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February 2013

To say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is NOT to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people—and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful—is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged. It is, then, a project that presumes that categories have meaning and consequences. This project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them, and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies.

This is not to deny that the process of categorization is itself an exercise of power, but the story is much more complicated and nuanced than that. First, the process of categorizing—or, in identity terms, naming—is not unilateral. Subordinated people can and do participate, sometimes even subverting the naming process in empowering ways. One need only think about the historical subversion of the category ‘Black,’ or the current transformation of ‘queer,’ to understand that categorization is not a one-way street. Clearly, there is unequal power, but there is nonetheless some degree of agency that people can and do exert in the politics of naming. And, it is important to note that identity continues to be as site of resistance for members of different subordinated groups. We all can recognize the distinction between the claims ‘I am Black’ and the claim ‘I am a person who happens to be Black.’ ‘I am Black’ takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. ‘I am Black’ becomes not simply a statement of resistance, but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist ‘Black is beautiful.’ ‘I am a person who happens to be Black,’ on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, ‘I am first a person’) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (‘Black’) as contingent, circumstantial, non-determinant. There is truth in both characterizations, of course, but they function, quite differently depending on the political context. At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for dis-empowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.


Kimberlé Crenshaw

I like this explanation and I agree with her; I prefer acknowledging “Black.” In 2011, Michigan State University published a study that revealed that "Black people who identify more strongly with their racial identity are generally happier. Previous research has found a relationship between racial identity and favorable outcomes such as self-esteem."

Ignoring such a major part of our identity to “fit in” or to try to be “universal” doesn’t work in a White supremacist society. Further, understanding our history and support from other Black people makes coping in a White supremacist society easier than not. Because…whether a Black person seeks to ignore their Blackness and their culture or not, it’s still there. And doing it for the hopes of White approval is a very dangerous game to play with one’s health and well-being.

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