This is a slightly revised version of an essay I posted on DailyKos.
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. Often, in their opinion, the real issue is class warfare. They often blame the alleged fragmentation of “the left” on identity-groups who impede “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 discuss the 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 pushing a progressive agenda in the U.S. To make my points, I’ll use examples from my own life, because I think it’s easier to understand this particular problem if we personalize, rather than theorize.
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, because 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 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. 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 little toes.
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 inside and outside perspectives. 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 fully control how we are perceived and what interpretations are imposed on us. Even if we’re very independent, introverted people, 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, nor determinist—a female person may identify more with men than women because her sense of connection to the traits that culturally define men is 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 real, 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. This causes cognitive dissonance in the Tomboy– she feels like she’s one kind of person, but she’s expected to be—and is often treated like—she’s 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 a 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 catalyst for my decision to take my first women’s studies course: “Introduction to Women’s Studies,” taught by Bettina Aptheker. In short, at the very moment I was suddenly and unfairly attacked by someone else who imposed his definition of who I should be, I suddenly realized identity politics is a viable option. I’d never given much conscious thought to being a woman (most of my friends were male), but I needed to find out what the hell was going on, and I figured it was women’s studies courses that were going to tell me. Certainly none of my other courses had.
At that point I was definitely a man-identified woman. My dad was a world-record-holding athlete and I inherited his strength, speed & the female version of his build. I’d been working out since I was nine, and at eighteen I could easily bench press most of the guys I knew. I’d started studying karate in my early teens, 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, I’d never worn heels in my life, and my long legs easily covered a lot of ground quickly. 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 placing value on stereotypically masculine traits. The other option was “accepting” stereotypical femininity as my birthright, and reshaping myself internally to conform to what was expected of me. I might have —like many women—done the latter, except that my mother never liked other women very much, clearly valued so-called masculine traits, and possessed them in abundance. Again, it didn’t have to do with her looks—my dad the famous athlete married an acknowledged beauty, although I rarely saw her in make-up or dresses either. It had to do with her orientation: my mom is a strong rationalist, hates sentimentality of any sort, and didn’t have a stereotypically maternal bone in her body. Like her brothers, she valued stoicism and physical strength (she lifted weights, too), and dealt with problems with the kind of ruthless pragmatism that made her an automatic leader of men. She had a passel of younger brothers and I don’t think any of them could stand against her. But despite her competence, she’d been passed over by her father; the family business was handed to her younger brother, so she resented being female with a vengeance.
Thus, we are created. I studied feminism and women’s history in college. Because I was raised in a mixed-race, politically progressive extended family in the Sixties and Seventies, I sought out courses taught by brilliant black radical Marxist sociologists (not in short supply in those days). I embraced the theory and practice of anti-racism. I was also trying to sort out my attraction to both women and men in a polarized environment in which lesbian separatism or “normal” heterosexuality were prescribed as my only two options. As the child of two secular Jews, who was very aware of Holocaust history and the story of the founding of Israel, I was horrified to learn about Jewish treatment of Palestinians. In short, I was a bundle of clashing identities and orientations. So I was well aware of the sexism of black male radicals, the racism of white feminists and Jews, the antisemitism of white progressives, 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 the kind of progressive who can the value in multiple struggles, all happening simultaneously, all with their own unique perspective, but with the shared the goal of expanding civil and human rights, reducing suffering, and alleviating inequity.
In all the years I’ve worked in these different struggles, my biggest problems have been with the folks who can’t name, consciously and comfortably, the identities they inhabit. Many of them can’t articulate their own identities without occupying the position of the oppressor, and so even the most well-meaning of them are often angry or envious of those who organize around identity. When your identity is privileged, it’s usually easier to blame “identity politics” for causing trouble and dissent in the ranks, than it is to confront your complicity in a system that oppresses the members of other groups. To be an effective anti-racist, though, I’ve had to learn to name my whiteness—only after naming it can I begin to dismantle the privileges that are conferred by that identity.
Up until the Eighties, “ethnicity” was — even among progressives — primarily attributed to non-white folks, and occasionally to the recently white (like the Irish, Jews & Italians). For example, in the mid-Seventies, suddenly “Ethnic Needs” aisles popped up in California supermarkets. They were full of cosmetic products marketed to African Americans, from hair straighteners to Afro picks and dark-toned stockings. “Ethnic” was clearly a code word for “Not White,” though I did have a couple of uncles who bought Afro picks for their Jewfros. It wasn’t until Black Power” had been reduced to a style issue, and marketed to the mainstream as a means of hipnifying otherwise bland white identities, that an ethnicity became something that “everyone” (white people) wanted to have.
In the Seventies, 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; it 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 enhance his masculinity.
Even as a radical feminist & anti-racist, I wasn’t pushed to think about whiteness as an identity until essays on Whiteness 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” 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. 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 seeing one’s own identity as normal actually reflects a perception of superiority.
This is why I (and so many other antiracists, 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 female and non-white people for being what we are (or what people think we 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 memes, 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 it 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. Add a female, queer identity, and the disadvantages compound.
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, doesn’t mean you can walk through it.
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 happens 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 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 CB4 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 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 thirty 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 I hear other progressives making the same mistakes I did about rainforest ecology, I’m going to correct them, just as you should always—after having your consciousness raised—call people on racist or sexist or homophobic or able-ist behavior or talk. If we don’t have each other’s 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 other’s 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 rightwing 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 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.