Identity is not a t-shirt.

You can’t just pull it out of your pal’s closet & try it on for size. It is social, resonant, emergent. It is lived and lived through. I’ve been thinking about this more than usual today, thanks to The Queer Poor Aesthetic, a helpful article by Shak’ar Mujukian.

I am not queer, and I was not raised in poverty, so I will do my best here not to co-opt Mujukian’s points on those particular identities. What I do want to highlight and engage with are some of the author’s broader points about class identity:

Class is different from other identities: it’s invisible, nuanced, relative, and people generally don’t like to talk about it. This is because class is also powerful. It divides real people into the categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” of basic necessities. Poor people are socially motivated to be too ashamed—not proud—to identify as poor because of the many ramifications that accompany it, and wealthy people are uncomfortable with their desirable comfort.

Class is powerful for another reason: it shapes how we view and in turn treat groups of people. Class structurally disenfranchises and criminalizes marginalized communities: it’s how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, transphobia, misogyny, and nearly every other kind of oppression legally operate and take real form.

Mujukian’s article describes his well-off roommates/housemates who “put on” or “perform” poverty in order to fulfill certain aspects of what they see as their rightful identity. But identity (perhaps especially socioeconomic class identity) is social; it is as much about how the world sees/treats us as it is the opposite. It’s as much about the embrace of particular communities as it is our embrace of those communities. If you’re lucky enough to be able to be bored by your comfortable station– if it’s not provocative or challenging enough for you– what to do? Grab a t-shirt that was reviled in its original incarnation? What does that mean for the people who’ve nothing else to wear? (It’s a sloppy metaphor, I know.)

Perhaps this type of behaviour is to be expected from classes of people who’ve been nurtured to consider themselves uniquely vital– to see identity atomistically & acquisitively, even as they [quite fairly and humanly] yearn for acknowledgement,  community, and to be seen as “good” by others.

A key text for my graduate work is Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. As if by magic, I began reading his section on identity this morning:

The experience of identity in practice is a way of being in the world. It is not equivalent to a self-image; it is not, in its essence, discursive or reflective. We often think about our identities as self-images because we talk about ourselves and each other– and even think about ourselves and each other– in words. These words are important, no doubt, but they are not the full, lived experience of engagement in practice. I am not trying to belittle the importance of categories, self-images, and narratives of the self as constitutive of identity, but neither do I want to equate identity with those reifications. Who we are lies in the way we live day to day, not just in what we think or say about ourselves, though that too is part of the way we live. Identity in practice is defined socially not merely because it is reified in a social discourse of the self and of social categories, but also because it is produced as a lived experience of participation in specific communities. What narratives, categories, roles, and positions come to mean as an experience of participation is something that must be worked out in practice. (151)

You can’t just put it on– or can you? If I stop there, I’m closing my mind to the [infuriatingly tangled] irony of the situation: these restless atomistic seekers of marginalized aesthetics-as-identity are, inevitably, their own strange social class– just not the one they think they are. So they do put it on– likewise, they’re not wearing what they think they are. Neither are they making quaint personal “wardrobe” decisions free of social repercussions for classes of people who have less mobility & choice at their disposal.

From Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice. New York: Cambridge, 1998.