Negational identity is a technical term for the process by which we identify ourselves and others at points when our own, core identities are still unformed. And as anyone who’s spent time with teenagers — or remembers his or her own teenage self — can tell you, we do that not according to the things we are and like but according to everything we aren’t, and can’t quite stomach: In the Us-vs.-Them world of human affairs, we seem to base our alliances on traits we don’t actually possess.
Take politics, for instance. As we all know, an overwhelming majority of black voters preferred Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, while Asians and Latinos broke for Hillary Clinton. Now researchers at the University of Toronto suggest that Obama could have gotten more votes among non-black non-whites if he’d put more stress on his own non-whiteness. When Asians and Latinos were asked about their identity in positive, affirmative terms, they felt a strong affinity for the other, non-black candidate — i.e., Clinton. On the other hand, Asians and Latinos who were asked questions about not being white were reminded of their negational identity, and were far more likely to vote for Obama. Putting a new spin on the old Bob Dylan tune, they didn’t love the candidate for what he was; they liked him more for what he wasn’t.
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