Conservative website Breitbart accused racial justice activist Shaun King of misleading people into thinking he is black when he is actually white. This accusation pushed King to write a gut-wrenching piece unfolding his personal story and details of his childhood in order to explain that Breitbart was wrong and that he had a black father. Many were rightly disgusted by the whole affair. That King had to reveal such private, and presumably painful, information should strike most people as inhumane.
In confronting this horrifying spectacle, it’s important to understand some of the underlying dynamics that contribute to these types of episodes. There are many causes, but one of them is surely that the modern politics of Identitarian Deference (ID) creates the necessity of identity policing and effectively forces those with less visible identities to share the private details of their lives.
As I explained a couple of years ago: “identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression.” ID is both a theory of political knowledge and a theory of prescriptive politics.
ID’s theory of political knowledge is that people who belong to identities that are most proximate to a particular issue have the most knowledge about that issue. It is thus a theory of expertise. It differs from other theories of expertise in the way that it determines what makes someone an expert, but it is similar to those other theories in that it ultimately concludes that those with lesser expertise should defer to those with greater expertise.
ID’s theory of prescriptive politics basically maintains that those with lesser expertise (so defined) should generally adopt the political and policy ideas of those with greater expertise. This means those belonging to privileged identities should adopt the ideas of those in oppressed identities, at least where the oppressed identity is more proximate to the issue in question.
One of the problems of ID is that it makes identity policing necessary. As with any other theory of expertise, ID needs a way to separate the experts from the non-experts. Because ID bases expertise on identity, that necessarily means separating those in the identity from those outside the identity. On the prescriptive political level, identity policing is necessary in order to determine precisely whose ideas should be deferred to and adopted by others.
In concrete terms, it matters for the politics of ID whether Shaun King is white or black. If he is white, then he has no particular claim to wisdom on racial issues. That doesn’t mean his views are automatically wrong, of course. It just means they don’t receive any particular deference from others. If he is black, then the opposite is true: his identity gives him a special insight into what is necessary for racial justice. What side of the line he ultimately falls on has huge implications for whether he is himself a source of racial justice truth or simply a dedicated ally to those who are.
The identity policing issue expands to all identities, not just race. For instance, even in the gender realm where there has been great efforts made against gender policing, you still have such concepts as “transtrender” floating around (see e.g. here and here). This epithet, which comes out of trans communities, is targeted at those who allegedly identify as trans because they think it is trendy to do so. There are many concerns with such “fake” self-identification, but one of them seems to be that such people don’t have the authentic knowledge about trans and gender issues that they may claim to have. Put simply: such imposters don’t deserve identitarian deference and take away from those who do.
Even in the much more nebulous realm of queerness, you see some queer people frustrated with people they think are imposters. A noteworthy xojane article from earlier this year titled “If You Only Date Men, You Don’t Get to be Queer” sliced into those the queer-identified author said were using queerness for “cachet” and “social capital” without actually being queer in any meaningful way. In the article, the author is more concerned about someone usurping all the good parts of the queer identity (as she sees it) while avoiding all the bad parts of it. This folds directly into the ID problem as well: such opportunistic people would presumably lack the identity qualifications to be an authentic source of wisdom on queer-related issues.
The issue of identity policing comes up in other adjacent realms too. For instance, in an extremely uncomfortable segment on the MSNBC show “All In with Chris Hayes,” Nancy Giles essentially accused vlogging star Jay Smooth of cultural appropriation because of his use of rap music and particular mannerisms in his videos. The light-skinned Smooth had to inform Giles that he is actually black, something Giles clearly didn’t realize. Here, as with ID, whether Smooth is black or not is critically important to whether or not his videos are offensive. If he is white, then he is engaging in impermissible appropriation, as Giles observes. If he is black, then he is not. So, as uncomfortable as the question of Smooth’s “true” identity is, it must be determined in order to know whether his vlogging is good or somewhat racist.
Identity policing is also an issue in diversity counts. Especially in the media, counting the diversity at workplaces has become a much more common thing and is often written about. For reasons discussed below, these counts are almost always constrained to gender and race diversity. But even in that narrow range, there is going to at least be the question of who counts towards which race. One interesting case where this issue has arisen is Vox, which a few years ago was derided as being part of a host of white-led new media start ups. This criticism was likely driven by the perception that Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are white. Maybe they are ultimately white (however defined), but you also could easily categorize both as Latino. Thus, whether Vox is the rare Latino media start up or just another white media start up turns, once more, on how you police identity boundaries.
ID works the most smoothly for identities that are readily apparent. Most of the time, you can tell what someone’s gender and race is just by looking at them. But when the identity is less apparent, or indeed totally invisible, the only way to establish yourself as belonging to a particular identity is by revealing all sorts of private details about your life, as King had to do here.
Yasmin Nair has written extensively on this topic and the demands it places on people:
I’ve been thinking a lot about confession, lately, and the ways in which the world I occupy—a putatively radical one, where there’s a great deal of confessing and revealing to do, where people are constantly standing up and trying to outdo each other in what they can reveal about themselves—exerts a constant pressure to always be the Confessional Subject. I feel like I’m constantly dancing on the precipice of Confession.
Ah, to confess, always to confess, to reveal, always to reveal, to always, always be She Who Will Bare Her Literal and Metaphorical Breasts and Speak Grand Truths. This is the Neoliberal demand, especially of women of colour: “Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”
If you want to command ID for yourself on topics related to your invisible identities, there simply is no other way to do it than confess about your life. This is a problem because it puts people like King in really bad situations. It’s also a problem because those who are not willing to hash out their personal life to establish their identities can be locked out of the discourse altogether.