“Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
“But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’”
There’s a picture of me on the wall in my father’s house. He loves to point it out to any and all visitors in his home. He also recalls it frequently to me, saying things like, “Remember that time you dressed up as a Ghostbuster?” In the photo, I’m wearing a blue molded face mask like you might wear for sanding drywall, layers of improvised clothing including long johns and a pair of oversized shorts my brother made in home ec, and a cardboard box for a “proton pack.” I wield a vacuum nozzle and hose for the “particle thrower.” Somewhere else in that same composite photo frame, there’s one of me headed off to school for a day-trip to historic Westville, Georgia, dressed as a mid-nineteenth-century youngster in knickerbockers and a newsboy hat. And still another of me in the guise of an imagined Shakespeare, complete with tights, a doublet, and a plumed toque. My parents have both reiterated throughout my life how much I enjoyed playing dress-up as a kid. As a teenager with an aptitude for language and the opportunity to do a bit of travel, I transitioned from play-dressing to play-speaking, swapping my imaginative donning of clothing for imagined nationalities or ethnicities. On more than one occasion, Americans have mistaken me for French; native French speakers have pegged me for something nearby in the Francophone world: not French itself, but a close cousin, say Belgian or Swiss; and Peruvians have thought my Castilian accent and formal diction marked me as hailing from Spain. I have to think now that my personal history of play-dressing and dabbling in foreign languages forms a critical part of the reason that I react so positively to what seems the ever more prevalent presence in the public eye of open exploration of and play with identity. Many forms of identity shifting, play, and exploration that used to remain hidden and carefully guarded as secrets now flit about in the open, freely expressed and proudly owned.
I watch this video for the song “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” by the Canadian group Stars and feel nothing but joy at seeing a convincing man get on a subway train only to eventually emerge as an equally convincing woman several stops later. We next see her walking into a nondescript city apartment where she rocks it on a mock fashion runway, together with a host of drag queens, all taking turns strutting and simply, in the words of Stars lead singer Torquil Campbell, “being fucking fabulous.” There’s incredible play here with reality and fiction, with identity given and assumed, with the ordinary and the extraordinary. Campbell said of those depicted in the video:
“Drag queens know a couple of things the rest of us choose not to know: you are who you imagine yourself to be, and you can be a star even if—especially if—nobody ever knows who you really are.”
Some people—shit, who am I kidding? A LOT of people—feel threatened by all the gender play and gender fluidity you see portrayed and reported with increasing frequency in popular culture and the media. Me? I adore it.
Most people see identity-play and exploration as threats to social stability, and they are, so long as you regard the ability to control other people’s self-expression, personal sense of empowerment, and place in a social hierarchy as the bases of what makes society stable. But if social stability means to you something more like happy, fulfilled people feeling free to be themselves and get on with the business of living productive, satisfied, and satisfying lives without feeling the need to constantly fight just to maintain their sense of self-determination, then no: exploration of and play with identity in no way threaten the stability of society at large. Quite to the contrary, they encourage it, but to grasp this truth one must take on a notion of society and of identity that is far more dynamic than the conservative one to which many people, on both sides of the political spectrum, have traditionally subscribed. Here, borrowing ideas from theoretical semantics, I argue for just such a notion.
I wish to advance an idea of identity stripped of the usual truth-conditionality by which people feel constant pressure to consider “authenticity” in their own and others’ expressions of identity. I plead instead for a conception of identity as a psychological and behavioral analog of what theoretical semanticists call expressives: interjecting words like goddammit, fuck, shucks, and doh that lay no claim to the truth of the external world but rather serve to convey some emotional content of the speaker and a posture or position he, she, or they take in relation both to self and others they interact with. Identity-play possesses the usual characteristics we typically associate with semantic expressives: it contributes a dimension of meaning separate from the usual truth-conditional descriptive content of language; it is unable to be divorced from the contextual conditions in which it arises; it is dependent on individual perspective, that of the identity-player; perhaps because of its perspectival dependence, it is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to convey to critical others the meaning or motivation behind identity-play in a manner that is satisfactory both to the player and the outsiders; it affects social relations in an immediate and irrevocable way; it can be strengthened by repetition or elaboration of signals or elements of identity without apparent redundancy. I argue that treating identity in this way can potentially do much to alleviate the tensions and conflict that surround identity expression and identity politics in the present day. Please note that by my use of the word “play” I do not mean to imply here that individuals’ shifting claims to identity and self-presentation are somehow not serious or important. I merely want to hearken back to a natural inclination toward exploring identity that is self-directed and self-organized in the way of creative play, much like my favorite game of dress-up as a kid.
The Problem of Dudes Looking like Ladies
The story goes that the 1987 hit Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady” was conceived when frontman Steven Tyler spied a girl at the end of a bar in New York City “with ginormous blonde rock hair,” only later to realize that “she” was in fact lead vocalist Vince Neil from hair metal band Motley Crüe. Tyler’s reaction—potentially as documented in the lyrics to the song—was one of amazement and amusement. “Imagine my surprise,” he sings. There’s no moment of anger or disgust, no moralizing concern for false appearances, nor threat of physical violence to save face after the cis-hetero male is proven so spectacularly wrong in his initial assessment of the individual he takes for female.
Contrast that with the scene in the 1996 movie Trainspotting, when the character Begbie beats a horrified and hasty exit from a car in which he has been making out with a man that he thought was a woman. Once free of the physical entanglement and confined space of the automobile, Begbie screams “Fuck!” all the while hitting and kicking a concrete wall. Or better yet, think of the movie Crocodile Dundee from a decade earlier and the scene where Mic Dundee is chatting up “Gwendoline” in a NYC bar while his buddies look on in amusement. Those same buddies finally succeed in quelling their laughter long enough to pull the titular overdetermined symbol of masculinity away from his quarry and inform him that “she” is really a “he.” Incredulous, Dundee returns to Gwendoline with a dissembling grin, then reaches for her genitals. She recoils from the assault and retreats rapidly from the bar, while Dundee points and shouts after her with indignation, “That was a guy! Guy dressed up as a sheila!” All this time, the rest of the bar crowd howls with derisive laughter. Later in the film, the hero will reapply his patented “Dundee test” after being introduced at a party to an older biological female with a deep, “masculine” voice, perpetrating for the delight of the viewing audience the crime President Trump confessed to aboard that infamous Access Hollywood bus and just grabbing her by the pussy. He fixes the woman with a look of utmost suspicion before the grab and brightens up with a smile and a pleasant “Ah, pleased to meet ya” (said while doffing his bush hat) only after his wandering hand has in fact ascertained that “she” really is anatomically what he expects from a she(ila). The twisted punchline to the encounter—after Dundee’s date to the party, Sue Charlton (played by Linda Kozlowski), passes the moment off by saying “It’s ok: he’s Australian”—is that the female victim actually enjoyed being groped by such a specimen. She looks on as her assailant saunters off to cavort with others at the party, desire etched plainly on her features, and says: “Maybe I’ll have to go there some day.”
In a discussion thread from an online group I belong to, I found a similar degree of righteous indignation at perceived “fake women” expressed by a self-described cis-gender radical feminist who wrote with bristling vehemence in favor of the recently failed Texan incarnation of a so-called “Bathroom Bill.” Like the earlier disastrous North Carolina measure, this legislation would have unfairly targeted Texas’ percentage of the estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States by insisting on a subtler, institutionalized form of the “Dundee test,” consisting of using the gender identity signaled on individuals’ birth certificates as the sole basis for enforcing access to gendered restrooms. The woman declared that “real women” like her need their public toilets and showers to be safe spaces from men, who are “naturally” the more violent sex, and that transgender women, not being “biologically” women at all, should not be allowed access to those safe spaces. Hers was a “Women First” policy, she claimed, and transgender women are, in her words, “not really women.”
The question is: what had this warrior for women’s equality feeling so triggered over transgender rights? She kept insisting like a skipping record on the “scientific” basis for her views, on how those who disagreed with her—that is, everyone else in our little online debate—were simply “picking and choosing” which “science” to accept. I remember being struck by how like right-wing opponents of transgender rights this ostensibly left-leaning woman sounded, right down to the similar rhetorical flourishes and particular animus behind her words. And like Begbie, Mic Dundee, and the execrable pro-Bathroom-Bill lobby, this individual sought to abrogate to herself a kind of victimhood as justification for her insistence on a legalized form of pussy-grabbing-by-proxy. Transgender women, she claimed, perpetrate fraud by presenting themselves as something they are not at birth. And if they can “lie” about so fundamental an aspect of themselves, she reasoned, what other potential criminality could they dissemble as well?
