Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self

Linda Martín Alcoff. 2006. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford University Press.

** indicates a chapter particularly salient / insightful to my research agenda

Introduction: Identity and Visibility

This book theorizes the ontological reality of identity. Alcoff argues: "The reality of identities often comes from the fact they are visibly marked on the body itself, guiding if not determining the way we perceive and judge others and are perceived and judged by them" (pg. 5). Alcoff's goal "is to cast serious doubt on [the] suspicion of difference," for ignoring difference reifies interpersonal and structural distrust and discrimination. She argues that race and gender are not peripheral, but fundamental to one's self. In particular, gender and race are visible in ways that age, class, and sometimes sexuality are not. She discusses how gender is often viewed as determinate through the visuality of genitals, and race, even when ambiguous, always has some biometric marker of the "truth." She portrays this in the example of a white man divorcing his wife under the grounds he had tricked him into thinking she was white. She was asked to bear her breasts to the jury to determine her race (pg. 7) - which is also reminiscent of trans panic.

Class works alongside and is determined by visible markers of social identities, like race and gender. "Capitalism was a racial and gender system from its inception, distributing roles and resources according to identity markers of status and social position and thus reenforcing their stability" (pg. viii). Alcoff discusses how resistance to "identity politics" in the United States, questioning the relation of identity to politics, has spread from the "'progressive' academic community ... to the divisions that keep us from moving forward" (pg. x). Class solidarity is encumbered by divisive race and gender relations and undermined antiracist and feminist work. Alcoff argues that, while visible identity may be "a means of segregating and oppressing human groups," it is also "the means of manifesting unity and resistance" (pg. 7).

The Pathologizing of Identity

Criticisms of identity or "identity politics" sugges that "separatism, particularism, and narrow group interest," but these criticisms ignore the ways "identities figure into political discourses and practices" (pg. 12). Often, the discussion of oppression of certain genders or races is viewed as "bashing" of the dominant group, even when that group is not mentioned (pg. 14). Alcoff argues that identity is an "a priori problem," which exists independent of experience. In particular, she argues that social identities "post dangers and commit one to mistake assumptions when they are believed to be real and/or acted upon politically" when they are "overly homogenizing, essentialist, reductive, or simplistic constructions" (pg. 14).

Alcoff seeks to answer the question as to how identity politics have become to be seen as divisive and dangerous. She starts by analyzing Arthur Schlesinger's 1991 book, "The Disuniting of America," which posited identity difference as a threat to an idealized goal of homogenity and postracism (pg. 16). Specifically, Schlesinger believed whites "have given up their European identities out of rational and progressive motivations, but that nonwhites are now refusing to follow suit" (pg. 17). While arguing we must leave ethnic identity behind, he also proposes European thought and culture as superior and thus, to eliminate identity, all others must assimilate. Alcoff argues the true danger is identity movements, which have been built on histories of oppression, being perceived as "a threat to progressive politics" (pg. 18). She argues that the true challenge of identity politics is "conceptualizing justice across cultural difference" while "relat[ing] precisely to class" (pg. 19).

The Political Critique

Alcoff argues that the political critique of identity has "discredit[ed] all identity-based movements, ... blame[ed] minority movements for the demise of the left, and ... weaken[ed] the prospects for unity between majority and minority groups" (pg. 20). A conflation of nationality and ethnicity results in the belief that immigrants harbor political loyalty to the nation associated with their ethnicity (pg. 21.).

The Liberals

Alcoff points to classifcal liberal political theory to explain why political critiques of identity emerge in those "who advocate in favor of individual freedom" (pg. 21). Rooted in Kantianism, one cannot gain true autonomy unless one can objectively distance oneself from their cultural traditions. Glazer and Moynihan theorized that some individuals were unable to distance themselves from their ethnic or racial identities because they have been shunned or excluded from the "melting pot," and thus develop a strong internal sense of cultural identity as a defense mechanism. Strong ties to identity is viewed as inhibiting political discourse and the democratic process. Liberal politics views identities as having a "right to exist defended by political policies but ... not to play a constitutive role in policy formation" (pg. 24).

Alcoff does not believe that identity has to be reduced entirely to be relevant to political critique. Instead, she states that identities are constant and "ideas are assessed in relation to who expresses them" (pg. 24). She adopts Foucault's notion of discourse as an "event," which incorporates "not only the words spoken but also the speakers, hearers, location, language, and so on, all as a part of what makes up meaning" (pg. 24). Identity is always relevant to democratic discourse, because identity shapes experience.

The Left

White leftist concerns in the United States revolve around "'overemphasizing' difference" and "politics of visibility without an agenda of class struggle" (pg. 25). Identity in lefist politics focuses on "relations of exploitation and oppression ... between dominant and subordinate groups" (pg. 25). Alcoff critiques the position that identities "are reduc[ed] to that oppressive genealogy ... that cultural differences can be explained mainly in reference to oppression, thus suggesting without oppression, difference might well wither away" (pg. 25). Like liberals, leftists are concerned with division along identity lines, but are concerned most with division that inhibits coalition around progressive class politics. Gitlin argues that "the labor movement can only maintain a united front of it ignores internal differences," but Alcoff believes positing class struggle as homogenous and generic ignores difference in worker experiences (pg. 26). To equitably address class struggles, labor movements must notice difference, as sexism and racism are a cultural reality.

Fraser's Critique

Fraser identities a divide between social and political struggles: "struggles for recognition (women, oppressed minorities, gays and lesbians) and struggles for redistribution (labor, the poor, welfare rights)" (pg. 27). While LGBTQ people are fighting for their identities to be recognized and equal ("group differentiation"), the poor hope to eradicate their identities as poor ("group dedifferentiation"). Fraser seeks to unite these two struggles, while also hoping to mitigate the problematic effects of "identity politics." She divides those struggling for recognition into two camps: the struggle for participation and the struggle for affirmation of identity. She critiques the struggle for affirmation of identity, which is what she associated with problematic identity politics.

