A refrain that I've heard again and again -- primarily from white, or male, or heterosexual progressives in response to identity-based organizing -- is that "identity politics" is counter-productive, and distracts us from the real issue, which often, in their opinion, boils down to class warfare. The alleged fragmentation of "the left" into identity-groups is often blamed for impeding our progress. At best, they argue, identity is a "distraction," and, at worst, a cynical tool of manipulation. The "neutral" position -- consciously or unconsciously -- assumes that the majority group (white, male, and/or heterosexual) is normative (the standard), by which the behavior and ideas of all other groups should be judged.
First of all, I want to say this is an essay about pragmatics, and not theory. Theory is wonderful and important, and I write about it all the time, but that's not what I want to talk about now. I want to talk about some myths that are impeding our progress as progressives. We've indulged them for a long time, but we have to put a stop to them now if we want an ice cube's chance in hell of organizing to oust the Republicans. And I'm going to use examples from my own life, because I think you'll probably be able to identify with them better than with theoretical examples.
Much has been written about "identity politics," and I'm not going to try to recapitulate it here. I will say, though, that if you're not familiar with the various schools of thought on identity politics, you'll likely miss some of the nuances of the essay, since I'm discussing a common reaction to a frequently misunderstood phenomenon. Hence, I suggest that you turn to the very good article on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need background for the discussion. I don't entirely agree with the author, but the article provides an excellent theoretical overview of the uses and the problems of identity.
I want to start with the assertion that there isn't a single one of us who doesn't define ourselves based on both conscious and unconscious, and chosen and imposed, identities. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, "We are who we think we are, so we must be very careful who we think we are." I don't care if your primary identifications include "left-hander," "African American," "Catholic," "gay," "Irish," "Muslim," "geek," "middle child," "Marxist," "sports fan," or "normal guy/gal." We all have identities, and multiple identities at that. Seriously, who can fit themselves into just one or two simple categories and be satisfied? Individually, we all want our personhood acknowledged from our head down to our smallest toe.
And each of us who admits to having (multiple) identities, must also acknowledge that those identities are shaped by at least two forces: how others see us (stereotyping, or definition from outside), and how we envision ourselves. If we're honest, we have to admit that there's a chicken & egg problem with these two identities -- they are often so intertwined it's impossible to fully separate the inside from the outside. In short, we may have some innate sense of who we are, but we don't have the ability to control how we are perceived and what interpretations are imposed on us, and those outside impositions affect our sense of ourself -- the who we eventually become.
Identity draws us to people we perceive and believe are like us. This is neither essentialist, or determinist -- a female person may identify more with men than women because her sense of connection to the traits that culturally define men are stronger than her connection to the traits that culturally define women. Let's call it "the Tomboy phenomenon." All of us have seen it, and some of us have been it. Inwardly, she "feels like" one of the boys -- she likes what they like and does what they do. And the boys may even perceive her as more similar to them than different, because they pay more attention to the "boyish" nature of her identity, than they do to the actual, but not necessarily relevant, sexual division. At this moment, gender trumps sex. But... Tomboys don't operate in a vacuum. Instead, they operate in a world where they are likely to be told (especially when they approach puberty), in many and varied ways, in various tones of vehemence and approbation, that they are "girls" and should act like girls. It brings about a kind of Tomboy cognitive dissonance -- you feel like you're one thing, but you're expected to be -- and you are treated like -- you're someone else entirely.
I had, for example, a moment like that in my first semester of college, when a complete (male) stranger came up to me in the cafeteria and told me, "You walk like a man." It was voiced as an insult, and said in a sharp and dismissive tone of voice. I had this moment of weird disorientation: I'm a woman, and I'm walking, so I am a woman walking -- how is this walking like a man? It made me feel bad, and it made me angry, and it was the specific impetus to taking my first women's studies course: Feminism 101, taught by Bettina Aptheker. In short, at the moment I was suddenly and unfairly attacked by someone else's attempt to impose the definition of who I should be, I realized identity politics was a viable option. I'd never given much conscious thought to being a woman, but I needed to find out what the hell was going on, and it was women's studies courses that were going to tell me. Certainly none of my other courses had.
Understand, at that point I was a man-identified woman. My dad was a world famous athlete and I inherited his strength, speed & more than a little of his physique. I'd been working out since I was nine, and at 18 I could easily bench press most of the guys I knew. I'd started studying karate at 12, and my Sensei (who took me as a student because he knew my father, even though I was a girl) believed in lots and lots of fingertip push-ups. I wasn't burly and didn't "look like" a guy, but I moved like a lifelong athlete moves, and I'd never worn heels in my life, and loathed skirts and anything pink or frilly. I thought I walked like a person, but, apparently, that wasn't the case: I walked like a man.
