Smaller Identities

I became a minority at the age of 12. It wasn’t a good experience. The Autobiography of Malcolm X became a formative text. Identity is how I came into politics. I often refer to the process as a first liberation. It gave language to my experience. Nothing was wrong with me or my people. We were all victims of a system of oppression - the problem was structural, not individual.

Identity remains a major path into political consciousness and the struggle for liberation. This is especially true for historically oppressed groups - people of color, women, queer folks, migrants,  refugees, etc. When certain identities are made invisible, or even worse, when they are violently oppressed and aggrieved, then it becomes empowering to name ourselves, our dignity and our existence.

But the process is also a burden. It tends to reduce the rich complexity of our humanity to the singular identity that we are forced to defend and uphold. Dialogue becomes fraught with tension, language itself becomes oppressive, fundamentalisms emerge, possibility is limited.

Paul Graham is not a minority. He is the opposite of that. He is the middle aged white guy who made it at silicon valley. He gets to write a provocative essay called “Keep Your Identity Small.” It is tempting to look at his identity and proceed to dismiss his words. But privilege doesn’t only give you access to things and opportunities, it also gives you access to ideas that might be unthinkable to those who lack it. I was provoked and engaged by his words:

Graham’s words:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan...

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Those of us who lack Paul Graham’s privilege must contend with greater complexity. It is not as easy for us to “let as few things into [our] identity as possible.” But it would also be a mistake to dismiss him outright.

Yes, we need to strive for the freedom to uphold the dignity of who we are against the invisibility and aggression imposed by dominant culture.

But we must also carve out the freedom to hold our identities more losely, to make them smaller when that is possible, to facilitate dialogue by suspending our defensive stance, to let go of the rigid fundamentalisms that are calcifying around our politics.

This is what it means to thrive through complexity. It means holding two seemingly opposing stances long enough for something new to emerge.


Evolution is not only about who we are. Evolution is also about who we are becoming.