Fraser's concern with affirmation is that it will: "(a) [displace] redistribution struggles, (b) [tend] toward separatism and away from coalition, and (c) [reify] identities, which she objects to not on metaphysical grounds but on the grounds that it leads to a policing of authenticity, the promotion of conformism, and some form of ... 'racial reasoning'" (pg. 28-29). She believes these struggles collapse identity, ignoring the "complex array of social institutions" (pg. 29). Fraser essentially believes that recognition should not be sought "for an identity" but instead "we should be focusing on the right of full participation directly" (pg. 29). Recognition should lead to a disolving of identity that is then focused on redistribution, else risk division.

Alcoff critiques Fraser's concern that recognition struggles will divert energy from redistribution struggles, arguing that if Fraser views both as legitimate, she should neither weight one over the other or view them as inherently separate (pg. 29-30). In other words, recognition does not exist in opposition to redistribution. Olsen argues the opposite of Fraser, stating that identity is central to class struggle and that "white identity was created as a recompense and distraction to white workers for their economic disenfranchisement" (pg. 31). Further, Alcoff believes that "internalizations of self-hatred and inferiority cannot be solved after redistribution, but must be addressed ... to make possible effective collective action" (pg. 33).

Key Critiques and Assumptions

Alcoff names the following key critiques of identity and their associated assumptions (common in Anglo-Western thought):

  • Separatism Problem: "Identity-based movements will weaken the possibility of coalition and lead to separatism" (pg. 36-37).
    • Assumption of Exclusivity: "Strongly felt identity is necessarily exclusivist ... Identities are thought to represent a set of interests and experiental knowledge ... that differentiates them from other identities, thus creating difficulties of communication and political unity" (pg. 37).
    • Opposing Argument: Alcoff highlights empirical research that show strongly felt identities do no lead to political separatism. The assumption of exclusivity posits identity as a "special interest group" which can only single-mindedly focus on advancing one agenda at a time and is incapable of seeing other perspectives. Identities can unify lived experiences and contribute to meaning-making. Identities can be posited as "lived experiences in which both individuals and groups work to construct meaning in relation to historical experience and historical narratives" (pg. 42).

  • Reification Problem: Worries about "problems that exist in intragroup relations: the policing for conformity, the abitrary defining of authenticity, the de-emphasis and discouragement of internal differences, and the preempting of open debate by castigating internal critics as less authenic and disloyal ... curtails the ability to creatively interpret one's identity and to determine its degree of relevant, or irrelevance, in one's life" (pg. 37). Identity constraints individual freedom.
    • Assumption of the Highest Value Being Individual Freedom: If identity is a source of oppression, it is "odd that anyone would willfully choose to be constrained by such an identity" (pg. 38). Even those with privilege are thought to be constrained by their unchosen privilege. Constraints will be maximized in identity-movements.
    • Opposing Argument: Alcoff argues that a given identity is not "an imposition that curtails preferred possbilities" but rather "as absorption, generation, and expansion, a building" (pg. 45).

  • Reasoning Problem: Identity inhibits objective reasoning. One must "achieve enough distance from out social identities that we can objectify and thus evaluate them" (pg. 37).
    • Assumption of Objectivizing: "Identities involve a set of interests, values, beliefs, and practices" (pg. 38). To objectively reason, one must "transcend" their identity. "To the extent that identities are like containers that group sets of beliefs and practices across categories of individuals, and to the extent that a strongly felt identity is defined by its committment to these beliefs and practoces, then it follows that the strength of identity will exist in inverse proportion to one's capacity for rational thought" (pg. 38).
    • Opposing Argument: Transcendence is impossible, because all reasoning relies on background and experiences. Identity is thought to be in conflict with reason "because identity is [incorrectly] conceputalized as coherent, uniform, and essentially singular" (pg. 45). The reasoning problem views identity as "closed systems with no intersections," ignoring common ground (pg. 46).

The Philosophical Critique

This chapter traces the geneaology of philosophical critiques of identity. Some philosophers are concerned that the concept of identity excludes difference. Leibniz believed that "(a) to share an identity is to be indiscernable or to share every property, but (b) two entities thaat are thus indiscernable cannot be individuated" (pg. 47). Alcoff says this does not reflect ordinary reality, where identities delimit groups of individuals, but individuals are still individuals. Western philosophy has often viewed the self as generalizable and universal, lacking in specific identities, but Alcoff questions whether identity can be separated from the self. She argues the crux of philosophical debates around identity are in the Western treatment of the Other.

Substantive versus Procedural Rationality

The substantitive or hermeneutic approach to rationality argues that reason and morality are situated within temporal, historical, and cultural context. The procedural approach to rationality denies any cultural or historical role to rationality and the role of being grounded in reality (pg. 50). Charles Taylor's critique of proceduralism also critiques the belief that thoughts, beliefs, morals, and feelings are "inside" humans and all objects humans might consider or deliberate about are "outside" (pg. 51).

The inside/outside belief holds that all inner thoughts are pure and non-interpretive, until one begins to perceive the outside world. In modern philosophy, "rationality comes to be redefined as disengagement rather than truthful belief" (as in Plato) (pg. 53). Scientism began to value the objective self, detached from emotion and fear, which was attributed to white bourgeois men "not beholden to anyone for their livelihoods" (pg. 53). Identity is viewed in conflict with reason, where people cannot disengage from their cultures enough to portray rational judgment; if one follows culture, one cannot discern from reason or desire. Yet if one makes an objective and autonomous assessment of one's culture, and decides to embrace it, it is not because of one's culture but because one finds their culture rational (pg. 55).

