July 24, 2010 12:30 am

Who Are We

Who Are We – and Should It Matter in the 21st Century?, by Gary Younge, Viking, RRP£14.99, 256 pages

At the last US presidential election, Democratic party members could have chosen as their candidate a 5ft 6in Methodist graduate of Wellesley College or a 6ft 1in member of the United Church of Christ from Columbia University. These differences may strike you as insignificant compared to the fact that one candidate was a black man and the other a white woman. Both were unique individuals, and to think of them in terms of their height, denomination and alma mater – or of their colour, nationality, religion, sex, sexuality or class – would be ridiculous and offensive.

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Yet race and gender surely were significant factors in the race for the White House. Clinton’s décolletage even became a campaign news story, when she was accused of showing too much of it. However, according to a study cited by Gary Younge in his absorbing and thoughtful discussion of identity, a 6in height difference on average means the taller person earns $166,000 more over 30 years, making a greater difference than gender. And since 1900, taller candidates have won presidential elections 19 out of 28 times. So why are gender and race politically important, but shortness is not? Why is height not a major marker of identity?

The battle between Clinton and Obama is just one of the stories on which Younge hangs his absorbing reflections on the complexities and contradictions of identity. He visits a divided Belgium where, in Flanders, he is told (in English) by the mayor of Merchtem that being in a municipal office one must speak Dutch, not French. He charts the evolution of the Rose of Tralee competition, whose shifting criteria for eligibility reflect how what it means to be a paradigm of young Irish womanhood has transformed in a generation. There is also, inevitably, discussion of being Muslim in Britain, as well as autobiographical reflections on being a Hitchin-born, Stevenage-raised son of Barbadian parents.

Younge steers a course between two unacceptable extremes: the naive denial that identity matters and the dangerous assertion that it matters above all else. Most of the ideas he puts forward have been formulated elsewhere, as his quotations from the likes of Stuart Hall, Alasdair MacIntyre and Amartya Sen attest. But what Younge’s book achieves which more academic treatises do not is that it makes the abstract concrete, showing us rather than just telling us how identity matters in the lives of people around the world.

For instance, people often latch on to certain identities because they lack a sense of belonging that membership of an identifiable community brings. Younge brings this to life with the story of two British-born daughters of Pakistani parents who felt Pakistani until they actually went to Pakistan, but could not feel British in a country that did not seem to embrace them. Now, they voluntarily wear the hijab, even though their mother and sister do not. “Not a religious revival,” notes Younge, “but an establishment of identity.”

Younge offers no glib solutions, which is a welcome change from the various proposals that have been knocked around about how we should forge an inclusive British identity. But identities are not something that we should try to forge, or suppress. Our identities are plural, and so it is always wrong to think that there is one, such as religion or nationality, which somehow captures our essence. And as Younge says, so many problems are caused because groups set themselves up as the gatekeepers of particular identities, determining who is and is not allowed to hold them. We will only be able to stop talking about identity as a political problem when we have found a way to allow people to be whoever they want to be, in whatever way they want to be. Younge’s book might just help us do that.

Julian Baggini is the author of ‘Complaint’ (Profile)

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