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'Who Are We?': The Dangers Of Pigeonholing

After terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans had a lot of questions, and made a lot of assumptions, about Muslims.
After terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans had a lot of questions, and made a lot of assumptions, about Muslims.

Gary Younge believes that identity itself is harmless, but the ways people choose to use it can hurt.

In his new book, Who Are We — And Should it Matter in the Twenty-First Century? Younge explores the ways people identify one another and how those identities affect our lives.

Younge tells NPR's Brian Naylor that his exploration of identity started, naturally, with his own.

"I'm a black Brit who's lived in New York for nine years," he says.

And that matters because of all the ways he's been misidentified and because of how that treatment has influenced his own story — a story that very much informs his point of view.

"I think we all come to life, politics, social interactions with something," he says. "The idea that we are purely objective, omniscient all-seeing beings is a terrible mistake."

But sometimes the more powerful your identity is, the less it can actually feels like one. Younge uses his own story as an example.

"Nobody asks me, 'When did you first come out as a straight guy?' " he says, like one might ask of a gay person. Nor do they ask him, a foreign correspondent with a 4-year-old son, how he manages to balance travel with raising his child, as women are often asked.

Younge says this point played out on a national stage during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was criticized for her "wise Latina" comments.

"You had mostly white male senators saying ... 'But you're going to rule as a Latina,' as though they weren't ruling as white guys; as though white masculinity was an objective position, an orthodoxy, almost."

For Younge, all it takes is walking down the street with his infant son to get an idea of other people's expectations. On those walks, he says, black women sometimes congratulate him not on the birth of his son but for being a "responsible black father."

But, he says, "We are many things all at the same time." Younge is black; he's British; he's "nominally Christian"; he lives in New York; he speaks Russian. "But we're always just one thing, which is ourselves."

That may seem overly simple, but it's still important.

"In certain moments, people will seek to identify one part of your identity as being the most important or the only relevant part," he says.

On Sept. 10, 2001, he says, "you could have been a beer-drinking, womanizing, pork-eating nominal Muslim," but come Sept. 12, "you're being asked to answer for a range of policies and politics and practices of a group of people who you may not identify with."

Americans discovered a similar dynamic in Europe after the war began in Iraq.

"Americans around Europe found their American-ness being elevated to being the most important thing about them," Younge says. "And people would demand that they answer for Americans."

And of course, in both cases, people are more than just Muslim or just American.

Younge says it's often only when you leave the place of your identity that you become most comfortable with it. He says white people in much of the U.S. may not think of their racial identification as particularly interesting until they go to Africa or certain areas of Brooklyn, N.Y., where their whiteness stands out.

And there's nothing like going to a gay bar as a straight person to realize that straight is also its own identity.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.