What’s the difference between identifying as and being?

I’m not sure I know, myself. I don’t think I use the verb “identify as” very much. I guess I would use it if there were some kind of ambiguity or doubt or complication? Like, someone who grew up in the US but moved to the UK or vice versa – I could make sense of people saying, in that context, “I identify as [American/British] now because it’s been long enough” or alternatively “I still identify as [British/American] because it seems to be ineradicable.”

So “identify as” implies a certain level of will, of choice, of change or adoption or declaration, or else of failure to accomplish it. Yes? Whereas being doesn’t, by itself, although of course you can be things by choice – a fan, a practitioner, an adherent. But if you say “I’m a socialist” there’s no point in saying “I identify as a socialist” because the choice is already present in the word “socialist.”

There’s a little min-trend to complain about identity politics at the moment, so one might as well try to figure out what people mean by it. I did that several years ago while reading Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence and Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity, but I’m not sure the conversation is talking about the same kind of identity now.

One thing I think we all know pretty well: there are some things we can’t “identify as” without also being them. I don’t get to “identify as” Sioux or Zulu or Japanese, because I’m not any of those things and it’s appropriation to pretend I am. Ontology determines what we can “identify as”…except when it doesn’t. The exact nature of the rules that determine that is somewhat opaque.

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