Queerness as Whiteness: A Critique

Original essay: «Queerness as Whiteness» by Michelle Yuan

A Critique

It’s an old problem: Is pride in an identity not wholly one’s own (based on domination) misplaced?

Personally, I feel like the rejection of labels, including “queer” is almost the penultimate “queer” move. Worries about one’s passing, performance, purveyance are universals to identity. Identity, like beauty, is a process of the subject, not a quality of the object.

I felt myself reduced to a woman, an Asian, a queer person, or a queer Asian woman — a series of labels instead of simply a person. In claiming these labels for myself, I felt I’d lost something sacred and essentially human in me.

I don’t think that identity is internal, however; we’re identified through [interactions with] others, not some inherent property of the soul or body.

queerness is a theory, attitude and choice rooted in an ignorance of and escape from the mass of humanity.

I don’t really get this section. “Queer” as a catch-all is polymorphous, but I cannot see how attempting to disassemble historical structures of patriarchal/colonial oppression is attempting “an escape from the mass of humanity.” Maybe an escape for the mass of humanity.

I agree that “[…] young educated Americans cannot fathom how fundamentally white and western their assumptions and understanding of the world are. For many of them, identity politics is the only political action they have practiced.” But this is as much a feature of identity-as-internal-state being commodified, not necessarily that queer* philosophy is broken.

When politics is reduced to symbolic acts of consumption (the politics of US motor vehicles: a Prius vs. an F-350) then radical, material change is imperiled. Her critique of universities is valid, and one which is much discussed within the academy, not least by professors and other students whose own views and experiences lay beyond the realm of the “drop-down menu” of identities. But the US has a long history of moralizing and dismissing college students.

That students are embracing the label “queer” without a concomitant practice of radical politiecs to me is not a bad thing: it is a start. Perhaps a false-start, but there is potential.


Intersectionality, a theory which stems from identity politics and Black feminism of the 1970’s, states that ending one form of oppression requires ending all other forms of oppression. It puts forth the practice of building coalitions between organizations and communities rooted in different oppressions and seeks to unite separate struggles on the assumption that systems are interconnected and profoundly influence one another. However, it fails to complete this connection because of its fixation on individual exceptionality, and thus cannot organically unite people on the basis of our common humanity.

This is an old critique, and one that has in recent years been weaponized by the reactionary right in order to discredit identity-based programs such as affirmative action and gender quotas. Something of the academic equivalent of “reverse racism.” (See: Laurie Penny “No, Identity Politics Is Not Responsible for the Decline of the Left”)1

It would be awesome to pursue a politics of transcendence, but I do not believe such a project is possible without first campaigning on terms “set by the oppressor.” Reality cannot be declared this or that unilaterally, even by a group (imagined here to be coherent) with the ability to slaughter another (also imagined to be coherent). Reality, identity, meaning are negotiated. Not always equally, not always fairly (whatever those terms mean), but it is ongoing. That can be rejected as too Hegelian, but I am more hesitant to dismiss calls for dignity as a stumbling block. It is strictly true that a world without gender, for example, would lack sexism; but the truth of the matter is our material world is co-constituted by notions of gender.

Join the Borg

Identity politics is also known as a politics of recognition, or politics of inclusion. Those who follow identity politics organize around the right to be accepted by the ruling hegemony. They cannot seriously theorize a new system in which all people are free, which transcends the dominant structures and principles we have been given and therefore in which identity categories would no longer be relevant.  — Yuan

This point is incredibly important. Is it really progress if “Half of all drone operators who blow up children in Yemen are now women!”?

It is not enough to merely have a “diverse” group of oppressors, the system that undergirds such suffering must be changed. The presidency of Barack Obama did not suddenly “end racism” in housing loans, nor anywhere else.

Assimilation Equals Death, San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade 2013
Assimilation = Death is not an uncommon sentiment amongst marginalized groups. Not all lives are “digestible” into the liberal conception of politics.

The danger with such a powerful critique, one that challenges a very deep assumption of identity-based notions of progress, is that it is easily oversubscribed. It is a bit of a simplification to say that the Civil Rights movement in the US was merely seeking “to be accepted by the ruling hegemony,” because while that statement is accurate, that was not and is not the only goal of “liberational” movements for human2 rights.

There is always danger of co-option by the status quo. There is the potential for the system to corrupt well-intentioned individuals. Philosophically, there is no absolute guard against this, other than being mindful and constantly aware and evaluative towards the effect of one’s actions.

Whiteness… = Queerness..?

Whiteness is not defined just by skin color, but also by how one relates to oneself and the rest of the world’s people. Whiteness characterizes a deep nihilism and an infantile urge to be superior to the rest of humanity. It fails to see and respond to reality, and fearfully recoils from the truths of white and Western civilization. It manifests as inescapable despair, an existential lack of purpose and direction.

This seems more like wordplay than actual critique to me. “Discourse” or “the system” here are replaced by “whiteness.” Which I sympathize with, even if I think it is somewhat disingenuous to subsitute one word for another and call that analysis.

Yuan goes on to compare DuBois asking “What is whiteness, that one should so desire it?” with the current “trendiness” of queer identity. This I do take issue with: it is not wordplay to suggest that queerness is an empty identity that can be equivocated with whiteness. Whiteness, in the United States, is the condition of being always-already read as being deserving of one’s humanity: support for drug addiction; access to loans; lesser prison sentences; etcetera etcetera.

