The Cheyney Ryan Peace and Conflict Studies Essay Contest is an annual competition sponsored by the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon. The essay contest seeks to provide an opportunity for undergraduate students internationally to consider and write about issues related to conflict and its resolution. It is open to full-time undergraduate students worldwide from any field of study.
The topic for the 2009-2010 contest was:
We know that psychological and social well-being are tied in significant ways to our sense of belonging, and that a key part of our identity is based on the groups to which we belong – our family, our community, our nation, our ethnic group, etc. We also see how our national, ethnic, or religious identities can be the source of much destructive conflict. How can we reconcile this dilemma? How do we encourage the positive elements of group identity and, at the same time, avoid the perils of identity affiliations?
This year, three winning entries were selected:
Storytelling by Caleb Paul Mechem
and here presented:
Mestizaje as Strength: Articulating Plurality within Group Identities
by Jeff Stoesz
To describe ourselves as human beings, we apply a wide variety of labels that signify categories of people. These are categories that place us in groups along with so many others. Most often, we are able to name the groups we are a part of – such as nationality or sex. Sometimes, however, we are unaware or simply unreflective about other group categories – such as whiteness or class – which typically go unnoticed or undefined. Racial categories in the United States, over the last few hundred years, have deeply influenced the way we understand ourselves and interact with others. Because of this shift toward categorizing others by physical features, many have begun to claim racial identities. These identities are most frequently articulated by members of the group in question, often with the intention of alleviating some grievance or empowering the group generally. The majority of examples of group identity in this essay are those based on a racial or ethnic identity. While racial group identity often works to empower and provide a sense of belonging, it also expresses itself in damaging and destructive ways. If group identity is to avoid functioning as exclusive, marginalizing and oppressive, it must be understood as contextual, multiple and ever shifting.
When discussing group identity, the distinction between implicit and explicit expressions of that identity is significant. Where something like the black power movement explicitly defines its boundaries and intentions, groups defined by socio-economic class or educational attainment are rather informal and implicit. Members of implicitly defined groups may or may not understand themselves as part of these groups, but their involvement is no less real. These groups are often expressed by a network of signification and behavior that works to define and regulate ingroup/outgroup status. This essay, however, will focus primarily on the ways explicitly articulated group identity works to empower, marginalize, unify, exploit, harm and heal. This focus is not meant to privilege one expression of group identity over another, as both explicit and implicit group identities are powerful expressions of human experience and greatly influence our behavior in the world. Rather, the expressions and variations of group identity are vast, and focus is necessary to allow for adequate depth.
Group identity empowers marginalized groups by providing a sense of solidarity, unity and belonging. An immediate example of this is the plethora of ethnic or racial identity-based student groups on college campuses. At a predominantly white institution, black or latino/a student unions provide forums for minority students to recognize themselves in others. Where a student may not find an adequate location for a particular expression of identity (in this case race or ethnicity) in a white world, these groups explicitly define a space for that identity. Similarly, the black power movements in the United States and comparable black nationalist movements in Africa are examples of group identity providing belonging and solidarity. Often characterized as anti-establishment, revolutionary or excessively violent by opponents, these movements focused significantly on the empowerment (external and internal) of the marginalized black population. Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Steve Biko all articulated ideologies of black appreciation such a valuation of black as beautiful that functioned as rallying calls for a black population long threatened by the internalized oppression of white governing powers. (1) The third example of articulating group identity centered on empowerment and belonging is found in José Vasconcelos’ vision of “la raza cósmica” in reference to the mestizaje throughout Central and South America. (2) Where most articulations of race theory appeal to some sense of racial purity, Vasconcelos speaks of “la primera raza síntesis del globo,” a hybrid race that draws from the strengths of its progenitors. (3) In opposition to discourses that disparage mestizos as an impure or degenerate race, Vasconcelos addresses the aspects of identity in question – plurality and multiplicity – as the very aspects that represent great strength. When group identities describe or reveal an element of oppression in a social system by strengthening a marginal population, it works in the most positive ways.
