Baldwin and Mead, identity as what we are not

I’m reading an article on this great blog called Brain Pickings, which talks about an exciting 7 and a half hours in history where poet James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead got together to talk about race and identity on stage in front of a live audience over the course of a weekend, which was later transcribed into a book called ‘A Rap on Race’.

Two things really captured my thinking as I read this, which are:

  • identity as what we are not
  • identity as an assemblage of ancestry

I pause and look out of my window at the blue sky streaked by a thin muslin veil of cloud (yes there are blue skies up here too…). Rejecting identities reinforces our own; when I moved away from Bradford to London, I became very clear that I wasn’t a Southerner. In surrounding ourselves with symbolism to outline who we are, we are using this set of visual cues to tell people who we are not. So the chap I saw with the Saltire and the Caledonian flags tattooed on the back of his leg, is saying to people that he is not from England, or anywhere else for that matter.

A lot of work on identity talks about how it is constructed in relation to ‘the other’, whether that’s in relation to how others perceive you, and construct your identity based on their knowledge of you, or in relation to how you perceive others around you as different or similar to yourself. Either way it is a process which occurs always in relation to others.

However, I wonder if in order to do this in a way which honours those around us as humans, we can do this successfully, if we know so very little about the lives others lead. We may assume (and historically people evidently have) that ‘the other’ conducts their self in a way which is grossly misaligned with our own model for a ‘good’ and ‘moral’ existence. This view leads all too often to prejudice based on inaccurate or simply wrong knowledge about another person. So how are we to say we are ‘not that’ if we do not really truly know or understand what ‘that’ is? And in identifying as part of a community, are we overlooking differences within that community in order to ‘belong’ to something? I might identify as being from Yorkshire, and Yorkshire being great and beautiful and mighty and all the rest of it (with a slight pinch of salt but not really-!) but there are plenty in Yorkshire whose perception of what that community is is predominantly white and heterosexual, ‘this but not that’, in other words.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 14.25.45.png

A google image search brings up the above…

I wonder how identity would work if there were to be a greater understanding between people; would empathy increase? Would people be less rigid in their conceptions of who they are? Or more? All of this individual constructions and expressions of identity does not happen in isolation of bigger process, it is entangled in structural inequality, depoliticisation, austerity, neoliberalism, individualisation, a breaking down of community. All of these things contribute towards the ways in which individuals interact with the world and the people around them, whether that’s through the media scapegoating immigrants, or funding cuts which community projects rely on, or the housing crisis, the increasing instability of work, or representation of different people in different public spaces. Identity is so knotted and woven into these larger systemic models, and it’s really important for me to bear this in mind throughout the whole journey of my research, so that I can keep rooting the things people are talking to me about within the structures and systems they are operating within.


So, there’s that. And then…

“you are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it and whether or not you can reach it” – James Baldwin

My heart soars! I need to read some of his work.

This quote speaks of the importance of recognising the role of the past within the present. To cut the present off from the history which has led up to this point, is to reject that events, movements, work, relationships within and between places that have gone before have any part to play in how things are and who we are now.

The idea of the human as a receptacle is an interesting one, because alongside being filled with the liquid histories of our ancestors, which may flow into our present day lives, we are also agents who can choose what we do and how we engage with these histories. In the same way that Baudrillard (I think) argued that space is not an empty container for things to happen within, rather it is an active agent in shaping how people interact with it, we as humans are simultaneously acting our history and being acted upon by it, in the present day.


I love this little snippet of conversation between them, in which they talk about this idea of societies like that of Glasgow as a ‘melting pot’:

MEAD: It isn’t a melting pot, is it?

BALDWIN: No, it isn’t. Nobody ever got melted. People aren’t meant to be melted.

MEAD: That old image from World War I is a bad image: to melt everyone down.

BALDWIN: Because people don’t want to be melted down. they resist it with all their strength.

MEAD: Of course! Who wants to be melted down?

BALDWIN: Melted down into what? It’s a very unfortunate image.


Where perhaps the metaphor of ‘melting’ is helpful in allowing us to consider identities as something fluid and malleable, which shift and morph in different settings in our everyday lives, it is unhelpful because it over-simplifies the ways in which people from multiple cultural backgrounds live in the same cities / towns / spaces / times. In the same way that multiculturalism takes the best of what ‘each culture’ has to offer, the melting pot model advocates the assimilation of immigrant communities into the majority cultural practices. At best, a weak attempt to tokenistically argue for the shared humanity of all, and the idea that at our core, we are all the same, at worst a symbolically violent rejection of the capacity for immigrants’ cultural practices and participation to be able to sit alongside or even help to shape the make-up of the culture  in the ‘host society’.

It’s not about cultural relativism, it’s about criticising the need for an assimilation model, that the idea of a fixed national identity that people must grow to love and share in unquestioningly should they choose to live and participate in that place, ignores the possibility for national identity and values to shift, and ignores the fact that our histories are full of processes of negotiating identity, a process which is inseperable from those who are a part of it. It’s also full of contradictions, as are all humans, so this will come through in my thinking and writing so if none of this makes sense, please challenge me on it!


Anyway. So, we are what we are not, and we are what has gone before. Discuss.



2 thoughts on “Baldwin and Mead, identity as what we are not

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