As I studied feminism and the history of women, I came to realize that I'd had two choices growing up. One was the path that I took: adopting the male perspective and the male gaze. The other would have been "accepting" stereotypical femininity as my birthright, and reshaping myself internally to conform to what was expected of me. I might have -- like most women -- done the latter, except that my mother never liked women very much, and clearly valued stereotypical male traits, and possessed them in abundance. Again, it didn't have to do with her looks -- my dad the famous athlete married a real beauty, although I rarely saw her in make-up or dresses either. It had to do with her orientation -- my mom was a strong rationalist, hated sentimentality of any sort, didn't have a maternal bone in her body, valued stoicism and physical strength (she lifted weights, too), and dealt with situations with a kind of ruthless pragmatism that made her an automatic leader of men. She had a passle of younger brothers and I don't think one could stand against her. But despite her competence, she'd been passed over by her father, and the family business was handed to her next youngest brother, so she resented being female with a vengeance.
Thus, we are created. As a result of the complexities of being raised in a mixed-race extended family in the 1960s-70s, in college I sought out courses taught by brilliant black radical Marxist sociologists (not in short supply in those days!) and embraced the theory and practice of anti-racism, and I was also studying feminism and women's history. I was trying to sort out my attraction to both butch women and to men in an environment where lesbian separatism or "normal" heterosexuality were prescribed as my only two options. In addition, I was wrestling with being the child of two secular Jews, very aware of Holocaust history and the story of the founding of Israel, at the same time I was horrified at Jewish treatment of Palestinians. In short, I was a compendium of clashing identities and orientations. So I was well aware of the sexism of black male radicals, the racism of white feminists and Jews, and the heterosexism of virtually everyone except the lesbian separatists who rejected me because I wasn't queer enough.
Yes, it was confusing navigating the seas of identity-politics, but it was also extraordinary helpful -- it made me a progressive who could see the value in multiple struggles, all happening simultaneously, all with their own unique perspective, but sharing the goal of expanding civil and human rights, reducing suffering, and alleviating inequity. And in all the years I've worked in these different struggles, my biggest problems have been with the folks who couldn't name, consciously, the identities they inhabit, and who thus blamed outsiders whom they believed engaged in "identity politics" for causing trouble and dissent in the ranks.
Up until "Whiteness Studies" reared its head in the late 1980s, "ethnicity" was -- even among progressives -- primarily attributed to non-white folks, and occasionally to the recently white (like the Irish, Jews & Italians). I even remember feeling a little bad for the white guys who hung out in radical identity-based circles, because it seemed -- to "us" and to "them" -- like they were some sort of flavorless vanilla pudding, tepid and without charm. Whiteness was equated with racelessness -- it was normative, something that went without saying. It contrasted sharply with the heady spice of black masculinity or the macho strut of La Raza; a difference emphasized in every Hollywood production where the white protagonist had a black or brown buddy written into the script to "hipnify" him. Even as a radical feminist & anti-racist, I wasn't pushed to think about whiteness as an identity until essays started popping up here and there in the late 1980s, and were codified in Peggy McIntosh's work. When I coupled those works with readings by African American writers like bell hooks & Barbara Smith, and mestiza writers like Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa, I started to understand how the definition of whiteness as a "non-identity" (normative) benefited white people, and allowed them (us!) to sidestep the fact that -- of all the identity-based cultures -- ours is absolutely the most powerful.
Oppressive maleness I'd instinctively understood, even as a young girl, when I battled for the freedoms awarded "naturally" to boys, and withheld from girls. I understood it even better when a college professor conducted an easily duplicated experiment in which she divided the class into four parts and instructed the first part to write down "masculine qualities & characteristics," the second part to write down "feminine qualities & characterstics," the third part to write down a list of "adult characteristics," and the fourth part to write down a list of "immature and negative characteristics." She then collected all the lists from the individual students and compiled them. We were shocked -- though you probably aren't -- to find that the masculine and the adult overlapped almost entirely, while the feminine was much more closely aligned to the negative and immature. In short: adult human being = male. Seeing that made it easier for me to understand what was happening when researchers started discovering and publishing results that revealed similar beliefs about racial difference. It hit me hard, then, that the occupation of the "normative" is actually a strong statement of perceived superiority.
This is why I (and so many other anti-racists, and a large majority of African Americans) get so impatient with white people, including self-professed allies, who insist that they are "color blind". Not having to think about gender or color is a privilege in a culture that consistently degrades you for being what you are (or what people think you are). In other words, it's easy to ignore gender or race or sexual orientation when no one is standing there calling you identity-based names, when no one is insisting you should, or will behave in the stereotypical ways they expect you to behave, and when no one is denying you opportunities because of who they think you are. This is why, when well-meaning white and/or male folks bring up the "color-blind" or "gender-blind" meme, they get reprimanded by people who wear their identity on their sleeves. White folks wear their identity, too, but for the most part we think everyone should politely pretend not to see it, at the same time we naturalize the unearned privileges in confers. But whiteness isn't neutrality -- it's power. I don't care how powerless a white person you think you are -- if you add a brown skin to the mix, you're almost always going to be relatively disadvantaged.