Cartesian versus Hermeneutic Rationality

The modernist view formulated by Descartes argues that identity must be objectively assessed before it can be rationally adopted. Taylor posits the hermeneutic view, which argues that objective assessment cannot be the sole requirement for rationality, because one's "objective" assessments are never a view from nowhere. Otherwise, all would agree to the same identity and come to the same conclusions. Alcoff argues against the belief that having a view from somewhere necessitates the Cartesian belief that humanity is held back from rationality by identity, stating that Descartes theories were also historically and locally situated (pg. 55).

Identity in the Hegelian Tradition

Hegel believed that the self was inherently understood through the Other and that moral agency requires intersubjective relationships (pg. 57). Hegel moved away from identity as autogenous (arising from within itself) to an identity dependent on recognition; yet, he still believed "the need for recognition [leads] inevitaly to a death struggle between self and Other, as each seeks to receive recognition and [resist] reciprocation" (pg. 57). Hegel's philosophical views shifted perspectives on the self from "becoming over being" (pg. 57). For Hegel, the "core" of consciousness "is fundamentally altered through its negotiations and struggles with an external environment" (pg. 57-58). However, the "potential harm" of the social realm is even greater, given its influence. Therefore, Hegel's attribution of external social factors on the self is still viewed as a threat to individualism and autonomy (pg. 58). True self-consciousness is portrayed as a domination, in which we supersede the Other (pg. 59).

Hegel's later work is different, proposing that "self-actualization is best maximized through collective institutions and the pursuit of shared goals" (pg. 61). Reciprocol relations with the Other drive oneself to become a subject with moral agency. Thus Otherness is no longer meant to be subsumed, negated, or feared as threatening to the self. Yet, outside of Marxism, Hegel's later work is less influential (pg. 63).

Relational Accounts of the Self

Philosophers like Ricoeur, Code, Brison, Pierce, and Mead, "the self is presented as a narrative which is produced through a reflexive movement that can only be performed in interaction with another" (pg. 59). In this approach, the Other is theorized as a sort of stage, where one is an "object" for the Other, and this perspective lends to the "meaning-making activity of self-constitution" (pg. 60). The Other in this case confirms the self's identity; they act as listeners to a narrative and confirm its meaning. The Other is necessary to autonomy, and not expendable or threatening, as in Hegel's early theory.


"In classical psychoanalysis, the Other is not merely the prompt for the process of self-constitution, but also provides much of the content of the self's interior" (pg. 63). Freud theorized that "the ego develops through negotiations between multiple, conflicting inner drives on the one hand and the outpouring of stimuli from the external world on the other" (pg. 63). The features of the self are not intrinstic from birth but formed through social interaction from infancy. "The wholeness of identity can only be achieved by internalizing the Other who can see the self in its static image of wholeness, so this Other's viewpoint must be incorporated and then controlled. Our self-image is necessarily produced via our projection of how we are seen by others" (pg. 64). The Other is adopted as part of the self, which Alcoff calls "an illustion of independence or self-sufficiency" (pg. 64). Like Hegel's earlier works, Freud also frames the other as inescapable but fatalistic.

Brennan argues that the ego of the self receives its identity from the Other, who offers the self a whole and fixed portrait of identity, which the self cannot do on its own (pg. 66). The fixed points of identity given by the Other are necessary for the self, but also hold the self back. She believes Western philosophy is wrongly preoccupied with absolute autonomy, "[controlling] one's environment both physically and psychically" (pg. 66).

Sartre's Solution to the Other

In his early work, Sartre defends radical freedom, though he also acknowledges the constraints of the Other. He believed the only limits on our freedom come from mortality and our reliance on others in assessing and valuing ourselves. Sartre separates the "real" self (or "for-itself," which negates the need for the Other) from the substantive self (or ego, which relates to historical choice and interaction). The identity is related to this substantive self, and is viewed as separate from the pure core of the "real" self. While the Other has a unique perspective of the self, it has no hold on the internal "real" self; it only knows the outward representation of the self (pg. 68).

Alcoff argues, through examples of racism and sexism, that it is consistently the white and male self that is threatened by the Other's ability to "name it and confirm or disconfirm its beliefs about the world and itself" (pg. 70).

Postmodernism's Other

For Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, "resistance to identity is both metaphysically and politically mandated," though it may be even less possible than Sartre claimed (pg. 71). For Foucault, "there is no identity that is not a form of subjugation" (pg. 71), and that subjugation is more active (though not necessarily intentonal) than Sartre's innacuracy of the substantative self to the "real" self. Subjection and subjugation are always in relation; being "capable of self-reflective agency, of articulating one's intentions, one's rights, and one's interests, is always also to be subjected to power" (pg. 71). The concept of having a stable, inner self is seen to "promote the self-policing disciplines endemic to the modern form of power" (pg. 72). The moment one becomes a subject is also the moment one becomes subjugated; the moment of self is the moment the mind and body can be disciplined and surveiled. Selves are "the effect of power" (pg. 72). Foucault believed individual identity groups, like "gay," are products of the state. Identity is always constructed through normalization (pg. 73).

Derrida distrusted identity because he felt "[making] demands in the name of a subject (say, woman) will replicate structures of domination because such demands must be predicated on a concept of the substantitive self" (pg. 73). Mandating the notion of fixed identity or a core criterion is an act of violence. Derrida instead proposes a "violence on reality ... to force its fluidity and variability into the determinate essence we can predict and control" (pg. 73). He believed political identity movements "[collaborate] with the empire of the law" (pg. 73).

Other postmodernists, like Ernesto Laclau, adopt a psychoanalytic lens and view identity as a pathology directly stemming from a destabilized ego. "One needs to identify with someone because there is an ... insurmountable lack of identity" (pg. 74). Psychoanalytical postmodernists saw embracing a named identity as "the narcissistic desire to be seen, the delusional fantasy of wholeness, ... doomed to failure and ... dependent on the master who names" (pg. 74).

