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Identity Thinking



I’m a cisgendered, straight, tall, able-bodied, white man with a beard. I enjoy whiskey neat, a good cigar every now and then, and I’m married with four kids. Unfortunately, one or more of these features disqualify me, in the eyes of some, from advancing certain ideas. The mere fact that these are true of me serves as enough fodder for some detractors of my view to outright reject my proposal in favor of their own. Here’s a claim:


A) High rates of fatherlessness in the home is the number one problem facing the black community.Now, let’s think carefully here.


Suppose someone were to say one of the following:


B) Speaking as a black person, high rates of fatherlessness in the home is the number one problem facing the black community.


C) Speaking as a white person, high rates of fatherlessness in the home is the number one problem facing the black community. Take a moment to consider the difference between the three sentences A, B, and C. What feelings are evoked with each one? In particular, what force do the words “black/white” carry in B and C? Are you more or less likely to believe B and C based on the clause at the beginning? See, to actually determine the truth of these sentences, we need to do quite a bit of legwork in sociology, developmental psychology, economics, law, and politics. This is a strong claim that needs a good deal of data to support it. But it should be obvious that neither being white nor being black on the part of the speaker add any evidential value to you as the reader. Perhaps you were inclined to bristle at the “speaking as a white person”. This is a healthy response. Being white has nothing to do with knowing whether the idea about fatherlessness is true. It is weird and unsettling to bring up. Yet, the fact that we don’t bristle as much at “speaking as a black person” is a sign of the times we are in. You should have a similar allergic reaction to it as you did when the word “black” was replaced with “white”. Being black also has nothing to do with knowing whether the idea about fatherlessness is true. Granted, if you are black, then the claim references you in virtue of you being part of the black community. But being black gives you no epistemic advantage in determining the truth of the claim other than access to extra anecdotal evidence (which shouldn’t move the needle on this enormous interdisciplinary question). We could invent examples that involve different gender identities, sexual orientations, and status of physical/mental ability. These would be just as pernicious as the former. To be sure, there are times when referring to such characteristics is relevant to a topic at hand. For instance, “speaking as a transgender person, I have felt very welcomed in your church particularly in light of how other churches I’ve been to have singled me out due to my being transgender.” It is quite relevant that the person saying it is transgender. It is stronger evidence of the truth of whether the church is welcoming on this front because the person reporting it is transgender. But, in the sentence “speaking as a transgender person, health insurance companies should cover gender transition surgery to minors” being transgender isn’t very relevant to assessing what health insurance policy should be. When we think that someone’s race, orientation, or gender give the person special epistemic and moral status, then we are practicing Identity Thinking. And this can occur across the disciplines: identity politics, identity theology, identity economics, etc… We would do well to avoid it. To hear about what Identity Thinking, particularly in theology, gets right and what it gets wrong, check out this week’s episode "Has Identity Theology Gone Too Far?” on Youtube or your favorite podcatcher. Stay Curious!