The alternate side of group identity is expressed in exclusion and marginalization, often described as “power over” versus “power with.” White power movements, such as the KKK, are based on group identity that works to solidify the power of groups already holding dominant positions and those who feel their power is threatened. While, as Steve Biko notes from South Africa, “the greatest anti-black feeling is to be found amongst the very poor whites,” who experience socio-economic exploitation, the focal point is the racial superiority of whites, who already experience privilege in a number of significant ways. Though subtle, the distinction here is of great importance. Strong group identity, as noted, works to give individuals a sense of belonging, often empowering socially or politically weak groups. With white power ideology, however, a disempowered group (poor whites) may experience greater power, but this is not explicitly tied to group identity expression itself. In terms of the dynamics of power, middle and upper class whites end up profiting from the destructive conflicts between lower class whites and people of color. Biko again recognizes the intersections of class and race oppression in that “even the most down-trodden white worker still has a lot to lose” recognizing the privileges all whites receive despite economic exploitation. (4) Franz Fanon, the renowned theorist of black liberation, explains this identity formation as one in which “[e]very position of one’s own, every effort at security, is based on relations of dependence, with the diminution of the other.” (5) The most negative expressions of group identity are those that require an other to denigrate
These expressions of group identity – to empower and to exclude or marginalize – so often appear to be irreconcilable. A highly useful understanding in the move toward mitigating the negative expressions of group identity is found in Gloria Anzaldúa’s articulation of the ‘borderlands’ of identity. She describes borderlands as “physically present whenever two or more cultures edge each other,” defining a kind of ambiguous interstitial space. (6) It is a place where cultures constantly interact, translate and evolve. The explicit definition and exploration of the margins of group identity is key to understanding the functional expression of that identity. A borderland identity is one that refuses a specific, unchanging label. This is similar to some of Audre Lorde’s criticism of the feminist movement’s “pretense to a homogeneity of experience … that does not in fact exist” outside the minds of the privileged ‘center’ of western feminist thought. (7) It is a recognition that all individuals exist on borders and ascribe to multiple group identities at any given time. A particular group identity, while empowering and unifying, inherently (and conveniently) neglects certain internal divisions for the sake of empowerment. bell hooks speaks to this point in relation to “color caste hierarchies” and the valuation of whiteness in US culture. (8) Rather than the strict division of ‘white’ and ‘black’ racial categories, color caste further divides by the overvaluation of lighter skin among black-identified individuals. This fractures the presumed unity of ‘blackness’ by establishing ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ classes of blacks based on skin tone. hooks goes further by outlining how racial identity is influenced by gender identity in the way “a male’s power is enhanced by dark looks, while a female’s dark looks diminish her femininity.” (9) Presumptions of total group unity is reductionist in terms of the inherent diversity in every group. This should not been interpreted as a major flaw in group identity formation, however.
This destabilization of identity signifies a departure from a kind of ‘total disclosure” or ‘complete truth’ that risks further marginalizing a subset of the group in question. It seems entirely possible that aspects of our identity can be put on hold for the sake of a particular group’s empowerment. As Anzaldúa’s borderlands are ever shifting, we might effect the dominance of a particular identity by setting others aside. Lorde resists this, however, by arguing that to “pluck out some one aspect of myself … is a destructive and fragmenting way to live” and she articulates a vital point. (10) To deny aspects of identity for the sake of unity (not homogeneity) is dangerous because of the ways this leads to the marginalization of those aspects of people. The articulation of a group identity, then, requires the ability to lend support or participation for a coalition around one aspect of identity, while holding strongly to other aspects of one’s total identity. Indeed, the multiplicity of identity strengthens rather than undermines a group’s coherence by adding nuance to a group’s often simplistic articulation of its concept of self. This becomes damaging only when those alternate group identities are silenced or prevented from expressing their own solidarity or need for empowerment. This is by no means a minor issue, either. Angela Davis provides a comprehensive outline of the intersections of race and gender in the history of civil rights and suffrage struggles in the United States. Particularly, she notes how the women’s suffrage movement repeatedly excluded black women for the sake of ‘unity’ and expediency of their own goals. (11) This unwillingness to appreciate the plurality of what constitutes ‘women’ is precisely what Lorde refers to as white women’s “reluctance to see Black women as women and different from themselves” (my emphasis). (12) This is both the most frequent expression of group identity and its most damaging, destructive expression: the demand for empowerment of a single group to the exclusion of numerous others.
The simplistic, reductionist articulations of group identity, then, seem to have outlived their function. While exclusive group identities do provide belonging and unity, this comes at great cost. A new recognition of the multiplicity of group identities is warranted. The articulations of recent writers provide a solid foundation for a new understanding of group identities by drawing out the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the stories people tell about themselves. Anzaldúa’s recognition that cultures and groups constantly renegotiate their position in relation to one another ties with Lorde’s vehement assertions that her identity is multiple and must remain so. While we can describe ourselves as part of a particular group or culture, we are always part of other groups. The coherence of a single group is never solidified, but constantly divided and reformed dependant on myriad factors both internal and external to the group in question. In terms of racial identity, articulation of group identities must take into account the systemic power of the group in question as well as those identities or subgroups ignored or marginalized by that articulation. By rejecting the notion that group identities express a unified totality rather than a multiplicity of experience, we move closer to concepts of group identity that empower and comfort more than they marginalize and oppress.
1. Bell Hooks, “Back to Black” in Outlaw Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006), 202-3.
2. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 99.
4. Steve Biko, “The Definitions of Black Consciousness,” in I Write What I Like (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 50.
5. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 211.
6. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 19.
7. Audre Lorde, Sister Outisder (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1996), 116.
8. Hooks, 203.
9. Ibid, 211.
10. Lorde, 120.
11. Angela Davis, Women Race & Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 111-2.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands, La Frontera, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.
Biko, Steve. “The Definitions of Black Consciousness,” in I Write What I Like. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. 49-53.
Davis, Angela. Women Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Hooks, Bell. “Back to Black,” in Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006. 202-13.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1996.
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