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Monday, February 26, 2007

Re-Uncovering Identity

My review of Kenji Yoshino's book Covering will be the newsstands (OK, on the law library shelves) this spring.  Titled Uncovering Identity, it discusses, among other things, the ways in which identity traits are not simply eruptions of a "true" self, but can be used and manipulated by their possessors; in turn, we may come to internalize various useful or conventional identity scripts, even if we did not set out to do so.  All of this came to mind as I read this weekend's NYT review of Caille Millner's memoir, The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.  Millner writes about being African-American and getting into and attending Harvard.  Some excerpts seem especially pertinent in light of the discussion in my forthcoming paper:

At 16, Millner wrote an essay for The San Jose Mercury News drawing attention to the racism she perceived at her school. Getting published may have been just the thing for her C.V., but after the article appeared, fellow students signed a petition in protest of her complaint, which they claimed was unfounded. . . . Later, she learned that some of her peers had resented the supposed edge she had gained with her exposé — endowing herself with a marketable claim to oppression and making them look bad.

Millner graduated in “a shower of scholarships and awards.” Shrewd student of the system that she was, and still is, she imagined that the college admissions committee saw itself as the shaper of “a classic underdog story with a Hollywood ending,” in which she was the plucky heroine....

Today Millner . . . describes her youthful essay and its fallout as one of the “identity narratives” members of her generation spew out to gain an advantage in the meritocracy. “Now I have come clean,” she tells us, “and ruined a story that formed a critical part of who I once presented myself to be.” As terrifying to Millner as the backlash she wrought in high school was her accidental discovery of her own skill at image manipulation. Her ambivalence about identity is at the heart of “The Golden Road.” . . . . In Almaden Valley, she encountered “contemporary racism with a smile,” and while repelled by smug children of privilege at Harvard, she also grew numb listening to African-Americans’ tales of subtle exclusion. She was drawn to activist students, but was crushed when they turned out to be cynical résumé-stackers, adopting causes to impress corporate recruiters. “What I learned at Harvard,” she reveals, “was how to behave as though I had gone to Harvard.”

Interesting, and I think the last line might resonate broadly with our readers.  Of course, managing to ride an identity narrative into Harvard, and then write with seeming retrospective wisdom about one's doubts about that identity narrative, while still foregrounding that very identity, and while managing to compare oneself positively to everyone else who did the same thing, and getting a book contract to do the whole thing for money, is the kind of intricate, self-promoting dance one seems to learn best at. . . the Ivies.  In the Department of Irony Department, a search for Millner's name on Amazon also comes up with this book.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 26, 2007 at 08:52 AM in Books | Permalink


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Bart -- if I wanted an antidote for heaping portions of praise, I could just hang out with my friends and family, thank you very much.

Seriously, I'm not sure I was echoing the "general conservative meme" you discuss. Certainly not intentionally, although that's what makes them memes. I have no quarrel with the proposition that it is more likely to be a burden than a benefit to be a member of a racial or other minority in America -- and not just middle America. Not just America, for that matter; let's not be totally exceptionalist about this. But I didn't take that to be the point of my post. All I was saying is that identity itself is a complicated thing: that it is social and not completely internal, and that it is used as well as experienced; and that the excerpt nicely illustrates that. That has no bearing on, or at least I didn't intend to address, whether or not being a member of some particular identity group is on balance beneficial or detrimental in our society. By the way, your comment could be read as saying that *having a particular identity* -- i.e., in this instance, being African-American -- is itself a burden. I take it that many members of such an identity group would disagree with you; individuals with certain disabilities, for example, might respond that having that disability creates many burdensome situations, both inherently and because society is insufficiently responsive and inclusive, but that having the identity of being a person with a disability is not in and of itself a burden, but may actually be enriching in all kinds of ways. I think I offer this more by way of clarification of your comment than to refute you.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 27, 2007 2:47:29 PM

I have the antidote for the love-in: I also found this post to be informative but in my opinion the focus is a little naive. And in fact, it mirrors a general conservative meme on race and identity, that if race has an effect in modern life, it is only as a benefit that affluent minorities employ to gain an unfair advantage of good honest white kids. I say naive because for most people non-majoritarian identities are not a benefit but a burden. Sure, within a tiny, insular strata of elite society, everyone has a mixed and multiple identity. But in middle America, it just ain't so.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 27, 2007 1:48:10 PM

I'm never one to stop a love-in. Thanks for the kind words, all.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 27, 2007 10:25:52 AM

At the risk of continuing a love-in here, I have to say that this was one of the most amusing posts I've read on this blog. Spot on about attending Ivies (as one who only attended Ivies after I spent me "formative years" in 'da public schools). Cheers.

