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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Gary Younge, Who Are We – And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Welcome Gary Younge (The Nation) and Host Kathleen Barry.

Who Are We – And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Host, Kathleen Barry:

The title, Who Are We, signals a questioning about identity and begins an exploration of its “vexed terrain.” Gary Younge, columnist for the Guardian and The Nation and the author of two previous books, lifts our understanding of identity from the taken-for-granted where it is too often treated as a fixed and done thing. Instead, Younge brings us into layers of our identities from micro to macro, from the personal to the political, revealing paradoxes both in how we know ourselves and how others (too often wrongly) ascribe identity to us.

He begins by personalizing his own identity as a Black man who as a child was told so many times to “go back where you came from” as if he did not come from Great Britain, where he was born, that he ceased to think of himself as British until he was older. In that one brief story, Younge encapsulates many of the major themes of this book which include recognizing that identity is both historical and personal, porous and paradoxical. Yet it is, too frequently, reduced to fixed categories by others who are self-proclaimed gatekeepers of a particular identity. They are the ones who insure that you will be othered out if your identity does not fit their criteria.

Why does the complexity of identity that Younge explores matter? In an increasingly globalized world, where currency links states, and banking failures in the U.S. ignite financial crises around the globe, how we know who others are may be as important as how we know ourselves. Where writers on identity may focus their attention on one way we know ourselves – national or racial or gender, etc, and others prioritize one identity over another, (in the 1960s feminists called it the “who- is-the-most-oppressed” strategy), Younge brings out the complexity of all of our identities and we see them changing in time and place. He remembers, for example, when he was in Paris at the age of 22 faced with “the most racist experiences of my life.” But a year later in Leningrad which was fraught with food shortages and rationing, he felt rich when he exchanged the British pound for rubles. Because he did not look like the ordinary impoverished Russian with his “plaited hair, Levi’s and Converse trainers,” he became a symbol of Western wealth. And because he was not classified with the Africans there, he was spared most of the racism they suffered.

Remember, he’s not telling us who we are in the way that fundamentalists of all stripes do – from Rush Limbaugh to the Workers Revolutionary Party he joined as a teenager. In the year between high school and college, he went to the Sudan to teach English to refugee students. Living in and learning an Arab culture while experiencing how Arabs of different classes saw him, he abandoned the rigidity of the WRP for more nuanced and richer understanding of race and class, nation and culture. He found it in lived experience. Now he engages his readers in an approach to identity that is changing, fluid and historically located.

Most importantly, identity is not only about the multiplicity of ways that we know ourselves; it is about how the world encounters us and what that does to us. One chapter is built around the othering of Judge Sotomayer by Senator Jeff Sessions and his fellow Republicans during her Congressional confirmation hearing for her “wise Latina” statement. In trying to discredit her for being biased, they revealed their entitlement of being white and male as the norm, begging the question of what bias is. Likewise, can the charges of women physically abusing men actually be equated with men’s abuse of women? When power is dislocated and disguised, the multiplicity of identities can be stripped away.

Is there such as thing as multiracial identity? Not, Younge will tell you, when Tiger Woods claims it in a way that makes it unique to him. I would wonder, is that the egoism from which his sexism and womanizing originated? Identity is located in community. For example, colored identity in South Africa included Muslims, Christians, Indians, and Malays who were bound by restrictive laws and exclusions. But was colored a religious or cultural or racial identity? How do we conceptualize a multi-cultural identity?

In turning to the social construction of women, we are introduced to the Irish Rose of Tralee contest, as Younge examines changing identity of Irish women from one controlled by the Catholic Church to one represented by Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robertson. Simone deBeauvior pointed out decades ago that women are the only group who have not had a “we.” But a strong feminist movement in Ireland has created the kind of solidarity required for identity to take hold and ushered women into unprecedented changes in one generation.

Or consider how the fear of terrorism is manipulated into the “particularizing and pathologizing” of Islam where issues of mosque locations and women’s headscarves are treated as huge state crises provoking the question of what is at stake both for religious fundamentalism and for those states. This kind of particularism serves whom in a world where corporations are now the power brokers? And as we are reminded, we don’t vote for corporations, which separates us even further from political power.

When Younge says of identity that “the tension between who we are, what we make of it, and what we might do with it is rarely resolved…” I see that as a challenge to step out of our predefined roles. What cinches the significance of the wide breadth and deep penetration of this book for me is that ultimately Younge rests all of the perplexity and paradoxes of identity in our common humanity. I take this to mean the oneness of human interconnection and hence our responsibilities to and for each other, as I believe Younge does.

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Kathleen Barry

Kathleen Barry

Professor Emerita, Penn State University

Kathleen Barry holds two doctorates – in sociology and in education - from the University of California, Berkeley. A university professor for twenty years, she was on the faculty of Brandeis University and is Professor Emerita of Penn State University. A Distinguished Visiting Professor at several universities, she was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Ireland and an invited scholar at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris. The author of five books and an internationally recognized feminist-human rights activist, she lectures widely in the U.S. and abroad.

Sociologist Kathleen Barry first broke new ground with her landmark book FEMALE SEXUAL SLAVERY (1979) which has been translated into six languages. This book launched a new global movement against trafficking in human beings. She reframed prostitution as a violation of human rights which led to the formation of the United Nations Non-Governmental Organization, The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women which she co-founded. Her book and activism earned her the Wonder Woman Award and she is featured in the famous Canadian film on pornography, Not a Love Story.

Her book, PROSTITUTION OF SEXUALITY: Global Exploitation of Women (New York University Press), presents the new international law against sexual exploitation she developed in collaboration with UNESCO. The law that makes sexual exploitation a violation of human rights has been adopted as state law on prostitution in Sweden and Iceland among other countries. For this work, she was named by Marie-Claire as one of the hundred women who most changed the world for women and she received an International Achievement Award from Penn State University.

She brought her feminist activism together with her empathetic writing as a biographer and the author of SUSAN B. ANTHONY: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. She is featured in the movie for television “One Woman, One Vote” and in Ken Burns's PBS special “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.”

Kathleen Barry’s international work led her to Vietnam in 1991 where she began a collaboration with Vietnamese women in the Women's Research Program. Her edited volume, VIETNAMESE WOMEN IN TRANSITION captures an extraordinary moment of change, for better and for worse, in the condition of women as Vietnam. This book issued in Vietnamese through the Institute of Social Science in Ho Chi Minh City is recognized in Vietnam as the first published social science collaboration between the Americans and Vietnamese since the US war there.

Kathleen Barry's new book is UNMAKING WAR, REMAKING MEN: How Empathy Can Reshape our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves. Introducing new concepts such as core masculinity and expendable lives, this book exposes how masculinity and the military prepare men for killing and introduces new approaches to world peace and a new masculinity that is already in the making.

She is completing a new book on single women and spontaneity, THE SPONTANEOUS SELF, Women, Identity and Spirit. Her study of three generations of women in the Troubles in Northern Ireland is the subject of her next book.