Butler's Synthetic Constructivism

Butler uses "identity" to refer to one's public self, and "subjectivity" to refer to one's true self (pg. 78). Yet what happens to one's identity also shapes one's subjectivity, and vice versa. Alcoff analyzes Butler as "one of the relatively few political analyses of identity that addresses it as an issue of interiority or lived experience ... not simply as an issue of political effects or political struggles in the public domain" (like Habermas, Luclau, and Mouffe) (pg. 75). In "The Psychic Life of Power," Butler bridges the otherwise contradictory theories of Foucault and Freud, the external and the internal. Butler "argues that social naming is a form of primary alienation whose source is power" (pg. 75). She adopts interpellation (the internalization of cultural and political values) from Althusser, arguing "that interpellation never identifies that which existed before, but calls into existence a subject who becomes subject only through its response to the call" (pg. 75). Identity "comes into our consciousness through a second-person invocation rather than from our first-person experience of ourselves" (pg. 75). While she adopts Althusser and Foucault's views on subjectification (the process of becoming subordinated by power), she does not adopt their historical lens - instead, proposing a universal and ahistorical lens that claims "the process of subjectification ... would unfold in this way no matter the historical context" (pg. 76). In a fatalistic sense, Butler believes that "resistances manifested in the unconscious [are] themselves produced in power relations" (pg. 76). Therefore, the unconscious self has no "inherently revolutionary potential ... agency is largely an illusion" (pg. 76).

She also believed an identity was necessary for action. It is only the "disjuncture between the identity and the individual that the latter can resist, critique, and thus exercise agency" (pg. 77). Categories of identity are always inherently inaccurate, creating the need for resistance. Therefore, "accepting identitis is tantamount to accepting dominant scipts and performing the identities power has invented" (pg. 77). Adopting an identity is, much like Freud posited, pathological, concerning; "interpellation is the price for recognition" (pg. 78). A more extreme perspective of this is Wendy Brown's, which views adopting identity as inherently reifying systems of oppression, and a preference for oppression over a fear of annhilation of oneself if one relinquishes identity. Political theorist Wendy Brown has a similar, more extreme view which argues that organizing around identity is " compulsively repeating a painful reminder of our subjugation, and maintaining a cycle of blaming that continues the focus on oppression rather than transcending it" (pg. 79).

Through all this, Alcoff argues that Butler's view remains naive of lived reality. While she does not believe there is an inherent completeness of identity ascriptions, there is also no need for completeness to adopt an identity (like woman) - instead, one should not ascribe fundamentalist identities. Therefore, if "interpellations can be accurate, [they] do not in every case require or motivate resistance" (pg. 78).

Alcoff writes: "the bottom line for the postmodern approach to identity is that identities are subjugating and cannot be a cornerstone of progressive politics" (pg. 79).

Modernist vs. Postmodernist Critiques

The major difference is in the degree of optimism "about the extent to which the individual can negate the given and resist and external power" (pg. 79). Postmodernists are more optimistic than modernists. Yet both view the role of the Other on the individual as inaccurate. At the same time, identity is viewed as inevitable.

Philosophical critiques say that identities are...
  1. "Artificial and oppressive contraints on the natureal interderminacy of the self"
  2. "The product of oppressive practices such as self-disciplining mechanisms, and the desire for their 'affirmation' is a manifestation of a repetition-compulsion complex"
  3. "Pathological and unproductive, even doomed, responses to lack or ego dysfunction and instability"
  4. "Never accurate representation"
  5. "Manifestations of a primary alienation in which categories are imposed from within"
  6. "Freedom in any sense must be a move away from identity" (pg. 80).

Real Identities

Alcoff focuses on contemporary race and gender as embodied identities, stating: "Class and nationality are also embodied identities, but their relationship to the body is less intimate and more easily alterable" (pg. 86). In contrast to the a priori "problem" of identity, Alcoff "aims to explain why the willful attachment to raced or sex identities, identities created in conditions of oppression, is not necessarily pathological" (pg. 87). Alongside this, she argues identities can be compatible with democratic politicsl, autonomy, and agency. She uses hermeneutics and phenomenology as ways of examining race and gender.

Identities and Essences

Traditional Western philosophy rejects that which is considered "inessential" to the being of the self (haecceity)---any properties of a thing considered changable, relational, or contextual are inessential (pg. 89). Identity has traditionally been viewed as inessential. Alcoff argues that social identities are relational, contextual, and still fundamental to the self. She questions whether there is such a thing as acontextual human capacities, like rationality that is entirely separated from social identity. "Our relational properties can be fundamental to who we are when they have causal determinacy over our ... orientations to the world ... but also when they profoundly affect how we are seen and interacted with by others" (pg. 90). She discusses the mutability of identity dependent on context, using the example of race and how race changes as one moves across borders (pg. 91). Our visible identity impacts our relationship with the world, and thus also our internal, subjective identity (pg. 92).

She uses the term public identity (exterior) to refer to socially perceived and classified selves---like on the Census. She uses lived subjectivity (interior) to describe who we understand ourselves to be, which may not always align with public identity. She acknowledges that the notion of an exterior/interior dichotomy is reminiscent of Western philisophical thought about the self as separate from the body. However, she points out that this distinction has been used by marginalized people to resist oppression - "how you portray me is not who I really am" (pg. 93).

