Do You Identify Or Are You Identified?

By Nick Pendergrast

Herbert J Gans make some important points questioning who gets to choose an identity and who has identities imposed on them. These points, from the book The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 are relevant to the backlash against “identity politics” that is coming from the Right and even some on the Left.

Gans explains:

‘Whatever limits the identification process puts on ethnic and racial identity, minorities are relatively free to choose the frequency and intensity of identity expression as well as the feelings, activities, and objects associated with it. Nativeborn whites do not care much whether immigrants feel racial or ethnic pride or through what objects they express that pride. They quickly become upset, however, if identity is expressed in ways that threaten the public order or white superiority in that order’ (p. 104, my emphasis).

The final point about being upset when identity challenges white superiority is where I think a lot of the criticisms of “identity politics” are coming from. Many discussions lumped under the very broadly applied term “identity politics” such as exploring who is given a voice in activist movements and who isn’t, labelling whiteness in discussions about race etc challenge white supremacy, or at least create an environment where such a challenge is more likely.

I think there are some valid critiques of certain kinds of identity politics, however, part of what I see as less legitimate criticisms come from white men (for example) and more privileged groups generally being annoyed at being labelled as such, reflected in comments I’ve seen online such as “I’m so sick of being called a white man!”. Generally in a white supremacist society those who are white are not labelled by others and get to choose whatever labels/identities they like. This definitely rings true in my own experience, as someone who falls into many categories of privilege and any labels that I associate with I have chosen myself, rather than being imposed from outside. In contrast, more marginalised groups such as PoC often have an identity imposed on them by a white majority in Western countries such as Australia and the United States. Gans gives an example of this in a US context:

‘However, Asian Americans, like Hispanics, take their identity from external identifications made by native-born Americans who are unwilling to make distinctions among the immigrants’ various countries of origin. If those speaking for the country’s native-born majority decide how to identify the newcomers, it is easier to call them Asian American than Chinese, Korean, or Japanese’ (p. 103).

Obviously those who are white may face other oppressions based on their gender, sexual preference etc and a similar labelling process is likely to apply, but more generally those with more privilege are more able to choose their own labels/identities and those with less are more likely to have labels/identities imposed on them. Despite the backlash against the naming of whiteness, labelling whiteness is very important.

Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson has published important work on the topic of whiteness. Image from

Aileen Moreton-Robinson does a great job at explaining why this is the case in her chapter ‘Whiteness, Epistemology and Indigenous representation’ from the book Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Moreton-Robinson (p. 75) explains that ‘In the West, whiteness defines itself as the norm’ and ‘race is deemed to belong to the other’. Therefore whiteness is ‘an invisible regime of power’ that underpins colonialism (p. 76). In an academic context, the failure to label whiteness has meant that knowledge created by white scholars has generally been perceived as objectives whereas the knowledges developed by Indigenous scholars are often dismissed as implausible and subjective (p. 85).

Whiteness as the “default” or the “norm” through not being labelled also plays out in sport. Moreton-Robinson explains that white athletes such as Dawn Fraser, Pat Rafter and Ian Thorpe ‘are not associated with a particular racial group’ and she asks us to ‘consider why Cathy Freeman is positioned as running for reconciliation, yet Ian Thorpe swims for the nation’ (p. 79). Freeman, as an Aboriginal Australian, is racialised and therefore is portrayed as running for a specific group within Australia, whereas Thorpe, as a white Australian, is not racialised, and is seen as representing the country as a whole. 

The famous image of runner Cathy Freeman carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. Photo from Getty Images.

Rather than being upset at receiving such labels as “white man”, those of us with more privilege should embrace the naming of whiteness as an important part of the struggle to challenge white supremacy.

This article is the second in a three-part series of posts on identity politics, you can check out the others here:

Article 1:  ‘What Do You Mean By “Identity Politics”?

Article 3: ‘Questioning Trickle Down Identity Politics’.