George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the constructed, uncertain nature of identification also appeared. While Trayvon’s race, which many see as a factor leading Zimmerman to identify him as dangerous, goes unquestioned, people disagree about how to classify Zimmerman. Some assert that he is white, while others declare that he is not white because he is Hispanic. Even the US census, which classifies Hispanic as an ethnicity and requires people to select white, African-American, various Asian options, American Indian or other as their race, has considered changing that classification. This lack of clarity reflects the social construction of identifications and the malleable ways race and ethnicity have been connected throughout American history. Similarly, some have complained that Marc Antony sang God bless America at the All-Star Game last week because he, generally identified as a native of New York City with a Puerto Rican heritage, was not an American, despite his birth in the US and American citizenship. For some, the identifier American is not simply based on birth or citizenship but excludes Hispanics.

The realization that people often cannot tell or dispute who fits into which category, whether it be religion, race/ethnicity, or nationality, highlights their illusory, constructed nature. The stereotypes and common attributes of each group are similarly illusions. Nevertheless, those constructed, shifting categories are the basis for people killing, maiming, and dehumanizing others. Recognizing the constructed nature of these identifications does not reduce the trauma that people inflict based on them. It is important not only to emphasize the constructed nature of identification but also to rethink how we employ these identity labels. Simply identifying others (or self-identifying) according to these labels as if those identifications are natural reinforces the discourse of static identity and the related stereotypes. Highlighting the agency of whomever is applying identity labels is a first step in challenging that discourse.

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