Identities as Interpretive Horizons (Hermeneutic Rationality)

Alcoff argues that knowledge is attained through a process of reasoning, which requires the process of judgment. Judgment, as a qualitative weighting of evidence, an interpretation, is influenced by identities. Interpretations are always performed in particular times and places by particular individuals who experiences influence their interpretations. Gadamer's hermeneutical philosophy of situated reasoning acknowledges the interpretive process as "involving the social location of the knower" (pg. 95). We cannot stand outside of a situation, and thus cannot observe some objective truth of it. The horizon from which we view the world is "the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point" (pg. 95). Gadamer does not view the subject as the master over all interpretation and meaning. Rather, one must place themselves within the context or tradition of what is being interpreted in order to be open, and not simply force a subjective reality onto that interpretation. A reflective rationality requires the capacity for doubt, which C. S. Pierce has argued requires prior content and context. We can only doubt if we have reasons to doubt, reasons which are substantitive. She argues that there is no possibility for a closed horizon, a view from nowhere. Similarly, there is no possibility for incommensurable horizons, as all humans have some shared experience, even if that experience is simply being human and sharing a planet.

Identities as Visible and Embodies (Phenomenology)

Unlike subjectivity or the self, heralded as transcending physicality, identity "implies a recognition of bodily difference" (pg. 102). Identities like race and gender are social given their meanings are constructed "through culturally available concepts, values, and experiences," but they are also physically marked (pg. 102). The visibility of race and gender "is key to the ideological claims that race and gender categories are natural, and that conflict is understandable because of our fears of what looks different" (pg. 103). She posits the phenomenological as an extension of the hermeneutic, given that "location" in terms of the horizon is metaphor for the body.

Historically, philosophers like Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and John Stuart Mill claimed that non-whites and women had lower intellect and were incapable of self-governance, while at the same time claiming those "deemed to have philosphical capability" (white men) could transcend the human body and make objective and fundamental claims about the nature of reality (pg. 104). Rationality is thought to require bodily transcendence. However, rationality is embodied, as cognitive scientists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff have argued. Even abstract metaphors, like the idea that "up" correlated to "more" (e.g., prices are up) correlates to physical experiences of associating a pile of something going up with more things in the pile.

Arguments about the embodied nature of reasoning have also been used to justify sexism and racism. At the same time, they have also been used to demarcate different experience, as determined by bodily difference. Alcoff argues that there is, regardless, "a wealth of tacit knowledge located in the body" (pg. 106). She states the the most importance takeaway from phenomenology in regards to identity is "to reject the dualist approaches that would split the acting self from the ascribed identity" (pg. 111). Identities gain meaning through social context, rather than from an untouched and intrinsic "I." "There is no ultimate coherence between anyone's multiple identities; there will always be tensions between various aspects" (pg. 112).

Alcoff's overall argument in this section is "the relationship between embodiment and perception, rationality and knowledge in order to argue that the interpretive horizon we each bring with us should be understood not simply as a set of beliefs but as a complex ... set of presuppositions and perceptual orientations, some of which are manifest as a kind of tacit presence in the body" (pg. 113).

Identities and Self-Other Relations

Two major concerns come from those who critique "identity politics": (1) identities are a form of imposition of the other onto the self, and therefore fighting to maintain one's identity is irrational; and (2) "an emphasis on identities will increase mistrust, conflict, and isolation, and that they will inhibit cooperative and integrated self-other relations" (pg. 113). In both of these cases, the collective is seen as at odds with and threatening to the individual and their autonomy, rationality, integrity, and self-determination. In this section, Alcoff addresses questions around the self's relation to others, and whether the other dominates the self.

One aspect of understanding the self-other relationship is through history. Alcoff writes: "Individuals have agency over interpretations of their history but they cannot 'choose' to live outside history any more than they can 'overcome' their horizon" (pg. 114-115). She points out that there are a range of attitudes about how embedded individuals are in history, and those who critique identity politics are often trying to live outside it. Himani Bannerji criticizes these approaches, noting that those who chastise self-naming projects have never had to find "missing parts of one's self in experiences and histories" (pg. 115). Alcoff points out that those of dominant groups have reason to forget their histories "so that their current material wealth can be imagined to have come through their own, or their forebear's, hard work rather than unfair advantages" (pg. 115). Alcoff points out that history showcases a self-other interdependence, as both making and interpreting history is a collective cultural process. She points out that some illogically believe that their own internal feelings indicate a naturalness (e.g., a homophobic response of disgust to two same-gender people kissing means that homosexuality is unnatural). Physical reactions themselves can be shaped by cultural relations and history.

Further, "the other gives content to our self" (pg. 116). Our own self-image is shaped by the perceptions of others and ours of them. Hegel suggests we need "epistemic confirmation" of ourselves, how we understand the world, and our values. Mead posits the self as born into a perspective, rather than having one; being brought up on certain cultural values gives the illusion those values have objective status, given they have been intersubjectively confirmed. All individual agency operates within a collective context. Alcoff discusses this in the context of racial identity, and how only recently white individuals have become conscious they are white; when every aspect of media and society was inherently white, it was perceived as objective, not Other. Through otherness, being perceived as different, we become reflectively aware. Identity, for minorities in majority-dominated spaces identities, "calls attention to itself, a call that communicates both to them and to others" (pg. 119). Schutte describes how minoritized individuals engage in self-alientation, a split-self that leaves behind the identity that is Other in an attempt to participate in majority group contexts (e.g., embracing certain white behaviors or expectations while sidelining and denigrating one's racialized behaviors). This often involves adopting expectations of one's otherness that can directly benefit the majority group. Thus, acts like appropriation do not occur as a solely conscious and outside behavior, but from an internalization of the who, how, and when something benefits the majority group. An examination of hierarchies, power differences, and material determinations is necessary to understand the Western philosophical position that "the other is hostile, oppressive, or at least less rational" and one must disengage to be rational, morally right, and integrous (pg. 122). The underlying belief here is that the individual is always smarter than the larger community of others.

Race and Gender

Alcoff's argument up to this point is:

"Rationality operates necessarily through the determination of qualitative distinctions; such distinctions are not algorithmic but are made on the basis of a form of practical reasoning that is grounded in our interpretive horizons as well as embodied knowledges; these horizons and knowledges, which are located at the very center of the self, in its embodiment, have a social rather than individual foundation. Rationality does not, then, require the individual to minimize [their] embeddedness within a social group. The fact that we are constituted by the Other, most clearly perhaps in our social identities, is no cause for automatic alartm until we have specific reasons for distrust.

Racial and gendered identities are socially produced, and yet they are fundamental to our selves as knowing, feeling, and acting subjects. Raced and gendered identities operate as epistemological perspectives or horizons from which certain aspects or layers of reality are made visible. In stratified societies, differently identified individuals do not have the same access to points of view or perceptual planes of observation or the same embodies knowledge ... If raced and gendered identities, among others, help to structure our contemporary perception, then they help constitute the necessary background from which I know the world. Racial and sexual difference is manifest precisely in bodily comportment, in habit, feeling, and perceptual orientation. These make up a part of what appears to me as the natural setting of all my thoughts."

The Feminist Crisis in Identity Theory

What woman is is a central problem for feminist theory. However, Alcoff argues that feminism's assumption about what woman is is "foolhardy, given that every source of knowledge about women has been contaminated with misogyny" (pg. 134). The central dilemma in feminism is that self-definition is "grounded in a concept that must be deconstructed and de-essentialized in all its aspect" (pg. 134). Two feminist arguments have emerged from this dilemma: (1) cultural feminists have argued that the exclusive right to defining and evaluating women belongs to feminists, as men have a set of different experiences and interests and often hatred of women; and (2) poststructuralist feminists have argued to reject the possibility of defining women at all, and to deconstrct all concepts of woman and to eliminate gender as significant. Alcoff's aim is to address the inadequacies of both positions and to define an alternative.

Cultural Feminism

Cultural feminism "is the ideology of a female nature or female essence reappropriated by feminists themselves in an effort to revalidate undervalued female attributes" (pg. 135). Masculinity and male biology is seen as the enemy of women, and culture feminist politics seeks to create an environment free of masculinist values, such as pornography. Mary Daly posited that "male barrenness leads to parasitism on female energy, which flows from [their] life-affirming, life-creating biological condition" (pg. 135). She believed that the "childless state" of men leads to a dependency on women that causes fear and insecurity that then leads to a desire to dominate and control the "life-energy" of women. Adrienne Rich had similar beliefs, and argued not to reject the "importance of female biology simply because patriarchy used it to subjugate [women]" (pg. 136). Echols defined this perspective as a cultural feminism because "it equated 'women's liberation with the development and preservation of a female counter culture'" (pg. 137). Echols points out that if the differences between men and women are so innate, there is no purpose in attempting to change the male-dominated public; this is why many cultural feminists posit a separatist culture. However, if there is no innate difference, the focus of activism should not be separatism.

Cultural feminism ws most popular among white women, whereas radical feminists of color rejected essentialist gender. Alcoff writes that "there is a self-perpetuating circularity between defining woman as essentially peaceful and nurturing and the observations and judgment we shall make of women and the practices we shall engage in as women in the future ... [a] merry-go-round of feminine constructions" (pg. 138-139). She argues that cultural feminism promotes restrictive conditions for what makes women, such as forced parenting and lack of physical autonomy.

Poststructuralist Feminism

Poststructuralist feminists posit that mechanisms of power tie the individual to their gender identity and thus do not represent a solution to sexism. Borrowing from poststructuralist, sometimes posthumanist French theorists like Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, the subject is not viewed as authoritative of the self or containing natural attributes, but formed through cultural ideologies. "We cannot understand societt as the conglomerate of individual intentions but, rather, must understand individual intentions as constructed within a social reality" (pg. 140). Postructuralism takes a nominalist approach to woman, positing the category of woman is fictional, has no objective basis, and that feminist efforts should be focused on dismantling that fiction. For Derrida, the only escape from the oppressive binarism of man/woman, positive/negative, culture/nature, which is reified by cultural feminists, is to "assert total difference, to be that which cannot be pinned down, compared, defined, and thus subjugated within a dichotomous hierarchy" (pg. 141). Poststructuralist feminists like Julia Kristeva promote a negative feminism, which deconstructs and refuses to construct.

Alcoff points out three points of attraction poststructuralism offers feminism: (1) It offers a promise of freedom for women, embracing a plurality of being not present in predetermined gender identities offered by both patriarchy and cultural feminism; (2) it moves beyond both cultural and liberal feminisms to theorize the construct of female (and not just feminine) subjectivity; and (3) it enhances the ability to understand why some women have embraces patriarchy and how ideology is preproduced while social progress is diminished. However, Alcoff argues the logical fallacies with poststructuralism. First, political activism cannot be built on negation alone. Second, how did a right-wing woman's consciousness become socially constructed by discourse, but not the feminist woman's? Third, poststructuralism, through its endless deconstruction, also threatens to deconstruct feminism itself. If gender identity is only a construct, and not in anyway reality, then how can society be misogynistic and how can demands be made for women's equality when women do not exist? Therefore, Alcoff argues that "poststructuralism undercuts our ability to oppose the dominant trend, and dominant danger, in mainstream Western intellectual inquiry, that is, the assumption of a universal, neutral, perspectiveless epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics" (pg. 143).


