“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.”
Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
“Identity politics” has come to be extremely contentious among liberals, progressives, and leftists. It is decried as neo-liberal, following the logic of hierarchy and scarcity that living under capitalism has instilled in our understanding of the world — and not only by white male leftists who don’t want to do the work of tackling their own racism and sexism.
However, its origin is utterly radical.
It originally came from the 1977 statement of the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black, Marxist, feminist lesbians mainly based on the east coast of the USA. The full section on identity politics reads as follows:
“Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression… We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
“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. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.”
Identity, in this context, is not an individual, internal understanding of who we are within ourselves, but a collective understanding of what we experience because of our assigned position within social, cultural, economic and political structures, systems and hierarchies. It is a form of collective consciousness, by which we can identify and name injustices, not from a theoretical standpoint, but from our own lives, by reflecting on our own, everyday experiences.
This works wonderfully when the aspects of our experience we focus on are those in which we face discrimination and oppression. But what of those aspects of our experience in which we live within social and cultural privilege and dominance? That is a question I am currently grappling with.
It seems to me that it is an unwillingness to look at the areas in which we experience privilege and dominance, rather than oppression and discrimination, that leads to the ‘oppression olympics’ that so many blame upon identity politics itself.
I can’t remember if I’ve told the story here before of how I really began to come to grips with the reality of white privilege. I was in a National Coalition-Building Institute leadership training in the mid-2000s, and we were engaging with an exercise in which we each chose an aspect of our identity, and worked in pairs, taking it in turns to declare, “It’s great to be ______!”
I’d done this exercise a few times in the past, and had always until then chosen an aspect of myself through which I experienced oppression and discrimination. However, this time I had the courage to choose my whiteness as the aspect of myself to work with. Something about declaring, “It’s great to be white!” with as much enthusiasm and energy as I could muster, opened up for me all the ways it is great to be white: all the experiences of suspicion, denigration, diminishment, and rejection, that I didn’t have.
Perhaps it was having heard from a Black man earlier in the workshop about his heartbreak and grief at being treated with suspicion every day, simply because he is black and therefore seen as a threat by white people. But whatever the reason, that was the moment in which I began to understand what white privilege really means in my life: not what I do have that Black people don’t, but all the barriers that I don’t face that Black people do, barriers that I don’t even know exist. And that regardless of my gender/sex, sexual orientation, religion, income, or dis/ability, this fact remains the same.
I believe that identity politics still has radical liberatory potential, if we can bring ourselves to reckon with our experiences of privilege, as well as our experiences of oppression, and engage with political identity as something collective, rather than a true-for-all-time statement of Who I Am.
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