Whether it’s identity politics, arguments based on the primacy of self-identification, or political or social dismissal based on easy identification, “identity” is a concept both increasingly important and sadly analyzed. CEOs have been forced to resign. People anathematized and supported by various members of racial and ethnic communities. Religions made monolithic for easy targeting. All of these are bound up in our word “identity” and the problems it presents. Our age itself seems to be one in which identification is itself an anthropology; one in which projection and self-realization replace reasoned discourse about the complex nexus of relations that actually defines a person, organization, or structure’s identity.
Popularly, our identities are posited as both self-fashioned and pre-determined. The notorious Rachel Dolezal case serves as the example par excellence. Defending her blackness, Dolezal has argued, “You can’t just say in one sentence what is blackness or what is black culture or what makes you who you are.” Opponents, however, have emphasized her inability to know blackness empirically. As her successor at the Spokane NAACP recently claimed, “You can’t portray that you have lived the experience of a particular race that you aren’t part of.” The same issue surrounded trans-rights in an earlier time, when TERFs (trans-exclusionary, radical feminists) refused to acknowledge that someone not born a woman could know the experiences of (and therefore be) a woman. Mary Daly, the Boston College theologian and radical feminist, saw the attempt of trans-women to identify as women as an invasion, even an attempt to conquer, female identity:
Today the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology. The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms. Transsexualism is an example.
At least in the racial example, prominent figures have aligned themselves on both sides, and so the mainstream seems confused. This confusion stems from the emphasis on the individual as the manifestation of some pure identity, uncomplicated by social factors. In the Dolezal Case, on the one side, we have Dolezal herself, who sees identity as predetermined and in need of self-actualization. It is unclear precisely how this consciousness forms, but what is clear is that this is out of the person’s hands. What feels right must be right, both in a personal and a social sense. It’s the secular rethinking and reorientation of the Kierkegaardian “What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” The other side presents the same pre-determined, nearly fated, identity, but within the context of community. Blackness is experiential, implying that it has a limited range of expressions. Blackness is implied to coincide with Dolezal’s conclusions; she is allowed to be an ally. But her alliance with blackness is not blackness itself. That is something beyond the subject’s control.
That last point is both an important part of and an effective critique of contemporary identity. Identity is both given and created, unassailable and malleable. My parents, my birthplace, my upbringing, and my social circumstances will all affect my identity. White, male, pseudo-Catholic (for so I was born) were and are all parts of how I have come to understand who I am now and where I come from. Some of that is inescapable. Whiteness cannot be dyed away, nor can my experience of my position as a white person be changed. Undeniably, it carries some privileges. That said, whiteness means different things in different places: in China and Africa an oddity, in America a privileged existence. My born pseudo-secularity has also been an advantage, placing me both within and outside the sphere of my peers, both ir- and religious. I have both the lexica of the lunchroom and the Mass. At the same time, I have inborn desires I have had to release, modify, even control. I feel a vocation to academia, a difficult place for a Christian. Likewise, I know to which sins I am predisposed; I have seen the fleeting gratification they bring and the ultimate sadness and isolation they foreshadow. What feels right is not always what is right.
And that is where the Catholic notion of identity is most enlightening: we are political animals, created in the image of a God who both blesses us and demands of us. Dolezal is right that she should assert aspects of her identity; she is wrong to assert them in a way that privileges the individual over the communal. Her successor is right to emphasize that one cannot simply claim an identity and pretend to it; she is wrong in the implication that blackness can be adjudged monolithically. A Catholic anthropology embraces this complex nexus of relations. Born to lead in service, to die to ourselves to gain true life, to give everything lovingly to a world likely to hate. Identity is not so easily reducible or formulable as we normally think. As Edith Stein, a woman caught between seemingly contradictory identities: Jewish, Christian, nun, and philosopher, wrote:
The true Christian is not obliged to renounce the things of this world or to lessen his natural abilities. On the contrary, inasmuch as he incorporates them into his normal life in a disciplined manner, he develops and perfects them; he thereby ennobles the natural life itself, supplying efficacious values to it not only of the spiritual and eternal world but also of the material and earthly world.
An identity requires discipline and bravery, openness and insight. Witnessing this reality should itself be an aspect of Christian identity in our age.
Chase Padusniak is a doctoral student at Princeton University, where he specializes in medieval English literature.