And don't think you can sidestep by claiming race doesn't "really" exist. Of course it's constructed, but that doesn't mean it's not "real" enough to get you killed. Folks who want to pretend that "constructed" isn't "real" should take a lesson from the story of the three very famous, well-respected, and well-off African American Studies professors who presented their research to a packed-to-the-rafters house of colleagues at the MLA Conference in Chicago some years ago. After waiting a fruitless hour on the street, they wound up physically chasing cabs down the street, shouting the title of their panel: "Black is Just a Trope! Black Is Just A Trope!" Well, yeah, it is a trope, but it's a trope that in some necks of the woods, will still find you swinging on the other end of a rope. Just because a wall is "constructed," don't mean you can walk through it.
This has been a busy couple of months for those who have been attempting to raise progressive consciousness about race -- we had the RainbowFraud Incident, and the ArthurPoet HateFest, and both of those characters received far too much support, and were the recipients of far too many "explanations" and excuses from members of the DK community who were all too happy to jump on the "We white people is oppressed by your claims of oppression!" bandwagon. So I'm going to suggest something that might be painful, but will probably be enlightening, to those white (and/or male) progressives who earnestly feel that identity politics is something that threatens "our" progressive movement. Us white folks need to take a good, hard look at our skin color and realize that it doesn't rub off either -- like it or not, we're the recipients of privileges we didn't earn. And that's true even if we don't feel very privileged -- if we're poor, or abused, or frustrated in our ability to accomplish our goals. If our skin was a darker color, however bad off we already are, we'd have it worse. Same goes for you guys -- you think your life is tough? Well, it may well be. But it would be tougher if you had different hardware between your legs. I'm just sayin...
So what does it mean if we white progressive folks admit we have a race, and cop to also participating in identity-politics? Well, for one thing, it can help make us responsible users, rather than abusers of our privilege. RadioGirl wrote a beautiful diary yesterday about her decision to become a race traitor -- to become a white person who actively works to subvert white privilege and to restore the rights of people of color. If you don't admit your race, and the impact it has on your identity, you can't do the work that needs to be done to restore equity. For another thing, it frees us from being defensive about things we can't do anything about (like our skin color), and allows us to focus on the things we can change, like discriminatory practices and unjust laws. We all need to riff a little on Fear of a Black Hat and sing a little chorus of "I'm white, y'all, I'm white, I'm white, I'm white!" Only then can we get out there and work to change what being white means.
And we can also quit being all freaked out about other people's identity-based politics. Progressive movements need identity-based politics -- we need activists for whom the personal is political, and vice versa. We need people who believe that our search for justice is not separate from who and what we are, and we need to recognize that just as our identities are different, the causes into which we're willing to throw ourselves are different. I don't have much intense personal investment in saving the rainforests, although I surely believe it's a damned good idea. But when the bulldozers come to roll over that forest, I am deeply grateful that there are people who are passionate enough about this aspect of saving the planet to be out there fighting that fight. I depend on them to be fighting that fight, so I can be standing here at the barricades that I need to be standing at. I don't think that class issues are less important than race issues, or that gender issues take a back seat to any other cause, but I can't be fighting every fight at the same time, and neither can you. We progressives need to trust each other to know what the hell we're talking about. I'm not going to try to tell a Save the Rainforest guy or gal, who has devoted 30 years to studying rainforest ecology, that their expert opinion isn't as valid as my relatively uninformed belief. And, likewise, I expect my Save the Rainforest, or my There's No War But the Class War allies, to listen respectfully when I point out that they unintentionally showed their ass on the topic of race and gender, and to respect my expertise and my long years of dedicated activism on the topics. If a whole bunch of ecologists are telling you you're being a dope about your ecological science, you'd listen. Likewise, if a whole bunch of black and brown progressives with lifetimes of experience dealing first-hand with racism, and with fighting prejudice & racism, tell you that you need to check your shit... you should shut up, sit down, and check it. I'm an expert, and I still shut up, sit down and check it when I'm told, because I understand that being wrong is part of the process of evolving. And later, if hear other progressives making the same mistakes I did about rainforest ecology, I'm going to correct them, just as you should never -- after having your consciousness raised -- let racist or sexist or homophobic or able-ist bullshit slide. If we don't have each others backs, we're done.
If you are out there trying to expand people's access to rights and freedoms, you are my ally. And I am yours. When you forget that, when you want to elevate your "class" struggle over my "race" struggle, etc., then we wind up canceling each others good works out, instead of augmenting them. Just like every individual has multiple identities, we, as progressives, need to be working along multiple lines of identity-based, passionate activism. If we clutch the vestiges of our privilege -- white, male, straight, monied, able -- because we feel defensive -- we will lose. We will do exactly what the right wing wants us to do, and what they have been urging us to do ever since there has been a right-wing -- we will destroy each other and ourselves. Privilege is a zero-sum game -- I can't have them without taking something away from somebody. But rights... rights are something different -- everyone except the small group of corporatists & dictators & the obscenely wealthy gain tremendously from the acknowledgment and protection of rights. And that's what progressivism is all about, or what it should be about.