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Feb 26, 2007 11:38:02 PM

John, thanks for the very interesting comment and best of luck in completing the book manuscript. I think you raise a valuable point, and I think Millner's stories, and other sharing of personal narratives for whatever reason, could be redeemable up to a point from that perspective. I suppose I would have to enter a few caveats, though. First, of course, your argument is separate from the question of what it means to have a self, or a "true self," so that one might buy your argument but still think that separate arguments based on some notion of the true self are either unpersuasive or incomplete or both. Second, there is a distinction between offering "new ideas" and telling what are supposed to be "true stories." Those stories might offer new ideas and moral perspectives even if they are not, strictly speaking, accurate; but to the extent that we assume those stories are either authoritative because true, or offer helpful new ideas because they are truthful, then a claim that these stories are not true, or more fairly are not the whole truth, *may* undercut the "new ideas" argument. Third, to the extent that your argument is that such personal narratives create social benefits because they are "new," we should worry if we suspect that people are not advancing new and true stories, but rather relying on what have become conventional and ritualized identity scripts. Fourth, one of the dangers of those scripts is not that they are insincere, but that those who follow the scripts will internalize them and understand them as true, even if they are not; the danger, in short, is that they will be both "sincere" and inaccurate, although what it means, exactly, to call a sincerely offered narrative "inaccurate" is surely a debatable question.

I risk putting these points too strongly, so please assume they're made in good faith and with a full awareness of the complexity of these issues. I am not suggesting, certainly, that all such stories are either false or insincere, and I agree with you that they may have social value above and apart from the question of insincerity. I hope my questions, just the same, add some further complications to the issues you raise, and thank you for raising them.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 26, 2007 11:36:43 AM


My dissertation, now being prepared for a book ms., tries to defend hypocrisy and insincerity in limited forms. One of its main arguments is that people say all sorts of self-interested things but that their statements can accrue to the benefit of a deliberative audience. (see my The Irrelevance of Sincerity: Deliberative Democracy in the Supreme Court 48 Saint Louis University Law Journal 305 (2004)). So, for example, even those who say things out of spite or whimsy or whatever unsavory motive can generate interesting ideas for the audience. The Sup Ct, for example, doesn't care that newspapers are printing their stories in order to generate money (not necessarily to further democracy); so too the Court appears to hold that under the actual malice test, a vengeful motive is largely irrelevant for assigning liability for libel; what matters is that the audience get access to interesting ideas about politics and civic affairs.

Could Millner's stories still be redeemable in that context? Are we appraising her stories from the perspective of generating new ideas for a deliberative audience or from the perspective of moral conscience? I realize that these aren't (or shouldn't) be hermetic categories, but it's useful to clarify, I think, their respective properties.

Posted by: John M. Kang | Feb 26, 2007 11:17:21 AM

We, in turn, benefit from your self-effacing approach, the considerable knowledge you do in fact possess, and your utterly refreshing open-mindedness and generosity of spirit. A nice way to begin the work week!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 26, 2007 10:13:53 AM

Thank you, Patrick! I won't pretend to more knowledge than I have, and will instead gratefully and gladly acknowledge that you, and other Prawfsblawg readers, have added considerably to the store of works I've become aware of as I waded into this topic. I am always deeply grateful for these kinds of useful and productive interventions, and to Prawfsblawg for serving as a vehicle for such terrific discussions.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 26, 2007 10:05:44 AM


That was a wonderful, incisive and insightful review. Thanks.

A few comments: I hope the largely negative reference to autonomy is not about moral autonomy as such, which in no way precludes the notion of social interdependence. On nuanced conceptions of autonomy that are not about a romanticized 'self authorship,' but rather about (sometimes perfectibilist) moral growth and awareness, see Gerald Dworkin's The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1988), Ellen Frankel Paul, et al., eds., Autonomy (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2003), and David L. Norton's Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1991). Anyone referencing the notion of autonomy should be familiar with (and not to say you're not) J.B. Schneewind's The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1998).

On questions of personal identity and 'the self,' in addition to Charles Taylor's important work, I would suggest readers look at Sections 1 and 4, 'Persons and Personae' and 'Community as the Context of Character' respectively, in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty's remarkable book, Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988), and, most recently, Richard Sorabji's Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death (Chicago, IL: UCP, 2006). Sorabji has an excellent bibliography of the secondary literature and demonstrates some facility with Indian (Indic) philosophical traditions, specifically Nyaya and Buddhism. Finally, a short but in many respects wise volume (the title doesn't do it justice: it's as much about character [yes, he's aware of the Situationist critique] as it is personality) is Peter Goldie's On Personality (London: Routledge, 2004).

Again, thanks for a delightful review of Yoshino's book.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 26, 2007 9:47:49 AM

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