Culture Magazine

Group Identity

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
From an essay, The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual (Harper's, November 1999), by Shelby Steele:
The greatest problem in coming from an oppressed group is the power the oppressor has over your group. The second greatest problem is the power your group has over you. Group identity in oppressed groups is always very strategic, always a calculation of advantage. The humble black identity of the Booker T. Washington era–“a little education spoiled many a good plow hand”–allowed blacks to function as tradesmen, laborers, and farmers during the rise of Jim Crow, when hundreds of blacks were being lynched yearly. Likewise, the black militancy of the late sixties strategically aimed for advantage in an America suddenly contrite over its long indulgence in racism.
One’s group identity is always a mask–a mask replete with a politics. When a teenager in East Los Angeles says he is Hispanic, he is thinking of himself within a group strategy pitched at larger America. His identity is related far more to America than to Mexico or Guatemala, where he would not often think of himself as Hispanic. In fact, “Hispanic” is much more a political concept than a cultural one, and its first purpose is to win power within the fray of American identity politics. So this teenager must wear the mask that serves his group’s ambitions in these politics.
H/t Nina Paley.
Identity in this sense is differential, not intrinsic.

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