Fake Bodies, Fake Food: A Problem of Perception
The larger question is: Why do fakes concern us so? Why do humans seem at times almost wholly consumed with worry over what is real and what a mere simulation? Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine went undercover in the women’s sauna to determine whether Jerry’s then-girlfriend’s breast were real or implants? Elaine’s awkward stumble while moving forward to meet the woman turned an attempted handshake into a full-on, two-handed grope, as Jerry’s friend thrust her hands out to break her fall only to grab the chest whose suspect authenticity had created the whole mess to begin with. The kiss-off tag line from that 59th episode of the show with which Sidra, the girlfriend (played by actress Terry Hatcher), takes her leave of Jerry—“And, by the way. They’re real, and they’re spectacular”—would later reappear in Seinfeld’s grand finale some five years later. That’s how memorable the whole debacle over a pair of potentially augmented breasts was. And from breast implants to Imposter Syndrome to paranoia over GMOs, we’re positively obsessed with spotting fakes.
As a vegan, I’m particularly conscious of this problematic aspect of being human. We vegans must resort to constant verbal gymnastics just to describe our eggless mayonnaise, our meatless meat substitutes, our milk-less cheese: clever misspellings like cheez, bacun, and chick’n don’t carry over in actual speech (and the mayo never even had one of those!). Adding additional words like fakin’ or simply vegan before everything gets long-winded and tiresome fast. Maybe we could just borrow a page from the Apple playbook, with its iTunes and iPhone, and name things with a tiny v prefix: vCheese, vChicken, vBacon, etc. Companies like Hampton Creek that produce simulacra of non-vegan products like mayo that prove too like the original, too liable to confusion with “real mayonnaise” and, more critically, too successful at eating into traditional egg-mayo’s marketshare, have been sued, pursued by the FDA, and subject to unsubstantiated allegations of mislabeling and contamination leading to one major nationwide retailer, Target, pulling the products from its shelves. I once posted a photo of a particularly convincing-looking “tofu scramble”—think: scrambled eggs—on Instagram, only to have an acquaintance reply with what I felt was obvious snark: “[A]re eggs vegan?” Asshat thought he had caught me out, because nothing feels as good as taking others down a notch, huh? Part of what makes being vegan really fun and exciting from a culinary point of view is learning to “pull fast ones” by creating veganized versions of non-vegan foods, often using unusual ingredients like potatoes, carrots, and onions to make a nacho “cheese” sauce or shredded jackfruit for pulled BBQ.
In Plano, TX, a popular long-standing Malayo-Thai restaurant called Asian Delights Café was taken over in 2015 by a family that previously ran a successful all-vegan Malaysian restaurant closer to the heart of Dallas. When they rolled out their new vegan menu at ADC, I was on hand in the restaurant to see several former regulars walk in, receive assurance from the waitstaff that their old favorites were still on the menu and would taste the same—despite their veganization—and nevertheless turn right around and walk out in a huff. Again with the anger! Why didn’t the restaurant just take a chance on serving the veganized versions without any formal announcement of the change to customers, in the hopes that, like Hampton Creek, they could show consumers that vegan foods can taste just as good as non-vegan ones, with the added bonus of being cruelty free and better both for the environment and individual health? The answer, most likely, is that they were concerned with people’s perception of “fakes” and felt beholden to some imagined moral duty to alert them in advance. Of course, fast-food and corporate food giants felt no such compunction about informing consumers that their meat was “fake” before controversy arose in 2012 over how their “chicken” nuggets and even burgers had begun their inglorious nachlebens as the infamous “pink slime” associated with mechanically separated meat. Once the controversy broke out into the pubic sphere, most outfits promptly claimed they had abandoned the practice of using the slime. By the way, ADC shuttered its doors for good less than a year after going wholly vegan, and man do I miss the Curried Vegetables Deluxe!
At issue in this concern for fakes and signaling fakes are, on the one hand, the stability and reliability of our sensory perceptions and the judgments they engender (pun very much intended!) within us. Each of us is a mind nestled in a watery cocoon within an embodied head. Our sense perceptions form the critical bedrock of our personal understanding of the world around us. If our sensory apparatuses deceive us—and they often do—then we have to work twice as hard just to form trustworthy impressions of the world, impressions that form the basis of our beliefs and, in turn, undergird our action. Neuropsychologists tell us our brains are modular and that much of what goes on within us happens subconsciously. That part of ourselves responsible for weaving a web of self out of all the disparate threads of unconscious and subconscious information processing and reaction comes on line fairly late in the game and is amazingly ad hoc in its operation. We can even be fooled into thinking a rubber hand is our very own limb and leap back in terror when a researcher appears to be on the verge of stabbing it with a fork or knife.
Fakes we take for real and judgments that later turn out to be false irritate us in the way of all external tokens of an inner fallibility we acutely feel and can do little about. Who has the time to approach every aspect of life as a scientist, hypothesizing and testing hypotheses carefully, systematically, in an effort to tease apart the false appearances from the real? In real time, we have to rely on quick inferential shortcuts and jump on in—like my six- and four-year-old daughters with their simple equations of long-hair=girl, short-hair=boy. There’s a very real and very good reason why concern for fakes shows up in the Ten Commandments in the prohibition against bearing false witness: fake witnesses inspire false beliefs which, in turn, may drive false—and disastrous—legal actions. Many arguments against capital punishment hinge on the notion that individuals on death row may have been falsely accused and wrongly convicted, actually innocent of the crimes for which they’re slated to die.
The Threat to Order
The other really big problem with fakes is that they threaten the integrity of taxonomies and categorization. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend wrote in Conquest of Abundance about how humans routinely impoverish the richness of the world around them by turning their academic attention to it with an eye to neatly describing, circumscribing, and taxonomizing every damn thing. The sloppiness of the actual world threatens our own inner OCD-lust for neatness, for cut-and-dried causal explanations, for boundaries and borders so unassailably “natural” that they will stand in perpetuity, universally acknowledged and respected by all. This despite the fact that Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska has told us all unambiguously in a poem called “Psalm” precisely where we can stick our incessant concern for unassailable, fixed borders:
“Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;
how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil
in provocative hops!
Not to speak of the fog’s reprehensible drifting!
And dust blowing all over the steppes
as if they hadn’t been partitioned!
Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.”
The real world is a messy place in every way. The melanin content of human skin runs the gamut, but racial categorization carves the available space for variation into discreet units. Many at both the far-left and far-right of the political spectrum on gender issues talk exclusively in terms of the binarity not just of gender, but even of biological sex, this despite the fact that describing in words the degrees of variation in documented intersex anatomy can require a list of terminology half a page in length. Just those conditions named for the scientists who discovered them include Swyer Syndrome, Klinefelter Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, Kallman Syndrome, and Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser Syndrome. We speak of languages as though they were real, independent entities, each well-defined and clearly separate from the others, but linguists in the field recognize that, on the ground, the dividing line between where one language stops and another starts is usually not so clear. Move up the northeastern coast of the United States and into Canada and you find varieties of speech like something that goes under the name Chiac, the chosen vernacular of, among many others in Maritime Canada, the hit French-Canadian hip-hop group Radio Radio. In Chiac, well formed sentences can look like this: j’ai wiré ma satellite dish avec mes own mains. A 2015 “translation” of the hit song “Let it Go” from Disney’s film Frozen made by two sisters from Cap-Pelé, New Brunswick, features the title and chorus: “Worry pas!” When the sisters posted their Chiac version of the song online, they received positive feedback in Chiac like: “C’est right bien faite…way to go les filles…Vive le Chiac,” “Right awesome, belle job,” and simply “Friggin bon.” Is this English? French? Franco-English? Anglo-French? Franglish? Franglais? Or just plain Chiac? The fundamental human semantic activity of finding meaning requires recognition of difference between otherwise like items. Given the inherent richness and abundance of the natural world, however, in some very real sense the decision of where to place the dividing line will forever remain arbitrary.
Realities that defy our innate categorizing behavior but nonetheless show up somewhere on the radar of our conscious awareness receive special treatment. Such treatment usually takes the form of some type of avoidance like shunning, taboos, or containment within a safe catch-all category for leftovers. An example of this latter type of treatment comes from the famous noun class in the Australian Aboriginal language Dyirbal reserved for words having to do with women, fire, water, violence, and certain animals. It was this particularly unruly, odd-(wo)man-out noun class that inspired cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s 1987 book title Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. A good example of taboos surrounding liminal animals can be found in bears: enormously powerful animals whose reckless might and occasional bipedalism make them especially liable to comparison with humans. Bears have been subject to taboos in languages and cultures around the world, from the near-universal Indo-European linguistic avoidance of the word bear in favor of circumlocutions like shaggy one, brown one, honey-eater, and destroyer to Native American and Paleo-Siberian avoidance of acting like bears or eating bear meat. At the shrine of Artemis Brauronia on the Acropolis in ancient Athens, the festival of the Arkteia, literally ‘Bear Rite,’ celebrated the coming-of-age of young girls who entered the procession grounds in the guise of arktoi or wild she-bears, dancing in honey-colored saffron robes and waiting to be “tamed” through marriage for a “productive” role in human civilization. The ceremony provided a convenient way for negotiating the dangerous otherness of two famously lawless elements in a male-centric thought-world.
