The Black and White Mistake: Simple Identity Categories

Chris Yeh points me to this excellent Economist piece on the black and white mistake of reducing identity into simple categories like "Muslims" or "Americans," and forgetting all the other parts of identity which bring people together.

From the Economist:

People who are trying to put an end to conflict—be they soldiers or nice peace-brokers—often fall into the same trap as the belligerents, by assuming that people naturally divide into simple categories.

Instead of addressing, say, Protestants and Catholics and urging each “side” to think better of the other, it may be wiser to remind them that they have lots of other identities too: as parents, sports enthusiasts, believers in a political or economic ideology, music fans or whatever….

The existence of lots of competing affiliations which pull people in different ways is the best hope of silencing gloomy talk of a “clash of civilisations” (with religion, and Islam in particular, often seen as the defining characteristic for giant global blocks). Such thinking is “deeply flawed on a conceptual level and deeply divisive in practice,” the report says.

As everybody knows deep down, the authors suggest, people belong to lots of categories (family, language, personal interests, political ideology) and spend their time shifting between them—unless some conflict arises in which a detail of family history becomes a matter of life and death.

Chris adds a crucial, related point that I’ve noticed since starting college:

…Political correctness actually reinforces the divisiveness it is supposed to combat.

If you’re trying to fix the problem of racial prejudice of one group against another (say, whites against African-Americans), perhaps your first step should be to stop treating the two groups as two distinct and monolithic groups. The tendency of activists to emphasize group identity via the concept of "pride" is simply the other side of the bigot’s coin.

The third weekend after school started there was an off-campus retreat for all racial-minority students. It was promoted as a "bonding" experience for Asian-American students or Latino students or whoever. White students could technically participate but were discouraged. For freshmen, it’s held over one of the first weekends of college which means you spend a weekend away from the normal social scene and instead form early friends along race lines, adding to the already natural racial segregation that happens on small campuses.

I believe racial minorities should have clubs which sponsor conversations around the common experience of, say, being black in a predominately white environment. But to herd all the minority students off-campus for a weekend seems excessive in its promotion of one aspect of one’s identity, especially in light of the issues the Economist piece raises.


I think "identity" is really interesting. In February, in a post titled What Makes Up Your Identity?, I wrote:

For me, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality don’t play meaningful parts of my identity. I have Jewish friends who take a lot of pride in their Jewishness, or black friends who cultivate their African-American heritage, or women friends who see themselves as women. Not me. I’m just a tall, white, straight, male who’s not religious.


Here’s my post on whether generational identity is overrated. Here’s my review of Sam Huntington. Here’s my post on Californian identity. Here’s Chris’s big post on the problem of religion in which he also summarizes the Economist’s special report.

6 comments on “The Black and White Mistake: Simple Identity Categories
  • *The tendency of activists to emphasize group identity via the concept of “pride” is simply the other side of the bigot’s coin.*

    I drank it in. Brilliant…!!!

  • Ben:

    This is a great post that shows you to be wiser than your years.

    It is hard for me to understand how it’s coming from the same guy who, a few days ago, described pentecostal believers as being involved in “madness”, which is the same sort of categorization you decry here.

  • At Cornell, we had separate dorms for minorities too. I thought practices like that ended a long time ago. Even freshman year, you can live in an African-American themed dorm called Ujaama, a Native-American dorm alled Akwe:kon, or the Latino Living Center. There are more. You can also live in an Arts focused dorm called Risley or Just About Music. Anyone can live in these dorms, but who do you think chooses to?

    Unfortunately, you can see the effects of these segregated dorms by looking at tables in the dining hall. It’s sad. Your freshman dorm is a huge opportunity for socialization and separating students right when they come in based on their differences short changes all students on the ability to interact with many different people.

  • this is why the aphorism “everything becomes its opposite” is so valuable… happy to see this in the “Economist”, that means it is mainstream now…

    you have to be sexist to be a feminist, or a masculinist…

    affirmative action is racist…

    fundamentalism is limiting, not strengthening…

    it goes on and on…

    lovely post, happy you put it up

    enjoy, gregory

  • Ben, you make some good points.

    I agree that the having a minority retreat is stupid and would like to add two reasons:

    1) It leaves the campus almost entirely white, which allegedly is bad.
    2) Any minority students who don’t want to participate feel even more isolated.

    You’ve probably heard the argument that goes somewhat along the lines of “you’re a white male so your identity is so entrenched in society that you don’t have to understand it”. A lot of this dividing people up comes not from the desire to understand them and you don’t understand people by realizing what you have in common, you understand people by realizing how they are different.

  • I’ve experienced the same sort of thing in groups of women. And if you ever try to suggest that they’re being their own worst enemies, and that women should do a better job of supporting each other, uh-oh. You’re gonna get it.

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