Alcoff argues for a third approach to feminism that embraces neither essentialism or nominalism, positionality. She states that "the position of women is relative and not innate, and yet it is also not 'undecideable.' Through social critique and analysis we can identify women via their position relative to an existing cultural and social network" (pg. 148). The concept of woman is a "relational term identifiable only within a (constantly moving) context" and "the position women find themselves in can be actively utilized (rather than transcended) as a location for the construction of meaning, a place from where meaning can be discovered (the meaning of being female)" (pg. 148). When a woman becomes a feminist, her perception is not one of an inherently new truth, but one of changed perspective; she begins to view the same facts about the world from a different perspective. Alcoff argues that this perspective allows for a fluid and non-essentialist identity of woman, where a politics of change can emerge. The concept of woman needs to remain open so that it can be altered through stages of feminist transformation. Alcoff rejects both the essentialist definition of woman defined by intrinstic characteristics and a politics of negation. We can instead make demands on behalf of women, as they exist within a specific location and time, that reflect women's needs.

The Metaphysics of Gender

This chapter focuses on women's gendered identity and its basis in sexual difference. Specifically, she explores "whether giving metaphysical content to sex identity is necessarily determinist, and whether ... an objectivist (postpositivist) account of sexed identity is philosophically sound" (pg. 154). The anti-objectivist perspectives takes 4 positions: (1) there is fluid variability between all categorizations, which means they are subject to idological manipulations; (2) there is a mediated nature to all descriptions; (3) there are inevitibly prescriptive effects of descriptions; and (4) objectivism about sexual differences reinforces compulsory heterosexuality.

The Case Against Sex

Gayle Rubin argued for the separation of sex and gender in 1975, wanting to naturalize sex in order to denaturalize gender. Her idea was that while there are "male and female" bodies, bodily difference does not explain the cultural practices and beliefs of gender which vary so considerably. Rubin's theory came under criticism for its concession of easily divided sex categories and the belief that sexed identity itself is not free from culture. Moira Gatens criticized the divide for replication mind/body and nature/culture binaries, which have been the conceptual grounds for women's oppression. The sex/gender distinction closely resembles the nature/culture distinction, which has been critiqued for neatly dividing two things which cannot be divided (e.g., everything humans do is natural, making culture nature). Both Butler, Monique Wittig, and Collette Guillamin argued that gender was not the product of sex, but rather sexual classification is produced by gender. Wittig, in particular, argued that the very construction of sex as a category, presented as objective, is the basis of an exploited class (women). Guillamin posited sex categories as produced through "arbitrary marks and enforced practices, marks that confer symbolic meanings on parts of the body, and ptractices that constitute race and sex identity as their effect" (pg. 157). These three theorists posit sex and gender as socially real but neither objective or independent of human cultures, and therefore not natural. These theorists argue that heterosexism is upheld by these constructions, naturalizing heterosexuality specifically by tying sexual differences to gender. Alcoff points out that both the trans movement and new reproductive technologies that enable heterosexuality unecessary have also destablized the concept of sex.

Antinaturalism as Mastery over Nature

Diana Fuss states that antinaturalist feminists hope for women to be "linguistic rather than a natural kind [in order to] hold onto the notion of women as a group without submitting to the idea that is is 'nature' which categorizes" (pg. 160). Some feminists oppose this anti-naturalist view, out of concern that it is aligned with masculine Englightment projects of overcoming physicality. Moi has argued that separating sex from gender has neflected female embodiment and produced an idealism that sex has no determinate effects on the practices of gender. Moi argues that the separation of gender and sex is unecessary if we view the body as historical and social, and we view the both as both unable to be reduced to sexual difference but also subject to natural law and human meaning systems.

Is Sex Like Race?

Alcoff explores arguments around sex and gender by discussing its relationship with race. Both are viewed as visibly marked on the body; and both sexism and racism are built on the concept of physical features determining emotional, moral, and intellectual capabilities. Alcoff argues that racism, once predicated on phrenology and physiognomy and other visible differences, has had to scramble for new footholds given the lack of empirical evidence for genomic differences. It has then turned to cultural difference, predicating some innate tie between the physicality of race and culture, which she also argues falls apart quickly given culture is not immutable. The difference between demarcated sexes is much clearer, given reproductive capabilities. She argues this may have more hold for sexist mythologies, which have been heavily tied to reproductive difference, but biology can also explain away sexism; all children inherit equal characteristics from mother and father, for example. She calls sexism "outlandish" but also writes "the variable of reproductive role provides a material infrastructure for sexual difference that is qualitatively different from the surface differences of racial categories" (pg. 165). (But when does something move from surface to deep difference?)

Haslanger's Objectivism

Haslander argues for the validity of objectivism of gender distinctions, positing a context-specific gynocentric metaphysics. Other feminist theorists reject the idea of making contextually limited genderalizations about women (although social scientists do this) because they believe it does not say anything about gender, only the discourse of gender in a specific context. Halsanger argues that there are "prediscursive, objective bases for some of the properties used to demarcate gender, even while contesting whether it is these properties that are truly fundamental to gender in the robust sense" (pg. 171). Alcoff points out that Haslander fails to acknowledge that things themselves, like sexual dimorphism, can be discursively produced and thus, like Butler, we must be skeptical of what looks natural.

Alcoff proposes that an objective basis for sex is the relation to the possibility of biological production. That regardless of whether a person plans to have children, or can have children, their anatomical makeup shapes their relationship with reproduction and thus gender. She also makes the argument that a biological basis for reproduction does not necessitate nor justify compulsory heterosexuality and that compulsory, exclusive heterosexuality can actually be damaging to reproduction and child rearing.

The final position Alcoff takes on gender is that maintaining a distinction between an objective sexed identity and a varied and cultural basis of gender does not embrace the binary between culture and nature. Sex and gender are both still mutable and contextual. We must still account for sex/gender as phenomenological (how the body is lived in) and hermeneutical (how the body shapes perspective and the horizon from which we even begin to experience gender).

The Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment

This chapter is dedicated to examining the reality of race, how it is lived and experienced. Race, as a concept, is often traced to Anglo-European cultures in the era of early modernism (Foucault's classical episteme) during early scientific practices of ordering and classifying everything on the basis of essential difference. As Europeans colonized other geographic areas, they differentiated them by their association with defined racial types. Also in the early modern period was an emerging liberal ideology that embraced "universalism," creating a confused logic around race. Visible difference threatened liberal concepts of justice based on sameness, yet visible difference was still used to differentiate race. Alcoff argues that "the resultant juxtaposition between universalist legitimation narratives that deny or triviliaze difference (political science and the law) and the detailed taxonomies of physical, moral, and intellectual human difference (anthropology and genetics)" has had a negative lasting impact on Western discourse and "commonsense knowledge" (pg. 180). Since, race has largely deroded as a legitimate biological category. However, it still stands as socially significant.

Alcoff proposes that current work on race falls into three categories:

(1) Nominalism: Race is not real. The biological meaning of erroneous racial categories have led to racism. The use of racial concepts at all should be avoided to further an antiracist agenda. Alcoff criticizes this position for incorrectly ascribing race only to biology and that the end of racial concepts will end racism.

(2) Essentialism: Race is a category of identity with explanatory power and members of racial groups share characteristics, political interests, and history. Racism has affected the content of racial categories, rather than racial characterization itself. Alcoff criticizes this position for failing to capture fluidity and open-ended racial meanings and for assuming racial identities are obvious, racial groups are homogenous, and ancestry is fate-determining.

(3) Contextualism: "Race is socially constructed, historically malleable, cultural contextual, and reproduced through learned perceptual practices. Whethere or not it is valid to use racial concepts and whether ... their use will have positive or negative political effects depends on the context" (pg. 182). Alcoff finds this argument the most substantitive. She defines two types of contextualisms: (1) objectivist and (2) subjectivist. Objectivists attempt to define race generally while also recognizing how context determines specific content by "invok[ing] metanarratives of historical experience, cultural traditions, or processes of colonization" which Alcoff feels ignores everyday realities of racial experiences. Subjectivists begin with the lived experience and thus reveal "how race is constitutive of bodily experience, subjectivity, judgment, and epistemic relationships" (pg. 183). These two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Alcoff writes how race is inherently maintained through the visible, and the experience of race is predicated on the perception of race. She states that perception is habitual and does not require consciousness. Thus, the commonly held belief is that one must have conscious bias to be a racist, and "if introspection fails to product such a belief then one is simply not racist" (pg. 188). But even perceptual dynamics are mutable and changeable, thus such perceptual sources of racism can be altered. Alcoff believes that "the mediation through the visible, working on both the inside and the outside, both in the way we read ourselves and the way others read us, is what is unique to racialized identities as opposed to ethnic and cultural identities" (pg. 191). Everything encoded into racial identities (experience, ancestry, self-understanding, practices, etc.) is through "visible enscriptions on the body" (pg. 191). That race was constructed on the visible creates an immutable experience; race must operate through the visible to give ground to the ideology internal characteristics are accessible to the viewer. Thus, Alcoff proposes "to make visible the practices of visibility itself" to counter racist perceptions (pg. 194).

Racism and Visible Race

This chapter discusses the relationship between racism and visible racialized identity. Alcoff contends with the argument that we should unlearn racial seeing, which puts forth the logic that without racial seeing there are no races and thus no racism. Disentangling social identity from physical attributes would be a manner of erasing race. Vision-centric cognition, linked to a positivist paradigm, is said by Nietzche to ease anxiety: everything must be visible and thus clear. However, Alcoff is concerned with white society's obsession with "color blindness" and a post-racial world. While "color blindness" remains a utopian and legitimate hope for the future, acting as if it is reality is a position of denial. Acts of supposed color blindness "reduces socially significant human differences to invisibleness and meaningless hype whereby one does not have to acknowledge what one does not see" (pg. 199).

The Whiteness Question

Alcoff writes that whiteness "poses almost unique problems for an account of social identity ... given its simultanous invisibility and universality" (pg. 205). She questions whether making whiteness visible is a useful approach given the propensity of white supremacists to do just that. This chapter focuses on the increasing visibility of whiteness to white people and their various reactions. She points out that an awakening of the hermeneutic horizon of white supremacy in white people can upset identity formations about the self.

Alcoff points out that anti-racist movements have required for white people to acknowledge that their perceptions and experiences are impacted by being white, despite that whites' ability to ignore race is a major piece of white privilege. She asks what it means to acknowledge whiteness. "Is it to acknowledge that one is inherently tied to structures of domination and oppression, that one is irrevocably on the wrong side? ... can the acknowledgment of whiteness produce only self-criticism, even shame and self-loathing? Is it possible to feel okay with being white?" (pg. 207). She asks what whites who identify their whiteness can then relate to, whether they should assimilate into non-European cultures. Feminist theory has also asked whether white women benefit wholly from whiteness, or if whiteness is "a ruse to divide women and to keep white women from understanding their true interests" (pg. 209). Some feminists argue that sexism is more fundamental than racism, and that gender is more explanatory of social status than race. Others criticize this view, saying it trivializes racism and that genocide, war, and other atrocities cannot be solely explained by sexism. Gloria Joseph states that white women are both white and female, and are both "tools and benefactors of racism, and that feminists must recognize and address white women's social position as both oppressors and oppressed" (pg. 209). She argues that white women are interested in protecting white supremacy and that "white female supremacy" must also be dealth with alongside "white male supremacy." Alcoff states that there are a variety of interests driving white women and the question is: "for any given individual white woman ... is she more interested in attaining as much as possible of what white men now have, or would she prefer to live in and contribute toward a just society?" (pg. 211).

Alcoff considers whether a white "double consciousness" that "requires an ever-present acknowledgment of the historical legacy of white identity constructions in the persistent structures of inequality and exploitations, as well as a newly awakened memory of many white traitors to white privilege" would help transform white racism (pg. 223).