As a teacher, I encounter and attempt to debunk essentialism whenever I see it in the minds of my students, in the world, and in myself. Here’s why.
Essentialism is, briefly, the attribution of fixed, unchanging essences to people, places, and things. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy describes it as the attempt “to distinguish between those properties of a thing, or kind of thing, that are essential to it, and those that are merely accidental.” This is akin to (biological) determinism, which the Oxford Dictionary describes thus: “The view that our genetic inheritance not only influences, but constrains and makes inevitable our development as persons with a variety of traits.”
In other words, a belief in essentialism is a belief in how people of certain types (genders, races, sexualities, etc.) have internal, unchanging, essential-to-them-being-them traits. While biological determinism only refers to those identities that are theoretically inborn, essentialism can apply to any grouping of people, not just gender/race/sexuality as named above, but also social class, religion, disability, nationality, and more.
I’ll spare you the listing of examples. I’m pretty sure everyone can come up with their own list of both good and bad traits that get attributed to identities of all sorts. As a feminist, gender essentialism especially makes my blood boil. Spare me the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” bullshit about supposedly eternal differences between the genders (as though there are only two of those to begin with!).
Essentialism is one big stereotype-generating machine. But that’s not the only reason why it’s a crappy way to interface with the world.
Taking an essentialist viewpoint about identity means that we fail to perceive the highly significant effects of culture, history, and environment. As a scholar trained to parse the intricacies of culture, I get miffed when people assume that, to return to the gender example, all men everywhere have always been the same. Um, no, gender is a social construct that varies highly by location and by time period. Even the ways that biological sex manifests can vary over time, for a variety of reasons, such that you could compare 2 people with uteruses who were born in different centuries and find that they probably don’t actually have that much in common.
And, as I’ll argue in a future post, essentialism is antithetical to secular ethics. Any sort of attempt at an ethical framework not influenced by religion must start with a recognition of our common humanity, which essentialism likes to deny by putting us into tiny boxes that separate us, invite stereotyping, and in some cases facilitate victim-blaming.
For example, if you belong to a culture that says all men are 24/7 horndogs, while women are frigid and the reluctant gatekeepers of sex, and then you also have this awesome gender construction called hegemonic masculinity that grants men access to manhood predicated on their attempts to meet impossibly high standards of manliness which would include as many (hetero)sexual conquests as possible, who gets blamed for rape? Surely not the men, who are merely acting in accordance with their inherent natures?
Screw all that noise.
Are categories useful? Of course they are. This is the essential (see what I did there?) conundrum of identity politics and social justice activism: that we must pay attention to how our identities are used to oppress us, so we can gather data and fight that oppression. You’ve got to have some sense of what gender is so you can study the gender pay gap. You’ve got to acknowledge that skin color exists, and carries with it essentialist stereotypes about value and danger, in order to look at American policing and go “Wow, WTF, let’s reform and/or abolish this nonsense.”
Do people with similar identities often share traits? Yes, duh. But again, I would hope that everyone is wearing their critical thinking skills hats and not making commonalities out to be universal truths.
It’s also bizarre to me on some intuitive level that people are drawn to this noise. Like, the thing that makes humans survive so well in varied environments is our adaptability and resiliency. And you don’t get to be adaptable and resilient if you’re literally all the same, or only come in one of two types (keeping in mind the nasty gender essentialism out there). I like studying humanity and culture precisely because there are simultaneously fascinating differences and common themes, and you can never tell quite what the ratio will be in advance.
So, please join me in rejecting essentialism whenever it crops up. It’s an inaccurate way of viewing the world that begets stereotypes like the heads of a freakin’ Hydra. And it forces us to miss out on the richness and diversity of humanity and human cultures that have been around, like, forever (and that is as close to an essentializing statement as I will get: the only rule when it comes to humans is variability and diversity).