Identity politics revisited

President* Trump,

Thinking about the young queer person my friend described yesterday, my brother, my Black women friends, Laura, myself, the people sleeping in tents down the street from us in the context of this colossal mess we’ve made has me trying to piece together the puzzle of identity politics. This is also driven by the fact that I finally read the Combahee River Collective’s Statement (1977) where the idea of identity politics was first articulated – here’s an extended excerpt that provides more context for their position than is usually included in the sound bites used in contemporary political arguments about the concept:

“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 but because of our need as human persons for autonomy….. 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.” (italics added)

You and your Heritage Foundation cronies have obviously put a lot of energy into mocking and attempting to discredit this political framing, claiming that it’s racist and sexist, as well as heterophobic [deal with it], able-body-phobic, cis-gender-phobic, anti-Christian, and wah, wah, wah. From my brief foray into trying to understand the broader reactions to identity politics, it looks to me like you all had help from lots of academics and activists since there are scads of critiques of it.  These writers (most of whom appear to be male) have attacked identity politics by claiming that it’s divisive, that it waters down reform efforts, and that it encourages a reductionist approach that misses the impact of oppressive capitalist systems. I doubt the Heritage Foundation people were interested in #2 or #3 critique, but #1 critique – for sure! Ironically, the divisiveness accusation is foundational to your spineless Executive Order banning diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings for federal employees and contractors.

But did any of you all actually read the whole Combahee River Collective statement? I don’t think so. Here’s a link to a pdf of it: https://americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Keyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf.

They make crystal clear that they’re looking at oppression through a class lens and that they are very much aligned with Black men around combating racism even as they need to combat sexism with those same men. It’s not a myopic, reductionist statement at all. I suppose, though, that it’s not surprising that people who’re accustomed to being the center of the universe and who’ve figured out that they need to pit everyone else against one another to maintain their own centrality would find something that shifts the gaze out to the margins divisive (and threatening).

I know this isn’t a new idea, but it bears repeating that you all (meaning White male landowners over the age of 21) started this whole identity politics deal a very long time ago and it’s only been under the most extreme duress that you’ve conceded bits of power intermittently over the intervening 400+ years in the most miserly and begrudging of ways. When a country and its system of governance are predicated on massive land theft, genocide, kidnapping, torture, and habitual rape it tends to keep kings on their thrones in their castles and leaves most everyone else scrambling to survive. However, as described in many a prior letter, there’ve always been those among us who are clear-eyed and see this patently unfair and unstable system of oppression for what it is and who’ve managed to fight it – and to score victories.

Another non-newsflash (as in I’m stating the obvious, again….) is that much the way all you entitled White boys don’t want to cede any more ground and are freaked the hell out about having your scepters confiscated and your thrones flushed, those of us who’ve finally gotten a feel for what it’s like to have some power, to be seen and heard on a regular basis, aren’t exactly excited about the idea of going back into our closets and so we aren’t going to. And you all are going to have to deal.

May we all be safe as we navigate this epic reckoning.
May we be willing to study the original works by the seers on the margins.
May we recognize we can all be stronger and healthier if those on the margins are empowered.
May we accept that this apparent 3 steps forward 2.999 steps back is really only 2.75 steps back (or maybe 2.5).

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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