The politics of identity

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published July 1, 2001

We all know someone who is mixed, interracial, biracial, whatever you want to call it. What I find interesting, but rarely discussed, is the strikingly similar manner in which these individuals create their political identity. Whether we like it or not (and whether we wish to acknowledge it or not), we all have some sort of sociopolitical identity. I don"t mean here that we all identify with a particular organized ideology, but rather that we all have some sort of political status in our society.

Paul Wong
Valerie Lalinsky, owner of the speciality dolls" clothes shop Miss Muffet"s Closet, works on her creations at the Artisans Market yesterday morning<br><br>ABBY ROSENBAUM/Daily

Of course, some of us enjoy a more privileged political status, and those of us who do enjoy that status are usually oblivious to it until confronted with a situation where it smacks them in the face. White men in our society are of course at the top of this sociopolitical totem pole, and after that, the pecking order becomes a little fuzzy, with the youngest immigrant community usually sharing the bottom spot with whatever ethnic group happens to be the foreign policy enemy of the time. (Today, of course, Arab/Muslim-Americans possess both those roles.)

What is sure, though, is that white men are not ready to willingly abandon their powerful political status. In fact, I once heard Chris Rock say during a comedy show that "there"s a white one-legged busboy around here that wouldn"t trade places with me and I"m rich!" So what is striking is how interracial individuals always seem to more closely identify with that part of their biological identity that enjoys the lower political status. Why is this? Wouldn"t we think that when faced with the choice of identifying one"s own identity, that he/she would wish to latch onto that identity that would grant the higher sociopolitical advantage? Well, the fact of the matter is this: We don"t get to choose. And this is why we find mixed individuals almost always identifying more closely with that part of them which has the history of political oppression.

One of my closest friends has a black father and a white mother, yet she almost exclusively identifies with the black community, even though we both grew up in a community that was over 95% white. This is because our society does the identifying for her. In the larger scope, she doesn"t gain any height on that totem pole because her mother is white.

In fact, I find myself in a similar position. While both of my parents are Palestinian, my father is a Christian while my mother is Muslim. Yet I find myself more closely identifying with my Muslim identity than my Christian one. This has nothing to do with religion. I am not particularly high on organized religion. This all has to do with politics. Being an Arab in America is already closely identified with being Muslim, and when coupled with the fact that I am half Muslim, my identity in this society is far from advantageous, far from the political advantage we would expect for a Christian.

It is because of these social phenomena that those of us who are not pure white Judeo-Christian males cannot ever deny our inherently political existence. I am personally irritated whenever I hear a fellow Arab-American say something as asinine as "Yeah, I"m an Arab, but I"m apolitical." It"s a contradiction in terms. When you and/or your group are the subject of political and social discrimination, your every act carries a political implication, regardless of your desire to have it do so. Being black, Muslim, Arab, Latino/a, Chinese, Bosnian the list goes on is inherently and violently political in American society, especially given the close ties between our government"s foreign policies and the way our media portrays them.

Now should all this talk about our not being able to construct our own identity create any sense of powerlessness? Of course not. When enough of us assert our identity our oppressed identity and continue to cling to those causes of the powerless that are just, things will and must change, because no social power will survive as long as it continually oppresses people simply because it can.

Amer Zahr"s column runs every other Monday. He can be reached via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.