Asking the wrong questions, getting the wrong answers

Normally I find the Guardian to be a good news source, but this article frustrated me: “How America’s Identity Politics Went from Inclusion to Division.” The author, Amy Chua, is taking the position of “expert” on a topic for which she’s missing essential context. As are the editors of the Guardian, and probably most of the readership. So people who are quite rightly annoyed by a certain ideological narrowness in the politics of the Left today will go on sharing it on social media and various fights will break out. But this is a time when collectively, our lives depend on knowing what’s wrong and what to do about it.

Here’s the narrative Chua gives:

Perhaps in reaction to Reaganism, and a growing awareness that “colorblindness” was being used by conservatives to oppose policies intended to redress racial inequities, a new movement began to unfold on the left in the 1980s and 1990s – a movement emphasizing group consciousness, group identity, and group claims.

Perhaps she was unaware of the influence that third-wave feminism had on “the left” or the fact that “the left” is not monolithic. How, one wonders, could the she have missed that? Well, who is the author? Amy Chua is a law professor, with expertise in the areas of international business transactions, development, ethnic conflict, and globalization. The view of the world looks vastly different from where she’s standing.

Me, I’ve spent two or three decades grappling with the miscellaneous neuroses of activist groups. I agree with Chua on many points, such as insularity, exclusion, and so forth. But I disagree that these are problems of “identity politics,” and say rather that they stem from a misunderstanding of the original context of “identity politics,” which was a truly revolutionary and inclusive movement by Black feminists that existed back in 1978 and is ongoing today. And people who really want to put an end to narrow-mindedness would do well to understand who has been already doing that work and why, rather than to sweep everything remotely reeking of “identity politics” under the rug.


Why would somebody focus politics on their identity, anyway? Is it “tribalism,” as Chua suggests, or is there a different goal? There’s no answering this question without delving deeply into the Combahee River Statement.  Here’s what the collective has to say about identity politics:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

They go on to explain that as Black lesbian feminists they face oppression on many fronts, including race, gender, and class, and because of their identity they cannot agree with any single-issue politics, because it leaves out too much and too many people:

As we have already stated, we reject the stance of Lesbian separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly Black men, women, and children.

Because they experience multilayered oppressions, they feel the need to fight them all:

The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have.

For their own work, they chose to prioritize issues at the intersection of a number of oppressions but also noted:

During our time together we have identified and worked on many issues of particular relevance to Black women. The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World and working people.

This is not tribalism. This work includes anyone who faces any type of oppression. And in fact, it tangibly benefits a much broader group than themselves, right down to working class white men.

And this is ultimately their goal:

As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.

I mention the Combahee River Statement because I find it particularly inspiring, but it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to feminist thought by women of color. In fact, it was written in 1978 and theorizing has gone farther than this. Right now I’m rereading the book This Bridge Called My Back, Writings by Radical Women of Color, written in 1981, with works by 29 women. I’m taking it slow, because there’s a lot here, all of it potent.


So for anybody talking about narrowness of politics and calling it “identity politics,” for heaven’s sake, get up to speed on conversations that have been ongoing since at least 1978. Racism and a suspicion of feminism have kept these dialogues out of mainstream awareness . . . it’s long past time for that to end.


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