Confused Identities & Social Justice

So many issues with social justice deal with racial, cultural or sexual identity.

In an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine (October 6, 2015), “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity,” Wesley Morris shows that 2015 has been a year where there have been a remarkable number of news stories, artistic statements and popular culture endeavors that have brought to the fore the confusion we seem to be feeling about who we are.

I quote at length from the article because it covers a lot of the topics I've dealt with, to include LGBT issues, Obama as a natural symbol of our racial concerns (both white and black), art and popular culture, and the meaning of Atticus Finch's "update" in Go Set a Watchman.

I especially find insightful his comments at the end about the U.S. being a horizontal nation moving vertically (you'll have to read the article to see what he means).

Here is the exceprt:

Gender roles are merging.  Races are being shed.  In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are….  We can see [this confusion] in the instantly beloved hit “Transparent,” about a family whose patriarch becomes a trans woman whose kids call her Moppa, or in the time we’ve spent this year in televised proximity to Caitlyn Jenner, or in the browning of America’s white founding fathers in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” or in the proliferating clones that Tatiana Maslany plays on “Orphan Black,” which mock the idea of a true or even original self, or in Amy Schumer's comedic feminism, which reconsiders gender confusion: Do uncouthness, detachment and promiscuity make her a slut, or a man?

We can see it in the recently departed half-hour sketch comedy “Key & Peele,” which took race as a construct that could be reshuffled and remixed until it seemed to lose its meaning.  The sitcom “Black-ish” likewise makes weekly farcical discourse out of how much black identity has warped — and how much it hasn’t — over 50 years and across three generations.  “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” turns selfhood into a circus, introducing us to a lower-middle-class Native American teenager who eventually succeeds at becoming a rich white lady, and to other characters who try out new selves every 10 minutes, as if they’re auditioning for “Snapchat: The Musical.”  Last month, Ryan Adams released a remake of Taylor Swift’s album “1989,” song for song, as a rock record that combines a male voice with a perspective that still sounds like a woman’s, like Lindsey Buckingham trying on Stevie Nicks’s clothes.  Dancing on the fringes of mainstream pop are androgynous black men like Le1f, Stromae and Shamir.

What started this flux?  For more than a decade, we’ve lived with personal technologies — video games and social-media platforms — that have helped us create alternate or auxiliary personae.  We’ve also spent a dozen years in the daily grip of makeover shows, in which a team of experts transforms your personal style, your home, your body, your spouse.  There are TV competitions for the best fashion design, body painting, drag queen.  Some forms of cosmetic alteration have become perfectly normal, and there are shows for that, too.  Our reinventions feel gleeful and liberating — and tied to an essentially American optimism.  After centuries of women living alongside men, and of the races living adjacent to one another, even if only notionally, our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down.  There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries.  We’re all becoming one another.  Well, we are.  And we’re not.

In June, the story of a woman named Rachel Dolezal began its viral spread through the news.  She had recently been appointed president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Wash.  She had been married to a black man, had two black sons and was, by most accounts, a black woman.  Her white biological parents begged to differ.  The ensuing scandal resurrected questions about the nature of identity — what compelled Dolezal to darken her skin, perm her hair and pass in reverse?  She might not have been biologically black, but she seemed well past feeling spiritually white.

Some people called her “transracial.”  Others found insult in her masquerade, particularly when the country’s attention was being drawn, day after day, to how dangerous it can be to have black skin.  The identities of the black men and women killed by white police officers and civilians, under an assortment of violent circumstances, remain fixed.

But there was something oddly compelling about Dolezal, too.  She represented — dementedly but also earnestly — a longing to transcend our historical past and racialized present.  This is a country founded on independence and yet comfortable with racial domination, a country that has forever been trying to legislate the lines between whiteness and nonwhiteness, between borrowing and genocidal theft.  We’ve wanted to think we’re better than a history we can’t seem to stop repeating.  Dolezal’s unwavering certainty that she was black was a measure of how seriously she believed in integration: It was as if she had arrived in a future that hadn’t yet caught up to her.

It wasn’t so long ago that many Americans felt they were living in that future.  Barack Obama’s election was the dynamite that broke open the country.  It was a moment.  It was the moment.  Obama was biological proof of some kind of progress — the product of an interracial relationship, the kind that was outlawed in some states as recently as 1967 but was normalized.  He seemed to absolve us of original sin and take us past this stupid, dangerous race stuff….

Before Obama ran for president, when we tended to talk about racial identity, we did so as the defense of a settlement.  Black was understood to be black, nontransferably.  Negro intellectuals — Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray and James Baldwin, for starters — debated strategies for equality and tolerance.  Some of them asserted that to be black was also to be American, even if America begged to differ.  For most of those many decades, blackness stood in opposition to whiteness, which folded its arms and said that was black people’s problem.  But Obama became everybody’s problem.  He was black.  He was white.  He was hope.  He was apocalypse.  And he brought a lot of anxiety into weird relief.  We had never really had a white president until we had a black one.

This radical hope, triggered by Obama, ushered in a period of bi- and transracial art — art that probed the possibility that we really had transcended race, but also ridiculed this hope with an acid humor.  During Obama’s past year in office, those works of art have taken on an even darker, more troubled tone as we keep looking around and seeing how little has really changed.


