I have been avoiding writing about gender identity completely for the past while, after getting too confused about it… and generally feeling like a failed feminist because of it.
I found myself questioning my beliefs and values, because that’s what it came down to, weirdly enough. What is more important: how someone feels, or supposedly unbiased definitions? Breaking down the entire construct of gender, or working with what we have?
During this confusion, in my post Non-Binary Gender: Why I’m Thoroughly Confused, I compared gender identity to racial identity.
And it’s a pretty problematic comparison.
I personally identify as Canadian and Indian, despite many people that might say I’m not Indian for various reasons. But I wrote that while I could meet someone with Japanese heritage who tells me they’re Indian because they have grown up in an Indian household, I would consider that incorrect. Culturally maybe they’ve been much less Japanese and more Indian, and they can say they identify as such, but they still aren’t. They grew up in a culture different from their own, but it doesn’t change whether they are Japanese or not, no matter how they identify.
I was trying to suggest, in my confusion about whether non-binary gender exists, that you simply can’t ignore the inherent parts of your identity.
It’s a really tricky, slippery argument to make, and it’s interesting that I found myself thinking that way.
A good friend pointed out that this exposed the type of arguments and thinking that leads to terrible racism.
It’s this sort of thinking that leads to black Americans being killed — because they aren’t “real” Americans.
I haven’t written much about race or ethnicity, mostly because I haven’t had much to say that isn’t obvious… but that really got me thinking!
How hypocritical of me to say I identify as both Canadian and Indian, and then look at someone and tell them they cannot do the same.
If I looked at myself the same way I looked at this theoretical Japanese/Indian person, I’d have to admit that I can say I’m Canadian, but I’m really not — I’m just an Indian person who grew up in Canada.
And whoa, that does not feel right.
Boom — there’s the learning moment.
How can I tell someone what they are or aren’t, or who they are or aren’t?!
The same way I feel wrong about not being able to identify how I do about race and culture, I feel wrong trying to say that someone who identifies and non-binary is not.
In trying to suggest that you can’t ignore the inherent characteristics of the body — something like skin colour or sex organs — I realized that while they do play a part in your identity, they don’t have to be the be all, end all.
Society does influence our identity, even if in certain ways it shouldn’t. There is a reason I feel conflicted about my identity: I’m part of two different societies, and each of them affect who I am.
It’s not just my biological and genetic makeup that makes me.
Getting rid of race as an entire concept does not solve this problem.
Race is a societal construct, like gender, but can you imagine a world without race? It’s not just something that can be used for discrimination — it’s also a major part of many people’s identities. There are thousands of years of history based on this construct. If you rid the world of race, it erases those people’s experiences and struggles and says that they aren’t important. If humans didn’t have race to begin with, if people never identified the differences between skin tones and never discriminated based on it, then maybe this would be realistic.
But that’s not the case.
The radical feminists that talked to me argued that by trying to create a separate gender from “male” or “female,” non-binary gender supports gender expectations. The idea is that you can’t “feel” like a woman or a man unless you agree with gender expectations’ definitions of what it means to be either. By this logic, everyone would be non-binary: no one fully meets these expectations.
They basically were saying that the goal is to rid society of gender as a concept completely, because it is there to oppress women. (This is an idea that I know little about, so I won’t get into this too much.)
But this simply is not a realistic goal.
These social constructs do influence our identities.
If the way I thought through non-binary gender revealed the racism deep in America, it also revealed some deep problems in how we see gender.
Gender is just as important as race to people’s identities — and it too isn’t as simple as biology and genetics.
People totally do blend different races to identify as more than one, or identify with none of their heritage. Being a first-generation Canadian who identifies as Indian and Canadian, I’m a perfect example.
What then is so wrong with identifying with more than one gender, or neither?
Yes, social constructs can be harmful, but the fact is that they are there.
If someone told me I’m not Canadian, it would feel very wrong. It’s how I feel. It’s how I identify, within the expectations for each culture and race, even if those expectations aren’t always fair.
We could try to say that the better goal is to work to rid society of these constructs completely, but it’s just not going to happen. Too much of our identities rely on our them and reflect them.
Race and gender may not be a perfect comparison, but thinking about these has taught me that personal identity is much more complex than simple definitions.
Maybe it’s true that sometimes when people say they identify or don’t identify with something, they’re wrong because they don’t understand what that thing is (feminism, for example).
But trying to say that people should not identify as they do because they don’t fit a very rigid set of expectations seems a bit hypocritical for someone who wants to break out of social expectations.
Have you ever struggled with an aspect of your personal identity? Share your thoughts in a comment below!
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