To be white is to enjoy a certain set of systemic advantages. There are none of these for queers*, for the trans women murdered by their lovers, or the suicide epidemic amongst trans youth. Genderqueer individuals are overrepresented in poverty statistics, and face humongous hurdles to exist. This cannot be minimized as “a choice” they made to become a privileged group.

I know what the author means by “advantages accrued to queerness.” I went to university in Seattle, one of the most fabulously queer cities in the US. There is a certain social capital that is given to those with “legitimately queer” identities or expressions. The number of youth who do not identify as “straight” has risen.[3 Queer is cool, perhaps through a similarly appropriative process as black* cultures cool being adopted by white audiences. (Frat parties, though hugely white and pretty racist, listen to a lot of black musicians at parties.)

The “cool” factor for queerness at Uni is real, I will say that. But being cool in undergrad is not the same thing as possessing systemic power on a transnational level.

Internal vs. External Identity

Of all the identity categories, queer identity is the most pervasive and authoritative among young educated people today. It is not an identity that one is born into, but rather, a framework that one can select for oneself. It is a moral choice. For many individuals, it is not a direct reflection of one’s sexual orientation, but rather an attitude toward oneself and society that is believed to be transgressive. [emphasis added]

This seems rather dismissive of, well, the entire community. Of course there are some people who wield the label of “queer” disingenuously, but they do not, through their actions, disqualify or denigrate the entire community. This sort of blanket-statement, that all queer people have chosen it as a moral stance is dangerously oversimplistic. I can hear Milo or Ben Shapiro easily tossing these lines out. (No links to either of those dolts.)

I am imagining the way in which some “straight” acting men can use the “queer” label to be predatory, perhaps the example of the “genderqueer” pop singer Børns. Or exemplified by the SNL skit “Girl at a Bar” where a steady stream of men proclaim “I’m not a typical gross guy” before hitting on her and then proceed to ask for sex, upon rejection: “Bitch!”.4 These people do exist, and that is an issue. But it’s not an issue with queerness.

Funnily enough, Leon Wieseltier wrote an articlein 1994 called «Against Identity» that supports a few of the assertions Yuan makes in her article. My biggest issue is not with Yuan’s rejection of identity politics (which have indeed become more performance than praxis in many cases) but with her casual equivocation of queer identity with a futile reification of colonial patriarchy. Those are bold claims, which I do not thing she makes with sufficient backing argument. I think it would be possible to make such an argument, provided the scope were qualified, and identities’ material being/production was also addressed.

“Private identity is an oxymoron. Identity is public; it is how one is known. Secret identity, by contrast, is entirely possible. It is not a reflection of inward realities, but of outward realities.”

Elie Wieseltier, «Against Identity»

Where queer* may be taken up indulgently by modern US university students (who I am convinced are the unacnkowledged cast of Yuan’s argument), it is also a public identity. There are risks to appearing too “mixed” in gender presentation. There is a risk for bodies read as male in painting their nails: violence at the hands of other men. This is a material fact, an intrustion of the world into the imagined-private world of identity.

Radical Potential

I agree with the author that calling oneself “queer” is not enough to enact the necessary change that the world needs to see. Yuan has many good points, and I like her writing. Where I disagree with her, however, is in the equivocation of queerness with whiteness, and the dismissal of pride in producing radical change. We will not abolish gender by complaining that «The Second Sex» by Beauvoir is too caught up in a traditional gender binary. But we can remove the material imbalances that the immaterial assignation of gender creates, through things like the Equal Rights Act or gender discrimination laws.

We can argue for the innate humanity of everyone, regardless of their status in historically-inherited binaries (or spectra, as with US racial imaginaries). This does not mean that we accept the logics of oppression, even if it may in theory seem to reify those logics. The future is pluripotent, but it is not free from history any more than we are; we cannot will oppression away without addressing the material and discursive systems that support it.

I would love to live in a world where every being’s innate worth were recognized, but never where “human” was the only identity. A single possibility, even one so nebulously broad as “human,” is still a rather strict limit on our vast potential. Cultures are nearly infinitely fractal: subcultures within subcultures within subcultures. For any group of interest-bound (or otherwise historically tied) humans, there are ever-smaller denominations that splinter within. It’s not even antagonistic: it’s the beauty of our individual humanity. Resolving individuality may remove friction (violence, domination), but I do not think it is either a practical or humane way to do so.

A “true individual” would be a roundish grey lump. A being with zero categorizeable traits or identities could, by definition, resemble nothing that currently exists. The flip side of that ridiculous proposition are beings who are infinitely named, placed: the fully meta-data tagged individual, who can never change because the labels are perfectly generated.

There is potential in claiming labels for oneself, for the labels come with a long and heavy history. But their future is up to those who wield it, who reclaim and shape its use and materiality, forging ahead.

Further Readings

  • Linda Martín Alcoff «The Future of Whiteness»
  • Judith Butler «Gender Trouble»
  • Kristen Ghodsee «Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism» (review coming here soon)
  • Leon Wieseltier «Against Identity»

  1. Also entirely worth reading is her “On the Milo Bus With The Lost Boys of America’s New Right While Milo may be disgraced, TPUSA and other groups continue to operate and recruit from the large pool of disaffected “doomer” young men in the US. 

  2. Human rights” also to encompass right to land, to healthy ecosystems, to dignity, to a future of potential rather than perpetually circumscribed domination. 

  3. I imagine this panics the fearful fundamentalists even more than the trend of millenials no longer thinking capitalism is the best thing since Cthulu to consume the lifeworld. 

  4. And the stellar fantastic glampop song from Studio Killers «All Men Are Pigs»