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Categories, Boxes, and the Power of Naming

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ENG 293

Prof. Dalke


Growing up with my cousin has been a lesson in categories. Her parents came from two very different categories: “Black” and “white.” They met in Germany while serving in the army during Desert Storm, and she was born in Belgium.  They came home when she was two, and she spent the next few years with her white mom and our white grandparents, in a predominantly white, rural area. Her Black dad rejoined them when she was about four, and began primary school in a private Catholic setting. He was one of very few non-white individuals where we lived, and it was clearly a strain on him.

When she and I were in middle school, her dad committed suicide. She has spent most of her adolescence and now early adulthood in a different category: without a father. Categories strained him to brink of his life, strained our family, and will always strain her. According to those who look at her she is female and Black and I know that throughout her life, she has felt restrained by these boxes that get nailed around her. There are expectations for her that she never asked for, and many of them are an underestimation of her talent, courage, and integrity.

Middlesex presents a story for gender that does not rely on categories. For Callie, there is never a set group of categories that she allows herself to fit into; later in life, as Cal, he accepts and embraces the idea of an ambiguous identity, including non-gender-specific genitalia and pieces of Callie emerging and disappearing from his life. So often in our society, it is easiest to categorize and allow oneself to be categorized. Creating boxes for others makes it less of a challenge to attempt to understand them, and when we assimilate to expectations for our own behavior, we meet less cultural resistance or criticism.

So what is there to be said for fluid race politics? Is it possible? Can we, in the United States, given our complicated history surrounding race, work towards creating race theory that accepts vagueness? Are the two even comparable, or would it be oversimplifying the issues involved to try to compare them? I will argue in this paper that the framework for gender theory as we see it in Middlesex is the same essential framework for developing identity in racial politics. In addition, specific imagery seen in the novel suggests a parallel between the formations of the two processes for self-formation and self-identification of race and gender.

Middlesex presents strong racial themes that suggest the beginning of something new. The setting of the novel, Detroit, is a city commonly known for its racial tension and stratification. The city is divided: white and Black, and so is our cultural mentality surrounding race. When we look at a person one of the most instantaneous thoughts that might occur is, “That person is black, “or “That person is white.” During the time frame in which the book is set, the Detroit race riots occur. The barriers break, and there is a “revolution”[i] that occurs in Detroit, and it seems that the plot suggests that this also needs to happen in our culture.   On the following page, the image of a phoenix rising from ashes implies that our new conceptualization needs to arise from what existed.[ii]

An important problem that arises in the discussion of a fluid gender or a gender spectrum is what happens to the feminist movement? What happens to those who identified strongly as women, and those who felt empowered by a meaningful identification as “woman?” Likewise, the same question may arise for those who are empowered by their identity as “African-American,” “Latina,” or otherwise. If there exists a mind-set in which we don’t objectify other’s identities, and we support ambiguity, does this undermine the history and culture of those who call themselves “African-American,” “Latina,” or otherwise?  To go back to the imagery of the phoenix rising from ashes: what happens to what existed?

In the sphere of race theory, Black feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins argues that knowing one’s self as a Black woman comes from rejecting images forced upon Black women by the “dominant group” and incorporating knowledge that is personally important into the self. Taking an active role in the creation of the self and turning away from destructive or counterproductive popular images are vital pieces of the process for first knowing the Black female self[iii]. Being active in creating oneself is followed in suit by being active in naming oneself. Questioning the categorizations and names pre-fabricated by the “dominant group” for Black women will lead to the ability to take the power back in naming. Undermining the assumed power that those in the position of naming have will open up the space for the Black woman to name herself, regardless of what that actual definition may be[iv]. Taking the power back in naming will re-humanize the Black woman, discrediting the names given by non-Black women, and in our case refuting the categories that Black women may have otherwise been shoved into.

As Morrison says to Milton during the riots, “‘the problem with us is you.’”[v]  The problem with forming identities is the dominant group and its effects on a population. When thinking in terms of Black women’s identities, Patricia Hill Collins says that Black women are so often marginalized because the framework they are expected to fit into by the dominant group is linked so closely to that of the white female and the “cult of true womanhood.”[vi] In many cases, the standard of the dominant group restricts and negatively influences the formation of unique and true self through propaganda distributed through popular media.

As Collins mentions, the “cult of true womanhood,” for example, which is the idea that there is one standard of femininity for all women regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, etc., is incredibly inhibiting for several reasons. It creates a destructive image of an ideal which is impossible to fulfill, and it discredits history and personal truth in the face of a romanticized experience. In short, there is no “one size fits all.”

Looking at the identities of Black women and of Cal, it becomes simpler to answer the question posed: what happens to what existed before race theory and gender theory become less compartmentalized? Patricia Hill Collins answers very clearly and in a way that can be applied to any individual seeking a way to create an identity not based in stereotypes or cultural expectations: be an active part of shaping oneself, reject popular images, and create one’s identity based on what one knows as integral to their self. Be independent in naming: when one shapes their self based on their own essential truths and desires, they can take power back in naming themselves.