An example of shunning behavior toward uncomfortable realities comes from the favorite tactic among those who oppose recognition of transgender or genderqueer people of asserting that their very existence threatens the “laws of nature” and subsequently refusing to acknowledge them by the (non-)gendered pronouns of their choice, thus in effect erasing them as individuals from the world. Even worse, when 7-year-old Ryannah Quigley’s staunchly Mormon parents ultimately decided they couldn’t accept her gender-nonconforming dress and behavior—assigned male at birth, she insisted on wearing and even making her own dresses—they simply relinquished her into state custody, in effect disavowing her as a member of their family altogether. In state “care,” Quigley suffered rape a total of fifteen times and was eventually convicted of assault when she fought back against the final assailant, resulting in two years’ solitary confinement that was billed as “protective custody” due to her gender identity issues. On November 5, 2015, the LDS Church issued guidance to its 30,000 congregations worldwide to deny blessings, baptisms, priesthood ordinations, and the ability to serve missions to any and all children of same sex couples, regardless of the children’s own gender identities or expressions, effectively stripping such children of any ability to serve as active members within the Church. The instructions further declared that Church members living in “same-gender” relationships were officially apostates, subject to excommunication. And these examples form just the tip of the iceberg of LDS shunning and denial of uncomfortable gender-nonconforming realities that have led to Utah having some of the highest rates of both youth suicide and homelessness in the country, both disproportionately affecting individuals who identify as LGBTQ.
Then there are the sad realities like the plethora of intersex anatomical conditions that, by virtue of their relative rarity, fail to make even so much as a faint blip on most people’s conscious mental radar. Such aspects of the world, in effect, don’t even rise to the level of existence in most people’s minds at all. This is precisely why Hamlet’s words to Horatio in the play that bears his name prove as important now as ever before:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The Hysteria of Fragile Assertiveness
Thinking back to the pro-Bathroom Bill, anti-transgender feminist, part of me wants to feel real surprise that she could think the way she did, given her membership in a class subjected for millennia to discrimination and special—read: violent—treatment from the oppressor class. Thanks to this YouTube video by Contrapoints, I now know to call women who think like this lady “TERFs,” that is “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” Since this was my first encounter with a TERF, I was shocked that such individuals even existed (haha!), let alone proved so numerous as to merit their own special moniker. As I’ve said, I recognized in the tenor of this particular TERF’s insensitive and rabid remarks a rhetoric and a prejudice familiar from experience with opponents of transgender rights farther to the political right. However, I also recognized something else familiar in the woman’s words and emotions.
I saw in her irrational posturing, her unaccountable vehemence in support of gender profiling what I had written about in a Master’s thesis at the University of Cincinnati: the fragile assertive self. When we feel our own identity most under threat from without, we react with a unique kind of assertiveness that constantly undercuts its own strength by virtue of its birth in conditions of perceived or real weakness. The fragile self’s problematic self-assertions can come off more like hysteria, because they emerge from a place of identity perturbed through an extreme experience of otherness. And this process affects both oppressors and oppressed, colonizers and colonized alike.
Some of the strongest and most robust expressions of Hellenic identity in the Hellenistic world of antiquity pop up in places like Ai Khanoum on what is now the Afghan frontier, where Greeks—natural ethnocentrists—found themselves surrounded by oceans of non-Greeks and responded with an exaggerated expression of their own Hellenism. The Bactrian city north of present-day Kabul boasted a theater larger than the one in Babylon, one of the biggest gymnasia in all of antiquity, a palace complex (naturally), and a pillar erected at the shrine to Apollo inscribed with no less than 140 moral maxims brought from the home shrine of Apollo in the mainland Greek city of Delphi. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Egypt, during this same time period, a native Egyptian tract called The Oracle of the Potter foretold in dire, prophetic terms impending doom in the multiethnic city, an apocalypse during which native Egyptian children would be made weak, the country would lie in confusion, and murder would break out between friends. The screed decries the Ptolemaic rulers as worshippers of the demonic serpent and embodiment of destruction Typhon/Set and refers to their capital derogatorily as “nursemaid to all peoples” where “every nation has come to settle” and thus crowd out and oppress the good, native Egyptians who belonged there. The Oracle predicts that Alexandria will fall and eventually return to being but the humble fishing village it was before the foreign rulers invaded.
The lesson of the fragile-assertive self is that those who insist most strongly on the existence and validity of hard-and-fast borders and boundaries around presumed identities almost always do so out of a feeling of impending or actual threat to self. And the same borders and boundaries first erected by those in power to sketch the outlines of an oppressed class are often later repurposed by such classes themselves in ostensive defense of their own fragile-assertive selves.
The Nihilism of Identity Politics under conditions of Fragile Assertiveness
Blood quantum laws were originally designed by Euro-Americans in Virginia in 1705 to define belonging to and participation in Native American tribal affiliation for the express purpose of circumscribing the rights accorded to Native Americans. The initial desire was to ensure that no one with even a small fraction of Native blood should be permitted to enjoy the full rights and privileges accorded to European settlers. Many of the provisions that spread from Virginia throughout the colonies specified that they covered individuals of mixed ancestry down “to the third generation inclusive” and even prohibited intermarriage with whites. The problem, of course, is that many who share some percentage of Native American ancestry do not appear at first blush demonstrably “Native”: that is, their skin tone and hair color do not immediately peg them as Native, as opposed to European-descended, Americans. To this day, some Native Americans report being told things like “You don’t look like a Native American” and “Are you kidding? I’m darker than you are.” The grand irony of blood quantum laws, though, is that the concept of blood quantum is now used by a large percentage of Native American tribes themselves as either part or the entirety of the qualifications for membership. In 2007, the Cherokee nation used blood quantum criteria to strip 2,800 descendants of the former slaves the Cherokees once held—now known as Freedmen—of their tribal citizenship. The Freedmen had been offered citizenship in the tribe only by the stipulation of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1866. On August 30, 2017, a U.S. District Judge ordered reversal of the 2007 decision which denied the citizenship rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.
The concept of blood quantum is also used by Native American individuals to ridicule the claims made by those who have only a small percentage of Native ancestry that they should be permitted full participation in Native American tribal affiliation. Such is the case in this video, where the presenter repeatedly brings up a culturally insensitive straw-man who self-identifies as “one-sixteenth Cherokee” and seeks, on that basis, to claim Native status equivalent to that of the presenter, who is apparently full-blooded Navajo. The description of the video includes the assurance: “Made by 110% Native Americans, check our C.I.B.,” where C.I.B. refers to the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after an applicant provides detailed genealogical records attesting to his or her Native ancestry expressed in terms of blood quantum. Many of the comments on the YouTube video complain of “everyone” claiming to be Cherokee, including many non-natives, but they also feature the complaints of individuals with mixed, partially Cherokee, ancestry “getting crap” for trying to learn about and reclaim some of their Native heritage.
After a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that individuals claiming mixed white and Native American heritage made up the largest percentage—full 50%—of the country’s burgeoning multiracial population, Native American commentators and media shot back that the study had failed to take into account the “Part Cherokee Factor.” That is, the study did not control for individuals self-reporting Native ancestry with neither documentation nor concurrent participation with approved Native American groups and cultural traditions to back up their claims. At the same time, Native American activist and academic Adrienne Keene—who created the blog Native Appropriations and has made a career of sorts of calling out instances of cultural appropriation of Native American heritage such as run rampant during New York City’s Fashion Week and the much-pilloried Coachella Festival—has had her own very real Cherokee heritage questioned on the basis of the fact that she grew up in San Diego, California, far away from the main body of the Cherokee Nation, and looks, for all intents and purposes, “so pale” as to be a “White Girl” who is simply “Milking It.” The idea of this criticism, also discussed in the video referenced above, is that Keene may be claiming Native ancestry solely in order to enjoy certain perceived social-safety-net-type benefits many individuals enrolled in governmentally recognized Indian tribes are said to enjoy. The irony of ironies, of course, is that the commenter who accuses Keene of “milking it” also notes that she herself is—wait for it—“1/16 Cherokee” but that she didn’t try to “register [herself] for benefits because it’d be morally wrong.”
Of course, the Cherokee Nation does have to contend with the significant examples of Native American Studies scholar Andrea Smith and “Native American” activist Jamake Mamake Highwater (really J. Marks), both of whose prominent claims to Cherokee (as well as Blackfoot, in the case of Marks) ancestry have been debunked or otherwise called into question. Keene refers to Highwater simply as a “Pretendian,” in the vein of the 1996 documentary White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, which took a critical look at the phenomenon of white appropriation of Native American “spiritual” traditions and practices. The case of Andrea Smith came to special light in the aftermath of the infamous Rachel Doležal—now Nkechi Amare Diallo—debacle, where a local NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington, and adjunct instructor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University was outed as a white woman who had crafted a career and indeed entire lifestyle by posing as black. Intriguingly, Doležal also claimed some sort of Native American ancestry, alleging specifically that she was born in Montana in 1977 in a “teepee” and that her family lived off hunting with bow and arrow.
