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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