By being involved in a process such as this, being a “feminist” or “African-American,” identifying strongly as one established name is also validated because it is part of a history, of one’s own story. In turn, for those with a more ambiguous or multi-faceted identity, in this framework also accommodates them because it incorporates all the elements of their experiences in their self-naming. In a sense, by using this framework, there is a spectrum created in which all forms of identity are valid as long as they are based in personal truth and history and the rejection of popular stereotypes and pre-formed cultural or social expectations.

As Zora tells Cal, “….we’re what’s next.”[vii] Cal asks her why she told anyone she was intersex, and she tells him “I want people to know…”[viii] Zora has claimed the power in her name as intersex: she has established her story, rejected societal pressure to choose a pre-fabricated gender, and named herself. Her claim of being “what’s next” also says something not only about the progressive notion of a non-dichotomous gender, but also about the evolution of identity politics discussed in Middlesex, by Patricia Hill Collins, and by other forward-thinking theorists. The self-naming process is counter-cultural because it involves a deeply introspective, personal process and rejects the “group-think” mentality our culture so frequently embraces as a means of avoiding feeling “alone” or “isolated.”

Looking back to Middlesex, Cal says to Desdemona after he reveals his change, “‘I like my life […] I’m going to have a good life.’”[ix] By the end of Middlesex, Cal had named himself with conviction. He had a story of his life, and didn’t try to hide from what had shaped him. As his statement to Desdemona reveals, he was confident in the identity that he had created and understood about himself, and that change or fluidity was a part of that. My cousin may not have “named” herself yet; I think her “self” is still forming. I do know that she has a very firm grasp on her history, and she has essential truths that she uses every day. I think if she had to name herself today she would be like Cal: between boxes, and always in flux, but very confident that she is herself. She is the phoenix of her history: her parents stepping across a boundary, confounding cultural taboo, she arises as from the ashes as a symbol of what can be.

[i] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 249.

[ii] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 250.

[iii]  Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991) 95.

[iv] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991) 106-107.

[v] Jeffrey Eudgenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 245-246.

[vi] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991) 95.

[vii] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 490.

[viii] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 490.

[ix] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2002), 528.


Anne Dalke's picture

Arising from the Ashes: More Fluid Categories of Race and Gender

What is of course striking in your project, ebock, is your ambitious willingness to put the theories of gender and race identity into conversation w/ one another, to ask whether the fluid politics of gender played out in Middlesex might also help us imagine a way forward in the polarized racial landscape of this country. It's moving to see you imagine your cousin's life becoming that "new thing," arising from the ashes.

There's much more thinking and writing to be done in this direction, if you are interested. For starters, I'm curious about your repeated evocation of "the true self," which can be reclaimed from the dominant discourse, and relied on as source for self-representation. What's the relationship between these "essential truths" you evoke and the "fluid identities" you imagine, between the "foundational" and the "emergent"? Are they compatible? Are you re-claiming something essentialist, or refusing it?

What makes "personal truth" the ultimate guide in these re-writings of who we are? Can we trust our own experiences? Are we the best interpreters of them? See Joan Scott's "The Evidence of Experience" as a starting point on these questions, and then look @ " Linda Kauffman's “The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony, or an Infant Grifter Grows Up” for a more contemporary view...

ebock's picture

Sorting Through Experience

I've been thinking about what you say about my evocation of "essential truths" and "fluid identities." I can see how it might have been unclear what I was staking, and I'm glad you brought this to my attention. I guess what I had in mind (and unfortunately I haven't gotten all the way through Linda Kauffman's essay, but I am trying to plow my way through), is kind of like this: I see an identity like our solar system: it seems to me that there are some innate traits that we have that are genetic, constant, like the sun: in the center, immobile. Then beyond that there are some environmental experiences that come early in our lives that shape the way we think or see things. These experiences are very present in our lives and influence most of our opinions and experiences later in life.

It seems, however, that throughout our lives, we will change. I think what I was getting at in my paper is that part of the self-naming framework is that you can name yourself, but you should also accept that under that umbrella of a name, we are very rarely completely unchanged. It's not always deeply fundamental or essential, but sometimes little things change in life, or not so little things. But when I was thinking of "fluid identities," I was trying to say that our identities will always be influx: we'll change from day to day in some way or another. However, at the root of this identity there are a few characteristic traits that are unlikely to change. 

And, I think, part of what I may have neglected to raise was (which probably would have been a whole other paper now that I'm thinking of it... haha) when do we establish these characteristic traits, if we ever do (to play devil's advocate for myself)?  Some people seem to do it early in life, some take their whole life. But, I guess I'm running myself in circles, because most of my conceptualization of this topic comes from personal experience, so where does that leave me now? Oh geez! haha... 

But I will do my best to finish the Kauffman and get my hands on the Scott paper. 

Where does this all leave me? Did I just back-track a whole lot? Help!