White/Het/Male Privilege, Identity Politics & Progressivism

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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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. Continue Reading…

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Nobody I Know Thinks of Themselves as White

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on DailyKos.

This is a meme that I see coming up again and again:  But nobody I know thinks of themselves as white!  I’m Dutch-Irish!  I’m Norwegian! I’m a proud Polish-American! And so on.  A lot of white folks get confused, or hurt, or angry when people of color start talking about how “white folks say this” and “white folks do that.”  And most of them get pretty upset when “white” is used as a pejorative term in by people of color and their allies.  As a white person who doesn’t take offense at this, I’ll explain the history that lies behind that category called “whiteness” and try to help you understand why “white” has become a shorthand term to describe a power structure that, in truth, most progressives, of any color, should oppose. I will also explain why “white” and “black” are not equivalent descriptions of individuals or groups, since both definitions were imposed by white authorities on both black and white people.  This is, by the way, a long-ass essay, because some things are just too complex for sound bites.

As always, a history lesson is a good place to start. In the U.S., in the period leading up to the Civil War, slave or free status often turned on an almost incalculable percentage of “black blood.”  Those deemed to possess “black blood” were defined as salable commodities. From the period of Colonization until the Civil War, and even after the Civil War, “black blood” determined where you could live, where you were physically unsafe, where you could work and play, and whether or not you could vote.

In the beginning, the Colonies imported both Africans and indentured servants for use as labor, and the status of Africans was somewhat ambiguous.  Slavery had not yet been established as the “peculiar institution” that came to distinguish the U.S.  But for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, it was more convenient and attractive to European colonists to retain the labor of African slaves, rather than to allow them the freedom and rights that indentured European servants inevitably earned. Eventually, African descent marked the difference between servants who were to be manumitted and servants who were to retain slave status throughout their lives.  Indentured servitude was eventually phased out, and slavery became the foundation of the laboring body that built America. It is important to note that the children of indentured servants were not indentured, but that the children of African slaves inherited the servitude of their mothers.  Slavery was thus determined by one’s “African blood,” and the condition was inextricably bound to the notion of “blood” and “blackness.”

I would like to note, here, that European and U.S. notions of Native American “race” were the product of another crucible.  Unlike blacks, who were defined as valuable property (or potential property, if free), after a number of failures to successfully enslave Native Americans, they were defined as “non-people” — neither valuable property nor potential American citizens, but members of a vestigial group whose eradication was either celebrated or lamented, on the path to extinction. I cannot follow this trajectory in this diary, but there are very fine Native American bloggers whose work documents the genocidal policy of the U.SOjibwa comes immediately to mind.

The problem with the “African blood” demarcation is that, sufficiently diffused, African genetic heritage is invisible. And plenty of African blood was diffuse, due to generations of sexual slavery and rape. Property that can talk and walk just like free people needs to be distinguished in some fashion, and if you can’t see a distinction, you need to invent one. Because African heritage was often invisible after several generations, it became crucial to define the category of people who didn’t possess it: thus “whiteness” was invented. Continue Reading…

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