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Saturday 4 May 2019


Identity crisis

  • The politics of identity has loaded distinctions of sex and race with more meaning than they can bear
  • We turn to science for hard-and-fast definitions, but as the case of Caster Semenya shows there may be no such thing
  • As boundaries blur one thing is clear: to discern the true meaning of identity we have to look beyond biology

By Angela Saini

For a decade, her identity has been under scrutiny. Should athlete Caster Semenya be considered a woman? Now the governing body for athletics has ruled that, for the purposes of competing in high-level sport, she cannot be who she is. In the arena, if nowhere else, she is not a woman. The moment she tries to compete, she loses her identity.

Dilemmas like these, posed by those sometimes described as intersex – whose genitalia may be ambiguous at birth or whose levels of sex hormone may fall outside the medical norm – bring into sharp focus just how important being able to pin down our identities has become. Identity is not a personal matter, it’s a public one.

And it’s a dilemma that affects every one of us. The strangest of headlines have been running through my news aggregator lately. “How Does a Straight White Male Democrat Run for President?” asks POLITICO. “Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Talk?” asks Times Higher Education. “Does ‘White Male Rage’ Exist?” asks the Atlantic. We might have guessed we would get here eventually, to a point where even white men are considered a victimised group. On the one hand, forming political alliances along identity lines has been crucial to achieving social change. But the importance we attach to the politics of identity has been growing for decades, pumping more and more social meaning into categories such as sex and race. In so doing, it forces us to identify ourselves with precision. Who exactly are you?

Following the horrific mass-murder of worshippers in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, it was found that the white supremacist behind the killings had donated to Generation Identity, a far-right movement in Austria that campaigns against immigration and refugees. Their platform is about not only national identity, but of genetic identity – that white Europeans have a biological unity that is under threat.

Elizabeth Warren, right, who claims Native American ancestry, greets Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

The invocation of biology is one of the most worrying aspects of modern-day identity politics. As a science journalist, I often see people turn to science – seen as uniquely value-neutral and objective – to define the parameters of their group identity. When asked to prove her self-professed Native American ancestry, US Democratic senator and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren turned not to the Native American community around her as she might have, but to a DNA test. We all wanted to know what this degree of ancestry revealed about her. But the more relevant question should have been why it was so important to her (and to us) to know her ancestry at all. The true meaning of identity is rarely in the biology, and almost always in the politics. Yet science is seen to be the ultimate arbiter of who we are.

The problem is, just as identity politics hits a peak, identity itself has never been more blurred. Socially, boundaries are fast being broken down. Those who count themselves as mixed heritage struggle to fill in census forms. Male and female binaries are giving way socially to a spectrum of gender. Whereas once identity appeared crystal clear, it is no longer. And the more the boundaries break down, the more our identities fragment, leaving us with further dilemmas. In an age in which we are expected to categorise ourselves as a matter of routine, we don’t always know what these categories actually mean. In our desperation, we turn to biology for clarity.

The Caster Semenya case is proof that, in this new world, biology sometimes offers only more confusion. Gender does not fall neatly into two groups, we know that. But as Semenya shows, even biological sex is not always clear cut. When society seeks to categorise people by sex, as it does in sport, the grey area is bigger than we imagine. Semenya feels herself to be no less a woman than any other woman. She had no choice but to choose a gender category for herself in a world that demands she does if she wants to participate in international athletics. And yet, that same world now punishes her for not meeting what it has decided are a woman’s biological criteria. Her crime, they imply, is that she is not woman enough for them. The true crime, perhaps, is that she had only two categories to choose from.

Caster Semenya feels she is no less a woman than any other woman

That is not to say that we shouldn’t have women’s sport. There are average physical sex differences between men and women that would make it unfair for most women to have to compete against most men. In everyday life, too, gender has social and cultural meaning. It’s one of the tools we use to structure our personal relationships, our micro-cultures. We feel nurtured by our same-sex friendship groups, we feel safe in our gendered bathrooms and changing rooms, we value our stag and hen nights. But high-level competitive sport, by its nature, is not dealing with average people. It is dealing with those at the biological margins, whose bodies exist on different physical planes, pushing the edges of human strength and endurance – and the edges of how we define gender.

St Albert the Great with a hermaphrodite. Biology doesn’t always offer clear-cut answers on gender

People want definitive answers about identity from biology. In practice, biology doesn’t always have them. Historically, science has in fact been guilty of hardening social boundaries around sex and race, when in nature things tend to be far fuzzier. In the 1920s scientists were stunned to discover (and slow to accept) that women naturally produce the male sex hormone testosterone and that men naturally express the female sex hormone oestrogen. They were so convinced that we were categorically different that they couldn’t imagine us having these hormones in common. If we define a woman as someone with a womb, for instance, does she stop being a woman if she has a hysterectomy? If we define sex chromosomally as XX for women and XY for men, then what about those people with Klinefelter syndrome who are XXY, or other permutations?

Our commonly-used racial categories are built on even shakier foundations, with next to no basis in genetics at all. ‘Race’ as we use it exists only because people in power once invented racial categories and slotted us into arbitrary hierarchies. Almost all genetic difference sits within ‘racial’ groups, not between them. So when the far-right movement Generation Identity tries to coalesce around a sense of biological unity, they fail to understand that no such unity actually exists in nature. There is no racial purity and there never was.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” the American writer and feminist Audre Lorde wrote in 1984. If we cling too tightly to the categories historically used to divide us, we forget that their existence and their use were themselves the tools of oppression. By grouping gender and races and treating us categorically as different, we are denied our freedom to be recognised for who we are. And who we are is a broad spread of individuals, each with our own particular struggles that deserve to be recognised.

Philosopher and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah has written about his mixed-race heritage

In his 2018 book The Lies That Bind, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the identity trap beautifully. He has struggled to explain himself to strangers. He appears Indian to some and black to others because of his mixed Ghanaian-English heritage. People struggle to place him. But his answer isn’t confusion. It is a crystal clear acknowledgement that identity is a shifting quantity that can mean one thing to one person and something quite different to another, and this is to be expected. For him, this isn’t a shame. It’s just how it is. Identity always depends on context, on the time and place we live in.

This is not an easy thing to accept. We cling to our identities, our tribes, for so many reasons. We can’t help it. They give us our sense of belonging. They provide cultures for us. Indeed, they are the frameworks around which our cultures and politics are built. They are vital because they are part of human life. But as Appiah notes, perhaps the problem is when we wear our identities a little too heavily. Identity is useful, but only up to a point.

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading