What is a thing, and what is not. II. Bad abstractions

Black people are a thing. Gay people are a thing. Are straight white people a thing, or just the reification of a negative – the set of people who aren’t black or gay, whether or not they have anything else in common? Redheads are a thing. Are non-redheads a thing? Women are certainly a thing – but then, so are men.

It would seem we need to figure out what is and what is not a thing. Perhaps we can at least agree at the outset that a thing which is essentially a non-thing is not ipso facto a thing. Non-redheads, perhaps we can agree, are not a thing. But men are not just non-women, and vice versa. Are white people a thing, or are they just the intersection of the sets non-black, non-Asian, non-Latino, non-indigenous, etc. – a purely algebraic concept? This is actually a question of some importance.

One might as well drop the Socratic pose here, and come clean. I don’t believe “white people” are a thing, and I don’t believe “straight people” are a thing. There are people, of course, who are what is commonly called “white” – i.e., they aren’t categorized as anything else; and there are, of course, people who are “straight” – i.e., they don’t have same-sex sex, or not very often, anyway. But while “black” and “gay” are identities, as that term is commonly used and understood, “white” and “straight” are not. Identity, in the current social sense, is created by a sort of carving-off; it is conferred by distinction and separation, and in great part, as a matter of fact, by injury. These acts of carving-off don’t reflexively confer an identity on the people not carved off, however. They remain on the outside of identity, looking into it. They have no identity. They’re just ordinary Joes and Janes.

One thought on “What is a thing, and what is not. II. Bad abstractions

  1. A side note: Of course there are people who believe that there is such a thing as a “white race”, and that they belong to it. They’re mistaken, of course, but the right way to enlighten them lies in the critique of the idea of race itself, and the history of its construction.

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