Blood quantum criteria have also been used to confine and control the African American community in America: in effect, to define “coloredness” in general. An 1866 decree from Virginia used the same one-quarter blood criterion for determination of the status of both “colored” and “Indian.” The related so-called One Drop Rule in the United States, by which anyone with even a single African ancestor was considered “black” and often forced into the same broad limitations on rights foisted on the rest of the black community, especially in the southern states, has given rise even within the African American community to terminology like lite-brite, high yellow and redbone to describe and pronounce slurs against individuals with lighter skin tones who simultaneously receive abuse from those outside the black community via epithets like coon, jiggaboo, and monkey that are applied just as viciously to those with darker skin. Plantation distinctions between “house negroes” and “field negroes” continue to echo throughout modern-day African American culture, where darker skin is routinely denigrated and is in fact associated at the sociological level with higher rates of discrimination and lower rates of achievement.
Linguistic criteria can and have also been used in a way similar to blood quantum to both root out and enforce a concern over “faking” participation and belonging in marginalized communities. On a recent episode of the podcast The Stoop, hosts Leila Day and Hana Bibi discussed the criticisms some black individuals in this country face for “sounding white” or “talking like a white girl.” Poet, educator, and screenwriter Chinaka Hodge featured in the episode, fielding a question from the hosts about what might happen if African Americans were not so circumspect and self conscious about their speech patterns and outward appearances presented to non-African Americans and instead used their “normal family voice and the way we talk around family” on the radio or while newscasting. Hodge said:
“I feel like in some ways I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t—Part of the way that we speak to each other is our code, and we invented it for survival, and we need it from time to time. So I wouldn’t—like—I don’t know. I wouldn’t want them to know all our hair secrets and our cooking secrets and our vocal secrets. We need some of them for ourselves. And I think—that’s part of the magic that keeps us young and vital and alive, you know? I think—I think that having a language our own in a time when our children are being murdered? I think is an effective tool. So—I like—I like speaking lots of languages, but—I don’t know. I feel like folks need to be initiated into ours.”
Hodge’s remarks seem to echo something of the concern in parts of New Mexico, where Hopi language and culture are fast facing extinction. Though several proposals have been made over the years to teach Hopi in schools, they have been met with stiff opposition from some Hopi parents and grandparents who staunchly oppose teaching the language openly in a classroom environment where non-Hopis could potentially learn it. They would rather stifle language revitalization efforts and let their mother tongue slip into obsolescence than risk opening the language and culture up to outsiders. Myaamia (Miami) activist and language revivalist Daryl Baldwin has reported that, in the initial stages of his successful project to reclaim and revitalize the Myaamia language and culture, he met with similar opposition from old timers, afraid of any further loss or indignity to their community. Once it became clear, however, that the movement was gaining traction and bearing concrete fruit in the form of Myaamia youth once again uttering words and whole sentences in their ancestral language, the elders’ attitudes and death-grip on the fragile culture loosened and opened.
Played False by Concern over Fakes
There has been a lot of discourse and debate of late regarding writers, film-makers, and other artists and the phenomenon of cultural appropriation. A common opinion expressed among “creative types” holds that cultural appropriation of one form or another is the necessary bread and butter of creative imagining and artistic production. What amount of novels would never have been written nor films produced if the artists involved in their production were required by some immutable law to remain fixed within their own cultural sphere? I would argue that it is this natural creative inclination toward play with otherness that surfaces in children’s dress-up. Before I had any inkling of what the phrase cultural appropriation meant, I had become through dress-up a host of mythic monsters, legendary heroes, a cowboy, a ninja, Shakespeare, a nineteenth-century schoolboy, a Ghost Buster, you name it. Probably at some point in my young identity play, I impersonated a girl as well. I never tried blackface, though: more broadly, I never dressed up as anything with the intent to provoke scorn or ridicule on individuals who belong to the groups or identities I was impersonating.
Much of what counts as truly harmful cultural appropriation would seem to lie in the mocking intent behind the act of appropriation, literally of “making something one’s own.” Yet another episode of The Stoop podcast discussed the criticisms some African Americans face from those in Africa and recent African immigrants to this country for wearing cloth patterns and accessories associated with different cultures in Africa without awareness of the history or cultural traditions surrounding them. Much of the frustration expressed by those criticizing the practice of Afrocentric dress stems precisely from this lack of awareness of Africa, its history, and the numerous distinct cultures inhabiting its many different countries. Not even to know the origins or history of a borrowed element of cultural heritage effectively erases the original culture altogether, reducing the richness and complexity of a living community to a single symbol worn like a personal totem or fetish. This is not simply an act of “making something one’s own,” but also a denial and even erasure of its source, a disregard for individual humans to whom the borrowed element is both more familiar and, in its novel setting, infinitely more strange. A Turkish makeup artist and social media personality named Percem Akin recently posted a tutorial headed by the words “Color and Pain. My Lovely Black Beauty Transformation…” in which she gave herself dark skin, a bull-type septum piercing, thin bangle necklaces, a headscarf, and even a scar running down the side of her forehead and right cheek. She tagged the image with, among many other hashtags, that of “#slave” and was instantly and widely pilloried for her apparent ignorance of the ugly history behind the image she portrayed. Akin herself pleaded ignorance of that history, as well as of contemporary racism toward those of African descent, although her inclusion of the faux scar and use of the additional hashtag “#sadmakeup” would seem to belie any claim to absolute obliviousness of the troubled history of African enslavement. Indeed, in her subsequent defense, Akin has also argued that the makeup was intended for use by a character in a low-budget film friends in her home country of Turkey were shooting. Whatever Akin’s and other appropriators’ and impersonators’ motives, to some particularly vulnerable groups with particularly ugly histories of atrocity and maltreatment not even positive or benign intent is sufficient to justify appropriation.
It seems, with all the historical atrocity and tribal warfare glorified and justified at the state-level and now sublimated into the modern hurt of identity politics, we humans have lost touch with the natural play inherent in our identities. Just as we are neuropsychologically manifold and multifaceted, so we are master chameleons when it comes to the identities we forge for ourselves. We switch language, accent, choice of conversational topics, mannerisms, dress—all in an effort to mold and shift our identity given the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. Yet even knowing this about ourselves, we tend to regard certain domains—religion, morality, race, ethnicity, social class, perhaps politics—as immune to such manipulations, or at least we think they should be. Even when converted at knife-point, on pain of death, there was an inevitable stench about the converso in medieval Spain, always one step away from the formerly Jewish marrano or ‘swine’ who will never win full acceptance in a Christian-dominated society. So too the formerly Muslim morisco (‘Moor’), who was subject to an edict of expulsion from the nation of Christopher Columbus’ royal patrons even after conversion. In many communities, those who stray from their childhood religion and moral systems are branded apostates, cast out and shunned. Politicians and even lay political supporters who experience marked evolution and turnabouts in their thinking on critical issues must usually bear the ignominious stamp of flip-floppers. A scene in the 2007 short film African Booty Scratcher examines the mutual (dis)regard of African immigrants and African Americans by featuring a tense encounter between the main character’s mother, a recent immigrant to the United States and proprietor of a restaurant serving African cuisine from her home country, and a young black man who angrily assails her with charges of acting as though she were better than him. According to the affronted youth, in the eyes of modern white Americans the African business owner is and will always be “just a nigger with a passport.” His charge against her is one of being “uppity,” of pretending she can escape the confines of the station accorded members of her race in a racially charged America that doesn’t distinguish between African Americans and just plain Africans who immigrated to America.
Under conditions of oppression, marginalization, and intersectionality, when others’ scornful and powerful gaze forces us into painful realization of the full extent of our own peculiar difference, identity can be a deadly serious thing. And it’s no wonder that people in such circumstances are willing to fight—and fight dirty—to preserve whatever it is of themselves and their unique spaces in the world that is still left almost exclusively to them by powerful outsiders. But we also genuinely play with identity, whether at the deeply internal or purely superficial level, often for the sheer sake of enjoyment and fun. Costume balls, Halloween, cosplay, travel, mastering a foreign language and interacting with members of that language community, just getting dressed in fancy clothing: these practices prove liberating and exciting in the same way art can, because they temporarily enlarge our experience of the world, make us feel other to ourselves and so pave the way for an “othered” experience of our own day-to-day lives. To self-conscious others “mimicked” or “impersonated” under these circumstances, the practice can seem demeaning and offensive, but to the identity-player him-, her- or themself the experience of othered identification and self-presentation usually has little-to-nothing to do with actual others, rather solely with the desire to have an altered experience of self: a true play for playfulness’ and/or exploration’s sake.
