Many people claim discrimination is merely negative: “white,” for example, means “not colored,” where “colored” refers to those whose exclusion constitutes “white” as a category. On such a view discrimination has to do with artificial categories. There are academics who make even sex a social construction.
Such claims are evidently trivial or false. It is true that human concepts and language are partly conventional. To distinguish cabbages and kings has an element of choice, and to speak of “whites” we must classify some as nonwhite. However, distinctions are made because they are generally useful—in the case of race and ethnicity, because people connect in clusters and networks that help them deal with life by fostering common patterns of habit and understanding, and because those clusters and networks grow up over time and usually follow natural connections like blood relationship and physical propinquity.
Identity is important to us because it enables us to function. It tells us what we are, what other people, things, and situations are, and what actions make sense. Once classifications of identity are established, of course, they can be used, abused, and manipulated for all sorts of purposes. That can involve intentional construction, especially in a time of increasingly formalized social relations and improved techniques of manipulation. It can also involve artificially-created oppositions, since oppositions are easier to create ex nihilo and manipulate than substantive common characteristics.
None of that reflects on the nature or importance of identity. All human institutions can be used, abused, and manipulated. The claim that identity is based on exclusion reverses causality. The positive—what is constructive rather than what is constructed and what unites rather than what opposes—is normally primary.
People have lives, and the things that interest them most are the things that enable them to carry on with them. We exclude not for exclusion’s sake but to provide the local environment stable and productive patterns of life need to exist. The family, for example, has boundaries. Nonetheless, it is defined by connection and function rather than exclusion. It demands a degree of loyalty and mutual support that could hardly exist in a large and open-ended group. Exclusion is evidently secondary. Adam and Eve formed a family, as did the Swiss Family Robinson, even though there was nobody to leave out.
Beyond the family, society has always been a network of local societies, arrangements, and other networks that exist because of ordinary human needs and tendencies. They are not arbitrarily conjured into existence by drawing a line that excludes some people. Everyone is included in some such networks and excluded from others. The exclusions are affected by legal relationships, but for the most part they are less arbitrary impositions than a consequence of autonomous principles of cohesion and social functioning.
The networks and their parts grow for the most part out of elective affinities and the common memories, habits, and understandings that constitute culture and make social cooperation possible. They thus involve understandings that grow up and differ by time and place—for example, those that constitute class and ethnic identity. They may also involve natural characteristics like common ancestry, and complementary characteristics like our identity as men and women that are fundamentally natural and tie us concretely to the system of human life in all its dimensions.
Such distinctions reflect a recognition that different people have different habits, attitudes, aptitudes, loyalties, memories, and connections. None can fit in an equally easy, informal, and productive way into all of the networks of mutual recognition and dealings that made up society as a whole. “Diversity is a challenge,” as they say, and rather than try to rework everything to make the challenge disappear people mostly do what comes naturally and network with those with whom they feel at home.