Many of us have various different labels to which we ascribe. I identify as a WOC, womanist, unwife, mother, daughter, sister, friend etc and etc. Some are identities that I was born into and others are those that I have purposely taken on. The ability to choose how one will be understood is an expression of privilege that we give little thought to. We see this as a basic human right that any sentient being should be able to decide what roles and or labels that they take on in life.
This so-called “right” is not universally applicable. Even though I view the labels that I have chosen to own as my part of rights as a sentient adult human being, there are those that would seek to apply limitations to my autonomy. As is well known the unhusband is white. There are those that feel that by choosing to pair inter-racially that I have somehow defected from my race, thus reducing my ability to fully own the status of a WOC.
Though we claim to view the category of race is static, such is not necessarily the case. Michelle Obama recently spoke about being called a white girl for her pursuit of an education. The idea that race equals behaviour means that unless one conforms to what the social construction of what is assumed to constitute blackness, or in this case black femininity, one is necessarily assumed to have rejected this identity in favour of taking on the characteristics of whiteness. As part of the discipline the person is often held up to ridicule as clearly it is not possible for a WOC to be in the physical sense white.
It is irrelevant that the individual in question may be performing the behaviour to achieve a certain goal or derive some sort of pleasure, what matters is that said behaviour has socially been understood to belong to a different group. When we take it upon ourselves to reject the identity of another, or demand that they accept another label, we are using a form of social privilege to express power.
Much of our activities involve power. Our understanding of power as coercive is directly responsible for our continual desire to oppress and rank bodies according to socially constructed ideas of importance. When a trans woman is called a man despite identifying 100% as a woman, this is an expression of not only cisgender privilege but an affirmation of the fact that power can be used to create strict boundaries of inclusion or exclusion. When a cisgender person declares that a trans person is not the gender to which they have identified, demanding an alternative identity and or label is an assertion of the cisgender persons ability to label based in power. The ability to name and or label contrary to the wishes or understanding of another, is just one of the many ways in which power negatively manifests in our society.
Naming or labelling creates out groups within society. When someone is stigmatized they become a problematized body and therefore; those in power are able to justify their bigotry and victim blame. For some, the issues of African Americans would be solved if we would all simply consent to owning our second class status and play the “happy sambo”. Whiteness would not have to confront the ways in which they benefit from our diminishment therefore leading supposedly to a more peaceful society. The same is true of our understanding of the plight of transwomen; some cisgender women believe that if transwoman would deny their gender identity, those of us with privilege would be able to continue in our hegemony peacefully. In this sense, power is used to discipline the problematized body into silence.
When a problematized body declares their identity, it is an expression of autonomy and this is specifically why it is challenged by more privileged bodies. It is assumed that unless you exist with undeserved privilege that on should not exist with the right to self identify as there can be no more poignant recognition of a person than a validation of personal agency. The ability to say “I am” confers upon the speaker a sense of self worth that is counter to a society that is built upon power as a form of oppression. When we speak about privilege, we cannot divorce it from power and how we understand it. If we are constantly seeking power and validation as a method to affirm value, it then becomes necessary for a shift in conversation wherein power can be understood as a creative force. Until we can make that mental leap we will continue to desire the reduction of others to achieve a sense of self worth. “I am” is a necessary quality in a free society because each person deserves to be valued.