In his book Soul of a Chef, journalist Michael Ruhlman talks with fervent, even reverent, devotion of an experience dining in Thomas Keller’s famous Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry. There, he sampled dishes with commonplace names like “mac and cheese” and “ice cream cone” which turned out to be really poached lobster tail on creamy orzo with a parmesan crisp and salmon mousse with red-onion crème fraîche in a savory tuile. A critical component of the delight Ruhlman felt while encountering the dishes was the belying of his expectation when presented with the very real, elevated concoctions after reading and mentally turning over for a while their familiar, homey names. They weren’t what their labels assured him they’d be, and that dissonance was playful, provocative, and fun because the substance of what the dishes turned out to be was so much richer, more manifold, more complex and satisfying than anything the common monikers ever normally embrace.
Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey wrote in an essay entitled “The Merits of Artificiality” in The Devil’s Notebook that,
“Artificiality is more than completely honest; it forestalls disappointment at things not being what they appear to be. If you know something is phony from the outset, your imagination can make it as real as needs be. But it does require imagination. Believe it or not, everybody has imagination to some degree.”
Encountering clever simulacra, imaginative re-inventions, creative re-creations is always challenging, but that challenge can be fun as well as provocative, exciting as well as frustrating, in proportion to the degree to which one encounters them with humor and imagination. It’s when we take leave of our childlike appetite and tolerance for identity-play and instead insist on absolute verisimilitude that things turn ugly. In the same collection of essays, LaVey also wrote:
“Man prides himself on being the only animal who can modify his nature, yet when he chooses to do so he is called a phony.”
It’s as though the mere ontological categorization of “being phony, a fake” were itself sufficient to invalidate an experience, to annul whatever joy or release or fulfillment it brings.
When I watch the joy and elation of the drag queens portrayed in the video that prompted these reflections, I detect at once a very childlike amusement and a very adult self-confidence. And while drag is often experienced as sheer fun, it has also been subjected to accusations of sexism, transphobia, and racism based, in large part, on concerns over appropriation and inauthenticity. In the end, all the wrangling and stridency over cultural appropriation, impersonation, and authenticity risks an unacceptable nihilism or extreme fossilization in the expression of identity. We are all of us heirs to an inheritance of endless miscegenation, and we all spend a great proportion of our lives playing some form of pretend with our self-presentation, whether in moderate, socially accepted forms like makeup, perfume, jewelry, and fashion or in more extreme and liminal ways, as through body modification. Drag queens taken aback by accusations of insensitive impersonation, like this guy, sometimes plead their own gender fluidity. We’re all just works in progress, trying to figure ourselves and our relations with others out.
On both the extreme left and right, the communis opinio seems to hold that we had better stay what we were at birth, or at least what we’ve always appeared to be to those whose gaze matters. Identity is seen as being, not becoming—as belonging rather than choosing. As a human who dreams beyond the narrow tribalisms of identity politics and statism, I refuse to accept this idea. Our increasing deadlock over what is and what is not appropriation, when it’s okay and just for fun or when it’s truly offensive and hurtful, reveals that we’ve all been played by repressive histories that would force us in the here and now to limit our own and others’ expression of and genuine play with identity. There was a time before the bar mitzvahs and Brauronia, before we were full-fledged members of the societies and communities into which we were born, when we were allowed to play like wild animals, imagining and embodying any otherness we chose. And because we were kids, stretching and exploring imagination and play, no one stood over us, wagging a scornful finger and tisk-tisking in disapproval. Or if there was, we didn’t care, but played on, heedless and free. Can we ever again reclaim that freedom, that unadulterated joy and play of identity and of self, before the all-too-serious self-awareness that comes with full acculturation and belonging to some tribe? Can we, as a species overcrowded and forever at each other’s throats, afford not to?
A Playful New Way Forward
In formal semantics, reference—that part of meaning that picks out entities in the real world around us—and sense—that part that lets us know what characteristics entities must possess in order to be so picked out—are said to be truth-conditional. Ordinary words come with conditions known to speakers of the language they form a part of that enable us to ascertain whether or not, in any given instance, the words have been correctly applied to the correct entity or entities. There is also another type of meaning some words have, though, a type of meaning found mostly in emotion-laden interjecting and interrupting words like oops, shoot, damn, and fuck. These types of words are called expressives and are said not to be truth-conditional at all, but rather merely expressive of emotional content, usually the speaker’s feelings at the moment of utterance.
A great illustration of how expressives are devoid of truth-conditional descriptive content comes from the use of the word bastard as an expressive term. Of course, the word has a literal meaning: a child born out of wedlock. However, when we use bastard expressively to indicate our disdain of someone, we don’t mean to imply that the person is a child of unwed parents or only that such children can ever be or behave as bastards in the expressive sense. In the song that kicked off my reflections here—“Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” by Canadian group Stars—there is the line:
“Take the weakest thing in you
And then beat the bastards with it.”
Obviously, the line applies to far more potential detractors from those who are just trying to be themselves than only the small subset of such individuals whose parents also happen never to have formally wed each other. Moreover, if you try to press someone who’s just used an expressive word to summarize or paraphrase its meaning, they usually can’t quite manage to do so: though they’re aware that the expression conveys strong emotion, whether positive or negative, they seem unable to put their finger on exactly what meaning there might be behind it other than the raw feelings of emotion it evokes. People can and do freely repeat and compound expressives in a single utterance—“Shit! I left my damn keys to the damn office in the goddamned car!”—without any sense of redundancy. The repeated use of expressives merely builds a sense of heightened feeling, intensified emotion. And all of this is inextricably tied to the contexts in which the emotion and the emotive expressives arise. Indeed, the emotional meaning supplied by such expressives achieves immediate and irrevocable effects on the context, often decisively shifting it and altering the interrelations between the parties to the communication. As a high-school French teacher with the duty of managing a regular exchange program our private Catholic school maintained with a sister school in France, I once offered my car to the visiting chaperon for her to borrow to run a few errands during the school day. I made the offer in front of her French students and, thinking I’d be cute, referred to my automobile using the French slang—read: expressive—bagnole, a word that could be defined as jalopy but which, because of its expressive nature, often has the force of vulgarity associated with base contexts. Some of the French students involuntarily gasped as soon as the word left my lips. Something about the way they saw me and their teacher and our mutual interrelations had suddenly and irrevocably shifted in that moment, with just a single expressive word.
We tend to treat people’s self-presentation and identity claims as being truth-conditional in the way of ordinary descriptive language, and this treatment often results in attempts on our part to force individuals claiming a certain identity that is novel and non-obvious to us into “confessing” that their claims to that identity are merely “pretend” or “posturing.” You can’t really think that you’re X, Y, or Z. Surely you too realize such claims are, strictly speaking, untrue and impossible. Only ugliness can ensue from this treatment. Since, as I’ve argued, identity-play is primarily driven by our own inner needs to explore self and self’s relations to others, I think we might consider beginning to think of identity and self-presentation more like pure expressives, as tokens of the emotional life of the individual or individuals exploring them. Like expressive words, people’s shifting, playful, even painful identities can shock us, trigger us, make us feel in an instant either positively or negatively disposed toward them, but we shouldn’t treat their identity-play as a kind of truth-conditional claim, for in doing so we in effect reject the inner-subjectivity of the players and deny the validity of their self-expression.
I think kids—the ones most prone to un-self-conscious dress-up play—get this approach intuitively. For instance, check out this TEDx talk by motivational speaker and equality advocate Ash Beckham, where she recounts an experience while working as a waitress when she encountered a four-year-old girl in a pink dress who wanted to know whether she was “a boy or a girl.” Beckham identifies as a lesbian, and her “look” trends decidedly toward the masculine. Though Beckham reports internally prepping herself for an angry reaction in which she would lecture the girl and her family on gender identity and stereotypes, she decided instead simply to meet the question where it was coming from and give a real, truthful answer that spoke to the little girl’s assumptions. “Hey,” she began, “I know it’s kind of confusing: my hair is short like a boy’s, and I wear boy’s clothes, but I’m a girl. And you know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress, and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies? Well, I’m more of comfy jammies kind of girl.” To this, the four-year-old gave the immediate and breezy response: “My favorite pajamas are purple, with fish. Can I get a pancake please?” That is, the four-year-old didn’t regard the declaration of identity as anything other than self-expression, an expressive, non-truth-conditional in relation to anything other than the speaker’s own inner self. Beckham said of the encounter that it was “the easiest hard conversation” she had ever had.
