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.

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