Library Research Notes #31
Identity, Culture, Politics
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We made it through that first day (fools beware) and now we are on to bigger and better things. First up - Congratulations to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on her confirmation to the Supreme Court. This is a historic moment that deserves a pause, reflection, and…
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, there are many laws going through the legislature to restrict the rights of people based on various forms of identity. Rather than trying to increase equality and equity, the Republicans in my state have decided it would be a better idea to punish people for who they are. Tennessee is not alone in this move, as you probably know, Iowa, Texas, and Florida are leading the charge, but right now there are bills in 40 states that are seeking to restrict teachers from teaching curriculum-approved materials. Considering all the legislation surrounding identity, I thought it would be a good time to talk about it.
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What is Identity?
This is a pretty big question, so let’s start off with an actual definition.
The distinguishing character or personality of an individual (merriam-webster.com)
That definition is pretty straightforward, but an additional definition states this…
Sameness of essential or generic character in different instance (merriam-webster.com)
This second definition leads to synonyms for identity such as identicalness or sameness. To identify with something means that you feel akin to it. To identify with another person means that you feel similar or the same. In this case, identity is an important factor for group cohesion.
One’s identity can be a way of identifying with a group and help coerce them into doing and saying things that are appropriate for members of that group. It also means that individuals will not do and say things they deem inappropriate for the group and it makes it difficult for them to veer from the values of the group, even when it becomes harmful to themselves or others. Cult dynamics come to mind here, but also political and religious affiliations.
Identity is something that you claim, whether out loud to the world, or secretly to yourself. You claim it through words and actions. You claim it with group affiliations and the causes you support. You claim it through your presentation and performance.
In the article, Doing Gender, West and Zimmerman frame gender as a performance. We each, individually conceptualize our understanding of gender within the context of societal standards and this article attempted to explain this phenomenon from a more reflexive perspective. What they achieved was a rudimentary conceptualization of gender as separate from sex assignment. The idea that “gender is a construct” was not new, but the elaboration of “doing gender” sealed that idea in the sociological perspective.
“Doing gender” indicates that we, as humans in a society, are consistently shifting our performance of gender to align with the expectations of others, but performance isn’t identity. Performance is merely what we project to the world, while identity is something that runs much deeper.
Gender is merely one facet of identity, as are sex and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, age and ability, among others. These particular facets are not changeable, but things like political and religious affiliations are. It may seem strange to see these facets as identity markers, but they certainly are since they fall into that second definition of “sameness”, allowing individuals to be connected to a group identity.
In the past year and a half, legislators across the American South and Midwest have been attempting to pass laws that would both fulfill their own group identity affiliations and legislate the identities of others. Bills to restrict trans women from playing sports in high school do the work of invalidating the identity of trans women while validating the religious identities of the legislators who write these bills. Bills that restrict teachers in Florida from discussing the family structures of schoolchildren with gay parents invalidate the identities of these particular children while validating the religious identities of legislators. Bills to ban the discussion of race in classrooms in Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, etc. invalidate the identities of students from historically marginalized groups while validating the religious identities of legislators. Bills to restrict the ability for women to make personal medical decisions about their bodies invalidate the identities of people with vaginas while validating the religious identities of legislators.
Do you see the trend? In a country that supposedly prizes the separation of church and state, we are moving at an alarming rate toward becoming a nation dominated by white Christian nationalism. In fact, we seem to already be there. The religious identity of white Christians appears to be the only religious identity that matters anymore and bills to restrict the lives of those who do not identify with that particular religious identity are being punished in the process.
Where to next?
Now that we have discussed a basic definition of identity, along with a bit about how identity shapes culture through politics and religious beliefs, we can begin to understand how identity drives the larger culture in American society. Next time, we will look at the ways our own sense of identity affects our personal interactions with others and discuss how this can lead to the spread of disinformation online.
Thank you for joining me here. If you have read this far, you deserve some good news!
Good news from the stacks
Librarians from a small library in Matinicus Island, Maine, that was founded in 2016, have made it their mission to collect as many books as they can from the banned and challenged lists. These librarians are really taking the ALAs code of conduct seriously in providing materials to patrons free of censorship. I love this energy, especially at this time in history when we are seeing so many challenges, bannings, removals, and even burnings of books happening across the country.
This past week the top 10 challenged books from 2021 list was released, through the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, and we can see once again that the most frequently challenged books deal with the lives of marginalized people. This list reminds us that we need to keep up the energy to save literature from the grip of authoritarianism and the librarians in Maine are truly doing their part to continue the fight. Kudos to them and to everyone that continues to provide resources to and for those who need them.