Note that treating identity-play as a form of expressive content doesn’t prevent us adults from reacting to others’ self-presentation with value judgments. That is, I’m not trying to lift identity-play above all possibility for conflict or open debate by declaring it completely off-limits or immune to others’ assessment and appraisal. Expressives can still be felt to have a proper time and place, or a certain propriety or set of limits on how far they can go. People can and very much still do react to expressive speech by saying things like, “You shouldn’t say that word” or “You shouldn’t call him/her that.” So also we might still find ourselves face to face with a caucasian woman in an “Indian” headdress on the dance floor of some club in Ibiza and both think and say: “You shouldn’t be wearing that: it’s hurtful.” Or we might think and say of Nkechi Amare Diallo, “She shouldn’t present herself that way: it’s dismissive of a kind of societally constructed Blackness that can’t be washed off.” But we needn’t treat these individuals’ self-presentation, self expression, or play with identity as laying claim to the truth of the world. We can still have meaningful discussions of the propriety of expression without worrying over truth and falsity, over “passing” and “deception.” The kind of value judgment I’m talking about here tends more toward the aesthetic end of things. Most find people who violate propriety in their use of expressives distasteful, ignorant, or perhaps not “classy,” but not critically or fundamentally flawed in their perceptions of reality. What they criticize is the expression, not some putative basis in (ir)reality thought to underlie it.
When we treat people’s presentation of identity as purely expressive, we remove the animus behind attempts to contain, constrict, restrain, and restrict individuals within some specific category or way of being. It is this animus, after all, behind folks’ desires to escape categories and stereotypes of race, gender, etc. and “pass” for something else in the first place. When commentators write things like
“It is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want. That’s as true for Dolezal as it is for Caitlyn Jenner. But with this right comes at least one responsibility: what you call yourself must be comprehensible to others,”
“A tree, whatever the circumstances, does not become a legume, a vine, or a cow. The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing (if self-authorship is a good thing) but that the identity must make some kind of sense. And for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one’s own choices,”
they merely perpetuate the subjugation of individuals to others’ expectations and ideas of what they are, can, and should be that has stood as the basis for racial, gender, class, and every other human disparity since time immemorial.
Truth-conditional meaning must make sense to others: that’s how that part of language works, how we know whether a tree, vine, or cow, so called in the moment, is correctly labeled as such. Since sense perception so often fails us, and our personal world knowledge and perspectives differ so signally from one person to the next, we can and often do argue over these applications and misapplications of truth-conditional language. Expressives, however, need make sense to no one but the speaker: you don’t have to understand why I feel the way I do in order to accept that I apparently do feel that way and wish to express that feeling to you. And this fact remains even when the expressive is something entirely new and impromptu, made up on the spot, like in this favorite scene of mine from the 1993 movie Rookie of the Year. Here a doctor has just been hit in the face by a patient and is experiencing intense physical pain, when he exclaims, “Funky butt loving!” Two youngsters looking on take note of the expressive neologism with some degree of apparent derision, but their reaction bears the stamp of an aesthetic judgment: they find the expression strange, even bizarre, and funny (as do we in the audience), but they don’t appear to question the very real emotion behind it, nor the speaker’s right to expression, however strange, in the moment. You may not like my self-expression, but it doesn’t lie within your purview to deny the validity of my feeling or to insist that I restrict my feelings to some narrow subset of ideas apparent and crucial only to you.
Intriguingly, treating identity more in this expressive way might likely also alleviate the need many feel when exploring their own identities to fabricate histories as a means of justifying their self-expression to others. Indeed, it would very likely eliminate the current messy wrangling over “authenticity” itself, a much troubled concept to which both sides of any given identity debate usually make recourse. Those who wish to criticize someone’s claim to identity usually do so on the basis that the identity claimed is not authentic: that it isn’t the one those who level such criticism feel fits truth-conditionally the person or persons claiming it. Those who wish to defend their claimed identity in the face of such criticism often do so on the basis that their newly asserted identity is, in fact, the (or at least an) authentic version of themselves, something they feel themselves to be deep down inside. Both sides seem to deny that identity is or can be a process of becoming rather than the fossilization of being, and so both sides march into battle claiming to hoist the “authentic” banner of truth. The stakes are felt to be the very basis and concept of truth itself, the very nature of what is. No wonder things turn violent and spiteful so often, and so quickly.
If you don’t treat my identity as truth-conditional, I might not feel the need to defend my choice on the basis of outrageous claims of what my authentic self really is (as if such a thing could ever exist), nor would I feel compelled to rationalize my choice by appeals to an external reality to which my inner identity-play often bears little-to-no necessary relation. So also you don’t have to get upset and react in anger or with physical violence as though my claim to identity somehow threatens the stability or validity of your world. Because my identity-play is not truth-conditional, you and everyone else can rest assured that suddenly words haven’t ceased meaning what you thought they meant, that the world around you hasn’t somehow been turned topsy-turvy or been destroyed outright—except, that is, insofar as you may have previously entertained the false notion that you had power or rights over me, to dictate to me who, what, or how I should be. If that was your thinking going in, then yes: identity-play is a threat to you and your way of thinking and being in the world. The point is emancipation: I and others do not lie in your hands to dispose of as you see fit. If you felt otherwise, all that was just an illusion to begin with: your illusion of power over others. You may not like what I have to say about myself, and you may certainly say as much to my face, but that’s where your power over me ends. Saying as much is all you can do. We can talk about identity and expression; express opinions about it; praise, blame, exalt, or censure it; but it’s not a negotiation. You are not a necessary party to my inner self-discussion or my decision of how I present myself to others. You are not among the actors nor the playwright, director, or producer of my show, but rather a mere critic. Laud me, lambaste me, lampoon me, but do not pretend this play is yours.
“But what about the likes of Rachel Doležal, Andrea Smith, and Jamake Mamake Highwater?” I hear you objecting. “Aren’t they all guilty of the very real crime of bearing false witness? Hasn’t each of these individuals used identity-play to falsely induce others to behave toward them in a specific way, one based on false beliefs in the minds of those to whom these individuals presented themselves falsely? And, by doing so, hasn’t each in fact attempted to exercise unethical dominion over others’ self-identities constructed in relation to them? If you define yourself falsely to me, mightn’t the ‘me’ I concoct to relate to the fabricated ‘you’ be counterfeit as well? A spurious fiction I might not otherwise have authored but for your manipulation? Can’t the same can be said of the man making out with Begbie in Trainspotting on the pretense of being a woman, and maybe even of Gwendoline chatting it up with the titular character in Crocodile Dundee? Aren’t they in effect making a truth claim about the world by seeking to manipulate how others perceive and treat them, thereby affecting their very real status and place in society?”
And I reply: Are they laying claim to some truth about the external world or merely seeking to modulate how you and others see and react to them? After all, social relations are one of the most common targets of expressive content. When I utter a phrase like that damn guy, I’m indicating my feeling about that individual and signaling something about both my relationship with him that I would characterize him thus and my relationship with you that I would feel so at ease as to utter that expressive in your presence. In seeking to modulate how others perceive and react to them, aren’t these individuals doing precisely what we all do, almost instinctively, in altering our accent, diction, phraseology, mannerisms, grooming, or dress to suit different crowds and contexts? Isn’t this just the usual vehicular and instrumental use of identity: as a conveyance and tool to navigate, enhance, and manage social standing? Perhaps the Rachel Doležals and Andrea Smiths of the world have taken this behavior to an extreme, but that’s a difference of degree, not kind. Maybe they took it too far: that’s always possible with expressives, and you have every right to blame them for doing so if you feel so inclined. But let’s not make out like these folks are somehow guilty of perpetrating a whole new category of crime: their identity-play may have been big, bold play, but the act of playing with identity—in large and small ways—in order to grease the wheels of social interaction is common to us all.
I suspect that a large part of people’s desire to find some grave moral fault or failing in the behavior of these individuals relates to the fact that it places higher demands on epistemic vigilance from folks who would interact with them. Creative self presentation and identity-play can make for a less orderly social environment, where many of the usual, customary, historically understood epistemic shortcuts we rely on to make snap judgments about the people around us break down. Think about my kids with their quick mental shorthand: long-hair=girl, short-hair=boy. Dude looks like a lady, right? Yet we recognize these kinds of shortcuts were always lazy on our part, childlike in their oversimplification. No wonder we react childishly when these jejune ways of thinking about others are proven disastrously wrong: we lash out in anger because, to some small degree, we realize begrudgingly that we have to become better scientists, develop more careful and circumspect hypotheses about the people we relate to, raise our evidentiary threshold, work harder at figuring others out. In short, we can’t pigeonhole people as quickly or as easily. We find our natural tendencies to soft racism, sexism, genderism, agism, and what-have-you frustrated and stymied. We must now work harder to relate to others simply as individuals, as unique problems to be solved afresh or at least appreciated in their complexity, without the benefit of rote algorithms recommended and approved by prior histories of stereotyping.