“Hamilton” is a musical biography about the very white, very dead Alexander Hamilton, in which most of the cast is “other,” including Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s Nuyorican creator and star.  Some of its audacity stems from the baldness of its political project: In changing the races of the founding fathers from white to brown, it pushes back against the currents of racial appropriation.  It also infuses the traditional melodies of the American musical with so many genres of hip-hop and R & B, sometimes in a single number, that the songs themselves become something new.  Political debates are staged as rap battles....  It’s obviously musical theater.  But damn if it’s not graffiti too.

Naturally, this new era has also agitated a segment of the populace that is determined to scrub the walls.  That, presumably, is where Donald Trump comes in: as the presidential candidate for anyone freaked out by the idea of a show like “Hamilton.”  Trump is the pathogenic version of Obama, filling his supporters with hope based on a promise to rid the country of change.  This incarnation of Trump appeared not long after Obama’s election, determined to disprove the new president’s American citizenship.  On Trump’s behalf, an entire wing of conservatism — the so-called birthers — devoted itself to the removal of a mask that Obama was never wearing.  Part of Trump’s appeal is his illusion of authenticity.  His blustering candor has currency in a landscape of android candidates.  Yet his magnetism resides in paranoia, the fear that since Obama’s election ushered in this shifting, unstable climate of identity, the country has been falling apart.

It’s a paranoia that pop culture captured first: In the last six years, Hollywood has provided a glut of disaster spectacles, armageddon scenarios and White House sackings.  But the USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” which ended its first season last month, might have gotten at that sense of social collapse best....

“Mr. Robot” is worst-of-times TV, reflecting a mood of menacing instability.  Over the course of its 10 episodes, almost no one was who they appeared to be….

There’s also the choice to ignore the matter of identity — until, of course, it starts to aggravate your complacency.  Not far into the flap over Dolezal, another alarming story took over the news, a story that challenged the myths white America tells itself about progress.  This story was about Atticus Finch, the protagonist of Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Atticus single-handedly fought racism in the fictitious Alabama town of Maycomb, and he became a window through which we could see a version of tolerance, someone holy enough to put on stained glass or money.  But in “Go Set a Watchman,” the sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in July, Atticus was given a scandalous status update: He had been aged into a racist.

I can’t recall the last time the attitudes of a single fictional character led the national news.  But there was bigoted old Atticus, on the front pages, being discussed on cable.  One of the most iconic white antiracists had grown fond of white supremacy.  It raised an uncomfortable question: If you had identified with the original Atticus Finch, did his Archie Bunkerization make a racist out of you too?  The public hand-wringing was a perverse refreshment because, even if only for a few days, it left white people dwelling on race as intensely as nonwhite people.  This new Atticus was a betrayal of white liberal idealism, feeding a suspicion that that idealism was less than absolute — that it could suddenly, randomly turn against the people it purported to help.

It was almost as if Lee knew, in 1957, about the mood of the country in 2015 — about the way a series of dead black men and women would further cleave apart the country; about the massacre of nine black churchgoers by a young white supremacist in a South Carolina church, and the ensuing debate over the Confederate flag; about the fear of inevitable, inexorable racial, gender and sexual evolution; about the perceived threats to straight-white-male primacy by Latino immigrants, proliferating Spanish, same-sex marriage, female bosses and a black president.

The yearning to transcend race keeps coming up against the bedrock cultural matter of separateness.  But the tectonic plates of the culture keep pushing against one another with greater, earthquaking force.  The best show in our era about that quake — about the instability of identity and the choosing of a self — has been “Key & Peele.”  For five seasons, in scores of sketches, two biracial men, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, became different women and different men of different ethnicities, personalities and body types.  They were two of the best actors on television, hailing from somewhere between the lawlessness of improv comedy and the high-impact emotionalism of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman, zillion-character plays.  “Key & Peele” granted nearly every caricature a soul.


I’m someone who believes himself to have complete individual autonomy, someone who feels free.  But I also know some of that autonomy is limited, illusory, conditional.  I live knowing that whatever my blackness means to me can be at odds with what it means to certain white observers, at any moment.  So I live with two identities: mine and others’ perceptions of it.  So much of blackness evolving has been limited to whiteness allowing it to evolve, without white people accepting that they are in the position of granting permission.  Allowing.  If that symbiotic dynamic is going to change, white people will need to become more conscious that they, too, can be perceived.

It could be that living with recycled conflict is part of the national DNA.  Yet it’s also in our natures to keep trying to change, to discover ourselves.  In “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon’s landmark 2012 book about parenting and how children differentiate themselves, he makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal identity.  The former is defined by traits you share with your parents, through genes and norms; the latter is defined by traits and values you don’t share with them, sometimes because of genetic mutation, sometimes through the choice of a different social world.  The emotional tension in the book’s scores of stories arises from the absence of love for or empathy toward someone with a pronounced or extreme horizontal identity — homosexuality or autism or severe disability.  Solomon is writing about the struggle to overcome intolerance and estrangement, and to better understand disgust; about our comfort with fixed, established identity and our distress over its unfixed or unstable counterpart.

His insights about families apply to us as a country.  We’re a vertical nation moving horizontally.  We’re daring to erase the segregating boundaries, to obliterate oppressive institutions, to get over ourselves….  The transition should make us stronger — if it doesn’t kill us first.