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