Of course, you could object that my arguments here might be taken as justification for instituting the “Dundee Test” or Trumpian pussy-grab I criticized at the outset of this piece. If the “woman” I’m chatting up in a bar potentially has a penis—and I don’t want to make romantic with someone who has a penis—maybe I should just reach on over and find out before proceeding any further, huh? But let’s not kid ourselves: sexual assault is a crime against others’ wills and bodies, not a valid epistemic strategy for disambiguating in cases of androgyny. And since when did physical confirmation of sexual anatomy become a precondition for successful verbal interactions between the sexes anyway? If my only interest in chatting with a woman lies in what she has between her thighs, let’s face it: my damage runs deeper than a potential for being “duped” by a guy in drag or a transgender woman in transition.
Which brings me to the entirely separate question of the intent of individuals who are exploring their identity in trying to “pass” in society. Treating identity truth-conditionally allows you to overlook the question of intent: if what’s at stake is truth and falsity, and all identity-play trades in fiction, then it can all safely be considered bad right off the bat, a priori, now and forever by those who deem falsehood a moral failing. But if identity-play is really just a kind of expressive, all about signaling an emotional stance to oneself and others, then the question of to what end becomes crucially important. Expressives don’t contain descriptive content: we have to ask why the folks uttering them are so emotionally volatile and really listen to their responses if we are to begin to understand the nature of their self-expression. Are folks who play with identity trying to make a mockery, to prove others foolish for the purpose of holding them up to ridicule after the fact, to perpetrate crimes against others’ wills and persons? We should worry about potential sexual offenders, about predatory individuals who just want to hold others up to scorn and ridicule, about societal freeloaders or profiteers seeking to cash in on others’ cultural patrimony. These bad actors perpetrate bad actions that cause hurt and real injury to their victims. But note that you don’t have to be playing with your self-presentation or identity to be the kind of offender who would do such things. Plenty of sexual offenders, trolls, freeloaders, and opportunistic profiteers make no pretense about who and what they are and intend. The problematic cisgender, heterosexual white male demographic—my own! yay!—comes to mind here. Meanwhile, plenty of people who do play with their identities and self presentations have nothing but noble intentions and laudable motivations and commit no crimes against anyone.
Before her fall from grace, Rachel Doležal did good work while presiding over a local chapter of the NAACP on behalf of African Americans. She was “outed” not by disgruntled members of the black community, but by her own white parents, with whom she has a particularly fraught relationship littered with accusations and recriminations, as revealed in her 2017 book In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World. Andrea Smith’s scholarship in feminist indigenous studies, meanwhile, has been foundational in the field. For this reason, it’s disingenuous to refer to what these women (and other similar individuals) did as cases of mere “blackface” or “redface.” Neither woman embarked on her path with the intent to hold an oppressed group or individual up to ridicule, mockery, or scorn, nor to make such groups or individuals the butts of jokes. Indeed, the same indigenous blogger who criticizes Smith on the basis that, in accepting speaking engagements and academic appointments as a scholar with Cherokee roots, she “displaces countless Indigenous women scholars” simultaneously celebrates Andrea Smith’s role in inspiring her to enter academia as a “real” Indigenous woman. Ultimately, claims that Doležal caused “violence” by her actions, that her sensational case detracted from the real and violent experience of blackness in this country by drawing attention away from the story of a cop in McKinney, Texas, manhandling an African American teenager when he responded to complaints about a pool party, misattribute the source of the problem. Public focus was drawn away from the story of police brutality directed at innocent African Americans by a sensationalism and scandal in the Doležal affair which stems precisely from her parents and everybody else treating her identity-play as truth-conditional. Remove the focus on the truth and/or falsity of Doležal’s identity-claims, and all you’re left with is the particularly knotty and convoluted psychology of a single individual with a problematic relationship to herself and others. Sounds like all of us, doesn’t it? Not too newsworthy, that one. But if you can find an angle where she was deceiving everyone, perpetrating a fraud, even practicing hypocrisy in overtly using the same essentializing, externalized ideas about race and appearance her own case seems to problematize in order to disregard the lived experience of someone else of color, now that’d be a story for the front page and nightly lead!
The Marketplace of Identity
The final piece of the informational puzzle I’ll adduce to try and convince you that my proposal to treat identity-play and self-presentation more as expressives than as the behavioral analogs of standard, truth-conditional descriptive uses of language is on target comes from a work of YouTube satire. In this piece by sketch comedy outfit Hello Generic, an employer is interviewing an applicant for a position as a biochemical engineer. The applicant’s resume includes no relevant education, training, knowledge, or experience. When the employer acts confused and asks why the applicant feels she is right for the job, she answers, “Because I identify as a biochemical engineer.” The employer follows up incredulously, “So, you’re not actually a…,” prompting the applicant to cut in and respond with a clenched jaw: “I’m occupational-fluid. That means I qualify for any position.” Of course this exchange is absurd, but I’m more interested in specifically why we find it absurd. Where exactly does the absurdity lie? Answer: precisely in the fact that discussions of credentials and bona fides for securing work are very truth-conditional and do indeed make highly specific claims about the truth of the external world. Indeed, ensuring ability to act and produce results in the real world is precisely what having job requirements is all about in the first place, at least in theory. Later in the sketch, the employer begins a direct address to the job applicant using the title “Miss…,” to which she indignantly responds: “Excuse me? Did you just assume my pronouns?” When the flabbergasted employer hems and haws and finally just admits, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say here,” the applicant continues: “I would prefer if you called me Colonel.” The employer then asks “Did you serve? I didn’t see it on your resume.” The applicant responds with another patently absurd statement of identity: “I identity as colonel, so therefore I…,” but the employer simply cuts her off and says flatly: “You can’t do that.” The humor here lies in the gap between the applicant’s attempt to appeal to identity-play and self-presentation, which I’ve argued are expressives and make no claim to verifiable truth, in a situation that demands the opposite: real, truth-conditional self-description.
To continue this little exploration of the absurd, imagine what it would be like to turn the tables and actually treat identity-claims like the kind of truth-conditional self description appropriate for job descriptions instead of as expressives. We should then be able to list out the “job requirements” or “skillset” for identifying as black, Asian, a woman, and so forth, right? But what would those requirements and that skillset be, exactly? And before you go answering with something facile like, “Duh, how about being born black, an Asian, or female?” let me throw a few more uncomfortable reminders your way of the messy richness inherent in our world.
The 2006 British documentary film Crossing the Line narrated the unusual story of a U.S. Army defector to North Korea named James J. Dresnok who, together with five other American soldiers, defected to North Korea following the Korean War. The film featured footage of Dresnok’s sons, James and Ted, who were born and have grown up entirely in North Korea. Though the pair look for all intents and purposes as American as their father, they are unassailably North Korean linguistically, culturally, and politically. Here’s some footage of the boys, now grown men, in an hour-long interview shown on US-based, pro-North Korean Minjok TV. In the interview, James, who goes by the Korean name of Hong Chol, and Ted, known as Hong Sun Chol, discuss their support of North Korea’s government and opposition to American policies toward the beleaguered nation. U.S. Army Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish also defected to North Korea in the same group that included Dresnok. Parrish’s two sons Michael and Ricky, are also featured in the 2006 documentary, both then attending Pyongyang University in the elite Foreign Language College together with James Dresnok Jr. Many of these children, including James Jr., would later do time in the North Korean military. At one point in the film, James Jr. says onscreen:
“My father is American, and I’ve got American blood. But, as I born [sic] here, I consider myself as Korean.”
The film’s narrator, Christian Slater, observes just after that interview snippet that, though the children of these American defectors consider themselves Korean, their official North Korean identification papers peg them as American. After Dresnok Sr.’s first wife and the mother of James Jr. and Ted passed away, he got remarried, this time to a woman born of a relationship between a North Korean and a Togolese diplomat who promptly fled back to West Africa. She is thus biracial, as is the child she had with Dresnok.
The 2014 book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America details a rich history of African Americans “passing” as white in this country from the late eighteenth until the mid-twentieth centuries. The book recounts the experiences of a distant cousin to Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs whose mother insisted that she move away to California and live as a white woman there after graduation from high school, which she did, eventually refusing to return home many years later to mourn the death of her father for fear that reconnecting with the black family of her childhood would threaten her new white identity; of New Yorker Theophilus McKee who had lived as a white man all his adult life until he attempted to claim a considerable inheritance as the only black descendent of African American Civil War veteran Col. John McKee and had to fight a legal battle with his estranged biracial siblings in order to do so; of Harry S. Murphy who was assigned as a cadet in the ROTC to the University of Mississippi by a commander who thought he was white and who attended Ole Miss as a white student years before Civil Rights figure James Meredith fought to enroll at the University in 1961 as the first African American to openly attend. In this same vein, the 2007 memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets recounts how writer, literary critic, and editor Anatole Broyard gathered his adult children to his side just two months before his death in 1990 to reveal that he had in fact been born a Louisiana creole of mixed racial ancestry and had begun concealing his racial identity, considered by the larger American society of the time to be simply black, when his family moved to Brooklyn when he was still a child.
