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Columns

Identify Me Not

For better or for worse, identity is not a category

By Dan A. Valenzuela, Contributing Writer

When I started college, I counted myself as one of the 71 percent of Harvard’s student body that identify as liberal. Back then, I believed in the benefits of government programs and the importance of regulating private interests. As I have grown older and gained more experience, I’ve become skeptical of these narrow commitments and my past tendency to identify as a liberal and Democrat. I have even become skeptical of the identity politics employed by liberals and conservatives that may have led us to elect Donald Trump as our president.

Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times that this year’s election and its outcome must teach us “that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” He contends that an odd fixation on diversity has made many progressives aware of little outside their self-defined identity groups. And when one considers the campaign Hillary Clinton ran, in which she called African Americans, LGBTQ persons, Latinos, and women to vote with little mention of the uneducated, males, or whites, it’s of little surprise to Lilla that the fixation on diversity has allowed the latter to come together as an identity group to vote Trump into power. Instead, as Lilla argues, Clinton should have provided a unifying vision that focused on commonalities rather than differences.

I agree with Lilla, but he fails to explain how identity politics obfuscates what really matters in bonding people: experience.

Take, for example, my so-called Hispanic identity. What would you know about me when I say that I am Hispanic? Would you think I am disadvantaged and discriminated against? Would you be surprised to know that Hispanic people didn’t make up most of the people I knew back home? Or that I enjoyed a great public school education in a wealthy county?

There is a variety of experience that makes up who I am that has nothing to do with being Hispanic. For one, it seems unfair to me to say that I am at Harvard despite the disadvantages of being Hispanic. Sure, my Guatemalan father was a cook, and my Salvadorian mother cleans homes, and neither earns all that much. But they have given me values and experiences—values and experiences that are not exclusive to Hispanic people—that I could build upon to end up here at Harvard.

Furthermore, there’s nothing about me that makes me think that I ended up at Harvard because I’m Hispanic. I know that I am not among the most talented, but I do know that I am smart enough and work hard enough to contribute to others’ experience of Harvard, like all the other people here. In other words, I am not here just because Harvard had to fill a quota.

At the individual level, then, an identity can’t be captured by concepts of race, gender, or any other category. Saying that I am Hispanic does not tell much about me and my experiences besides that at least one of my parents is Hispanic. What actually gives you an idea of who I am are my decisions and experiences.

An identity is little more than what one does, the accumulation of decisions and experiences one makes. An identity built on anything else would be irreparably fragile in the face of the diversity of experiences people have, like my Hispanic identity given my various experiences.

At a greater scale, ascribing or self-ascribing an identity to a group of people on the basis of certain categories also doesn’t make sense. Gather any group of people of European descent, identify the group as white, and there will be difficulty in finding any other experiences that would be common to every member of the group.

Nor does it make sense that a block of white, uneducated people voted for Trump should be judged as a monolithic group based on their vote. These voters are diverse in their individual identities and experiences. We have seen both the aspirational and the ugly in them. And it’s not entirely clear whether Trump was elected because of racist attitudes or economic worries. The only thing that is capital-T True is that the smaller group of people that brought Trump to the White House come from rural environments which produce a certain kind of experience, none of which could inherently be called racist or economic.

Even at these greater scales identities are about everyday experiences, and those are the things that bond. Individual experiences act as bonds between past and future selves, helping form a continuous whole. And group experiences act as bonds between people which contribute to a happy union.

Take this op-ed, for example. My word is bond for my identity. Your reading is bond for your identity. Our communicating is bond for our group identity. No matter my self-ascribed identity or your self-ascribed identity the experience we share through these written and read words is what makes us common. This, among many other experiences, is the only thing that makes up who you and I are.


Dan A. Valenzuela ’17-’18, is a philosophy concentrator living in Cabot House. His column usually appears on alternate Fridays.

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