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Dec 11, 2021

Solidarity versus identity

I encourage most people, including student call me by my first name. I am an older and bearded gentleman in a Dean’s office, so I want to be more approachable. However, I am well aware that faculty of color, and younger women do get confused for students, or for support staff, and therefore need to insist that people call them Dr. So-and-so. The question is: should I give up on the approachability thing, and ask people to refer to me as Dr. out of solidarity with those who may struggle with recognition? In fact, in the presence of student, I try to address faculty as Drs. But should I do it always? Keep in mind, strangers will not know, am I simply being a pompous prick, or sending a message of solidarity with women and faculty of color.

Here is another example: A friend of mine always refers to his wife as “partner,” avoiding the disclosure of his dominant form of sexuality. The non-disclosure is a message of solidarity with gay people, not an attempt to pass for a gay person. Of course, in any conversation, that identity will still be somehow disclosed later through pronouns, or other details. The total message is then more complex: being in solidarity with an oppressed group, I still ultimately highlighting my dominant status. In other words, I draw MORE, not less attention to my superiority.

Let’s keep going. Should I state my pronouns? It is a more complicated case, where I don’t know the answer, just searching for one. The thing is, my gender does not define me; it is not even among the top 10 categories that I would use to describe myself. I don’t want to be defined by my gender, even if other people do. I can hear an objection – “Yes, because as a cisgender man, you have the luxury to ignore your gender identity, just like a White person has a luxury to bypass race in self-identification. By ignoring it, you perpetuate the power imbalances, assert your dominance. Do it anyway out of solidarity with those for whom pronouns are important.” Yes, all true, but by flaunting the “he/him” label, don’t I reinforce the dominance, don’t I make it more visible? In a group, where everyone discloses their pronouns, don’t we minoritize those people who may have different gender identities? For many people, their ethnic or racial identity is much more important that their gender. By forcing the gender identity forward, don’t we deny those people the right to define their identities the way they see fit? Putting my pronouns forward, I am encouraging other people to do the same. Well, I am not so sure I want to. Many people do not want to disclose to the whole world how they think of themselves in terms of gender, and about its linguistic representation. Some people do not want to be referred by any pronouns whatsoever. Do they also deserve solidarity?

Using my own identity to express solidarity with other people’s identities is just sometimes self-contradictory. There is an inherent tension between authenticity of self-disclosure and using the self-disclosure for another aim. By inserting the message of solidarity, into my identity statement, I also obscure some of my authentic self.

My point is simple – this all is far from simple. I think we should keep looking for delicate ways of declaring our solidarity with historically disadvantaged groups. But we cannot be simple-minded or crude about it. Some messages of solidarity offend more than support. Recognizing and affirming others’ identities is a search for the right conventions, and it has not been completed. Those who rage against “political correctness” do not want to even start that journey. Those who think they have already completed the journey are too self-righteous.

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