Meanwhile actress, dancer, and singer Lena Horne, who once received the advice from Blues singer Billy Holliday to “wear as many hats as you have to to create your life…,” got hired by MGM studio in 1942 as the first black performer to sign a major motion picture deal to play more than the bit parts as serviles or worse that closely reflected African Americans’ social standing in the larger, racist American society of the day. Horne, whose light skin made it easy for her to trade on the ambiguity of possibly being Latin multiple times during her career, both served as a token black presence in MGM’s lineup of stars and drew criticism from African American activists for not being true to her race, all the while being prevented by Hollywood’s self-enforced standards against miscegenation from ever starring opposite a white actor in the role of a leading lady—read: romantic interest. When the 1940s saw a string of Hollywood films about black characters passing as white, Horne thought she saw her opening to land a real starring role. She sought the lead in one such film entitled Pinky. MGM execs, though, rebuffed her advances, on the grounds that, as the studio’s one big-name black star, no one in the audience would believe that the other characters in the film could fail to see through the titular character’s racial deception: everyone simply knew Horne was black. So the role went to white actress Jeanne Crain, who received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal in 1949. Then again when MGM began planning to mount the production that became the 1951 film version of Show Boat, Horne sought the role of the principal character of Julie LaVerne, the stage name of character Julie Dozier, a racially mixed woman illegally married to a white man and “passing” as white aboard the titular Mississippi riverboat. Again Horne was refused even so much as consideration for the part on the rationale that she was simply too identifiable as a black actress to be cast as a light-skinned woman passing for white, this despite the fact that, early on in her career, Horne had won dubious praise from musician Skitch Henderson for having “a very white way about her” and from screenwriter Arthur Lawrence, who called her: “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen: there was absolutely nothing negro about her at all.” The part of Julie instead went to Horne’s white friend Ava Gardner who had to both practice singing like Horne using recordings of Lena together with Horne’s close, personal assistance and to be made to appear to have darker skin than she naturally possessed, for which the studio used a special foundation the cosmetic manufacturer Max Factor had created specially for Horne in order to make her appear—wait for it—more black. The makeup bore the euphemistic name of “Light Egyptian.”
So what were those job requirements to get the position of “black” or “Asian” again? And as for what it takes to be a woman, take a gander at this video post by YouTube personality Contrapoints and marvel at the point and counterpoint in the fictive argument between a trans woman on the point of transitioning and a traditional TERF over where exactly womanhood lies (hint: it’s in the psychology of identification!). And while you’re at it, compare these words from a poem entitled “23” by trans woman poet Roz Kaveney in her 2012 collection Dialectic of the Flesh:
“You’re on their list. There are so many lists.
You’re stroppy, queer, demonically possessed,
a woman made not born, made by yourself,
born of yourself. You’re not supposed to choose
and yet you chose, were born in blood and pain.
It’s hard to list whose many lists you’re on.”
Now, the above discussion of the contrast between truth-conditional job requirements and the expressiveness of identity that consists in an internal, emotional, and psychological stance taken toward the world rather than a claim on the world’s truth highlights the very real difficulty that surrounds the issue of representation of identity on the silver screen. The problem of “whitewashing” in Hollywood casting has received extra attention in recent years, as scores of roles representing racially mixed or “ethnic” characters continue to go to white actors instead of to actors who identify in their offscreen lives as the onscreen characters do in the scripts. Shades of Lena Horne’s predicament. This issue proves thorny precisely because film—and, by extension, stage and television—trade in pretense and artifice monetized and commodified for a paying audience. That is, acting has created a real-world job out of identity-play, such that the real, truth-conditional job requirements for any given acting job might actually specify aspects of identity-claims and self-presentation. We might argue that the position of NAACP chapter head held by Rachel Doležal falls into this problematic category as well.
The fact that actors and directors can and do choose to cast and play roles in a manner that is “blind” to offscreen identities shows that there can be, and often is, a separation maintained between the truth-conditional job aspects and the expressive identity aspects of the career. For example, in his 1993 production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Kenneth Branagh cast African American actor Denzel Washington in the role of the caucasian Don Pedro of Aragon, whose half-brother Don John the Bastard was portrayed by Keanu Reeves. The choice was apparently a self-conscious one, intended to help contribute to making the production as inclusive and broad-minded as possible, at least in theory. In the cases of whitewashing, however, many would argue that the choice to cast in a similarly racially or ethnically “blind” way in fact decreases diversity and inclusivity by shutting out actors who personally identify as people of color or of whatever ethnicity the character to be portrayed identifies as.
That major Hollywood studios consistently fail to express concern about the believability of well-known white actors portraying characters who are not of their own self-identified racial or ethnic identity despite movie-going audiences’ being bothered enough by the disconnect to express their concern serves to underscore the continued, systemic discrimination against actors of color and non-European ethnicity in the film industry. But note that this is not a problem of identity politics per se, but rather of employment discrimination in a lucrative industry historically dominated by white males of European descent. In short, the film industry has always been racist—and still is!—and we’re all confused about how to sort that shit out because we’ve accustomed ourselves to thinking of identities in terms of job requirements: you can say you are whatever you want, but someone else with a more powerful, authoritarian gaze must look you over and assent that you’ve ticked off the right external requisites for entry into whatever the promised group du jour is. And to that I say: Bah! Humbug! as well as, to use a more modern expressive, Fuck you!
The Netherlands has long been seen around the world as a bastion for tolerance when it comes LGTBQ issues and identities. However, with increasing frequency the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (abbreviated IND in Dutch) is turning self-identified gay asylum seekers in Holland down. The IND is requiring those applying for asylum on the grounds that they’re gay and face potential violence back home if they have to return to their countries of origin to, in effect, prove their gay identities by responding to detailed and invasive personal questioning, including explanations of when and how they first realized they were gay or why they may appear on Facebook or other social media in photographs with members of the opposite sex. One 22 year-old asylum seeker from Uganda had her application for asylum turned down after nine months; officials said she had lied about the punishment she faces in her home country (she alleges death, while the official punishment on the books is “merely” life imprisonment) and that they didn’t believe she was in fact a lesbian. In this and the dozens of similar cases now garnering attention in the Netherlands and beyond, our penchant for regarding identity as truth-conditioned rather than expressive holds real potential to get people killed. Said one twenty-something asylum seeker from Jamaica who was lucky enough to have his application granted: “I don’t think there is any right way to prove that anyone is gay.”
Of course, the usual facile thing anyone could say is, “Well, clearly if you have gay sex or gay relationships—that would provide proof.” Yet examples abound of individuals who identify as gay but live in repressive religious and/or socio-political environments such that they cannot, dare not, and do not express their sexual identities, but remain entirely closeted, “gay” in personal identification only. This is the reality, for example, for the many people who identify as LGBTQ within the Mormon faith, which refuses to budge in its opposition to gay marriage rights, the ability of individuals who identify as gay to engage in loving sexual relationships, or adoption of any language for LGBTQ experiences or identities other than “same-sex attraction.” Faithful LDS who identify as LGBTQ are, in effect, shut out of their religion and the community it holds together, unless they choose to live life on the model of heterosexual Mormons. Says one openly gay Mormon man who is married to a woman with whom he has a family:
“My goal isn’t to be straight, but a man who is honoring my covenants and [has] a healthy relationship with my wife. …[A]t some point you decide you’re going to commit to one person you love, just like mature straight men do. I don’t feel like I’m suppressing anything. I focus my energy into my marriage.”
In his 2012 Jeremiad about the decline of traditional Christian faith in America, conservative New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic, wrote tellingly—and disturbingly—of the degree to which self-identified homosexuals are forced to remain closeted in traditional Christian communities:
“Ultimately, the Christian sexual ethic asks more of people with same-sex attraction than it does of straights—a far greater self-denial, a more heroic chastity” (p. 136, emphasis in original).
Heroic my ass! Martyrly is the adjective Douthat should have used, for it’s clearly what he has in mind. How do you prove you’re gay in a world that denies not only your gayness—indeed all gayness—but also your ability to live openly and freely as a gay person?
Denouement and Outro
At the very end of the Stars music video where we began, an off-camera interviewer is speaking with one of the individuals present at the private drag party, a person who, when asked at the outset of the video, “You are?”, responds with the enigmatic: “That’s an interesting question.” To all appearances, this individual is a beautiful woman with platinum blond hair and a rather high-pitched voice. Is she transgender, a “real woman” (whatever that means), or just really accomplished at drag? We’ll never know. But as a sage assessment of the play of identity depicted in the video, this woman-apparent assents to the interviewer’s observation that “Everyone is in drag,” and then offers further: “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”