A Typology of Identity: Elective, Circumstantial, and Inherent

animals-731213_1920Identity is central to White rights; after all, this is a racial identity movement. I have always thought it was critical for us to articulate not only the importance of identity as a general concept, but most critically, to articulate why race is the founding identity.

Watching Richard Spencer’s Texas A&M speech a few weeks back, I was reminded again of this. Richard did a great job opening up his speech by comparing elective identities (identities that you choose) with identities that you do not choose. As the question and answer session afterwards proved, and as I have often found when debating with, or trying to convince, others that race is important, this particular question is one which we need to address. We should have a concrete answer to the oft-raised objection: why should I care about something I didn’t choose?

Three Types of Identity:

Identity is important yes, but which identities are important? After all, there are about as many identities as there are people. In fact, an individual identity is something everyone has to some extent, whether they give it much significance or not. To say that identity is important, is therefore to say very little without specifying which identity or identities are important. After all, surely most of the myriad identities that exist are actually not very important. For instance, I play the guitar. I suppose “guitar player” is an identity I have, but I certainly don’t think it is important in my life at all. Absolutely nothing important in my life derives from my identity as a guitar player.

Although Richard broke identities down into only two groups—elective and unelective—I think that there are really three basic types of identities.

There is the distinction between elective and unelective identities that Spencer highlighted, but I also think there is a distinction within unelective identities, between those which are essentially accidents of birth or those that grow out of the circumstances of birth or childhood (such as ethnicity and upbringing, native tongue, birth city/state/region, hometown, etc.), and those which are inherent in your being; something you would have no matter what the circumstances of the outside world were or what other  people were in it, at the time of your birth.

I call the former circumstantial identities, and the later inherent identities.

An inherent identity is something that goes into making up your actual physical existence as a separate person, without which you could not exist. Thus, inherent identities are always biological identities, and typically identities of the body. You could have been born in a different town, raised a different way, etc. and still be the physical person you are. Change race or sex, however, and you don’t exist anymore as you are now. You have become a different person.

There are really probably only a handful of truly inherent identities: race and sex, and possibly some forms of disability. I don’t even think age is a truly inherent identity, despite it being a completely biological identity, but it might be. There may be others, but I doubt there are very many. From a religious perspective I think it is also correct to call the distinction between the deity/creator and his creatures/the created an inherent identity.

It has always seemed evident to me that inherent identities were the most important, and that of inherent identities (excluding the religious) race is the most central, the most comprehensive, and the most salient.

A Hierarchy of Identity:

To me growing up, race seemed so self-evidently important—central even—to identity that I have often had a slightly difficult time wrapping my head around this ideal that some of our people seem to have, that if you didn’t choose it, it is somehow unimportant. To me, it always seemed obvious that it was quite the opposite: identities you did not choose were more important than those that you did.

Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that the difference is between a collectivist mindset and an individualist mindset. One values belonging and the other values individual autonomy.

Elective identities are identities that you choose. You personally give to yourself these identities. You make them yours. The act of choosing identities, of designing yourself, is an act of autonomy. You as the individual are making yourself. Elective identities have their origin in the individual self. That is where they come from. Thus, they ultimately connect you back only to yourself, and remind you only of your own autonomy. They don’t go any farther back than you, and they don’t go any farther out than you. They are thus, to some extent, vehicles of your own design and nothing more: the only authority they can claim is your own will. They connect you to no one but yourself, and to nothing but your own conceit.

Have you ever noticed how narcissistic people tend to focus on elective identities like their personal achievements? There is a reason for that. The narcissist wants to stand out from the crowd, not be absorbed into it. He wants to have all the credit and attention himself. Collective identities make this impossible. Collective identities make the individual disappear. They dwarf him in the context of a bigger picture. When you value collective identities you have to share the attention and the praise. It doesn’t go to you, it goes to everyone in your collective. You are not special in a collective frame.

Valuing elective over unelective identities, and valuing inherent identities lowest of all, springs from this individualistic life outlook: everything important about you goes back to you, and your own autonomy, and stops at you. You are an individual, an island.

In stark contrast is the collectivist mindset I always had. In this mindset, inherent identities are valued above all other identities. Inherent identities are identities you did not choose, and they are also identities that define your personhood and your existence, and that you can never get rid of whether you want to or not. These identities transcend yourself. They did not originate with you, but outside of you, with something bigger than you. They were not designed by you, but by something greater than you. They ultimately remind you, that you did not make yourself, and that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. They take your focus outside of yourself, and they connect you to those things in life that are bigger than you.  They make you belong to something. They put your individual self into a larger context. You are no longer an island, but an army, a nation, a pack. They draw their authority, and thus your allegiance, away from yourself, into a relationship with others. They are also generally clear and stable—they don’t change.

Circumstantial identities, on the other hand, define you in time and place. They tell a story about your personal history. While they are generally not elective, they are not entirely unelective either: some of them are defaults, that can be taken off, even if you did not choose to put them on (think citizenship for instance), but many are simply identities—like your hometown—that you can elect to nullify in significance. After all, how much does it really matter what town I grew up in, and if I don’t want people to know, I just don’t have to tell them. While not choosing circumstantial identities means they don’t properly activate your personal autonomy, they hardly transcend yourself either, because the sheer happenstance nature of most of them means that they don’t meaningfully connect you to anything outside of yourself. Your nature would be the same whether you were born in St. Louis or London. To what outside of yourself then, can birth city/country connect you? Nothing. Such identities are, by and large, truly just accidents of birth.

This might explain why very few people consider circumstantial identities to be very important in their lives (citizenship would be the one huge exception to the general rule).  By and large for instance, where you were born is just a fun fact you tell new people, rather than something meaningful to your personal identity. It is largely the same for most circumstantial identities.

***

These three different types of identities are not just factually distinct. They also lead you to focus on different things, and define you in different ways:

  • Elective identities define you by reference to yourself—they tell people about your choices. They lead you to focus on your own abilities.
  • Circumstantial identities define you by reference to your environment—they tell people what places you have seen and what you are used to seeing when you look at the world around you. They lead you to focus on your own experiences.
  • Inherent identities define you by reference to others and your relationships to greater things—they tell people what you are, where you belong, and who you belong with. They lead you to focus on your place in life and in the world.

Which category of identity you most value says a lot about your general worldview, your principles, and your focus in life. The individualist is wrapped up in himself. The circumstantial collectivist is proud of his personal experiences. The inherent collectivist ascribes his value to where he fits and how he interacts with others around him.

This is why the common accusation that racialists must have low self-esteem and are involved in nothing more than tearing others down in order to feel better about themselves is so utterly ridiculous: it goes against the very core worldview that makes racial solidarity and identity so important in the first place. Only someone with an individualist mindset would think to explain collectivist behavior and beliefs with such an ego-centric motivation.

Because the motivations of an individualist are ego-centric, he assumes that the motivations of others must be explained through ego-centrism as well. But ego-centrism is the domain of an individualist mindset. A collectivist mindset does not even consider the personal ego, and finds meaning, not in nurturing a sense of personal superiority, but in fostering a sense of community. In celebrating, not personal greatness, but the greatness of the network of relationships of which he is a part.

The ultimate question really is: do you look no farther than yourself? Or do you look beyond yourself, to something bigger, for which you are willing to sacrifice yourself?

The identities you value most in life might tell you what type of person—selfish or selfless—you really are.

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