Prioritization of people’s background and identity over individuals themselves is a major problem here in the United States. Character, ideas and contributions are undervalued compared to people’s backgrounds. Before our names and our humanity, we are our race, ethnicity or gender. We are “the Turk,” “the black guy” or “the Asian girl.”
Often, to people from other parts of the world, it is unclear how personal stories have immense importance in the U.S., as in their countries, such stories are often deemed irrelevant and unnecessary, especially in official contexts such as university or job applications. But here, people are primarily perceived through information about their background and identity, and outsiders try to situate others’ actions within groups of stereotypes. Thus, stereotypes end up shaping expectations of how others’ personal lives are probably like. The only way to combat this would be the denormalization of stereotypes, which leads me to wonder: Was this the reason that led to the popularity of personal stories in every context of life, or was it because identities were valued over personal stories, and because people were trying to classify certain individuals using those identities — for example, for the purposes of diversity percentages?
Identities are supposed to exist to make people feel like they belong and to enable them to identify themselves with certain communities within society. But where do we draw the line? When should this classification be considered a community definition, and when should it be considered a division of society and humanity? Is it not important to remember that classification can lead to the fracture of humanity and cause us to undervalue the decency that all communities and, more importantly, individuals have in common with each other? And furthermore, does not the accentuation of identity hurt our own personal realities that include circumstances other than the typical ones of our community? Should every personal story and experience always include identity and background factors? Is not a person so much more than how we classify them according to their story?
Some people raised in this system of separation tend to interpret everything they are exposed to within the framework of this limited perception. For example, I had written a column on democracy and populism pointing out how ideas get overshadowed by the number of people supporting them. I had a reader defend the legitimacy of American democracy, who assumed my criticism of the system was targeted at the United States and thus centered their argument on the U.S. and its Constitution — perhaps reading the column in a certain way that would give them more space to defend their point.
First, in response to their piece: It is important to note that although the U.S. Constitution was built upon democratic ideals and was influenced by the greatest thinkers of history, this would and should not change the fact that neither democracy’s original design and principles nor current democratic practice in the U.S. delivers the equity promised. For minority groups, defined both in terms of identity and of ideas advocated, it is harder to make good use of tools in a democracy.
Returning to the author, though: More essentially, they had not noticed that the word “minority” in my piece meant the group of people advocating for less popular ideas, those vulnerable to neglect in democracy as a result of its design. The very fact that they immediately assumed that a “minority” was defined by skin color or other physical or cultural identifying features (when not a single word in the original column had mentioned anything in this sense), instead of views, is evidence that they clearly see people as being defined by race and ethnicity. And unfortunately, on a global scale, education systems and prominent universities do not ensure that people have the capacity to comprehend other perspectives, and thus one may appear to have lists of titles and honors and may still be unable to discern the essential meaning of an article.
It is also worth noting that courses on underrepresented groups, such as history courses on minorities and women, receive criticisms from the author — for the wrong reasons. The real problem is that in the status quo, for these groups to be included in the historical narrative — where they had as important and as unique ideas — we always need to specify their minority status instead of giving them the places they deserve in the normal course of history.
Perceiving people based only on their ethnicity, race, gender or any community they belong to results in prejudiced human beings. There was a time in summer school when I was called by my country’s name and not by my own name. People end up assuming certain facts about communities, which results in the deterioration of self and in the differentiation of human beings from each other. A certain anonymous commenter on this site, for example, once accused me of being a denier of the Armenian genocide, a very common indictment that Turkish people receive. What they of course did not know was the fact that I am actually half Armenian. Not only did they assume that I was Turkish because I came from Turkey, but they also assumed that every Turkish person is a denier: all because of statistics, and all because they value the majority over reality — thus showing an example of my earlier criticism of putting numbers over ideas.
The prioritization of background and identity over the individual has resulted in prejudice, unsubstantiated hatred and attacks solely based on background and not individuals’ ideas, arguments and work. I am glad that the comments I received have reminded me the toxicity of how fractured we are becoming as a species.
Contact Gülin Ustabaş at gulinu ‘at’ stanford.edu.