My Skinfolk Ain’t All Kinfolk: The Left’s Problem with Identity Politics
by R.L. Stephens II on March 6, 2014
For much of my life racial oppression was the only form of subjugation that I understood. I was 7 years old, and it was the end of the school year. We’d soon move to an overwhelmingly White Missouri suburb, and my Dad wanted me to be prepared. As he was picking me up from school one day, he paused to tell me, “Son, you are no longer going to be seen as a Black boy. You’re a Black man now, and that’s two strikes against you”. It only took me one week in my new White school to know that my Dad was right.
So, I became angry. I fought. I cried. I rose above every preconception and limitation that White society attempted to impose on me, but I still wasn’t free. In 2008 I went to Bolivia, and for the first time I got a brief glimpse of life beyond “the veil”. Barack Obama had just been elected President, and overnight a Black man was the new face of White supremacist power in the United States. Suddenly, Blackness alone wasn’t enough. My experiences of racial marginalization were not the full scope of oppression, and worse yet, I was complicit in the very systems that had brought me so much pain.
Imperial America, murderous America, the America that abused and robbed countries like Bolivia —that America was me. I too was a settler; my Black feet were stained red with blood as I stood on stolen indigenous land. I too benefitted from colonialism, capitalism, and the other facets of White supremacy. I could no longer simply point the finger at White people. My marginalized identity didn’t absolve me. I began to think systemically. I had to actually develop a multidimensional worldview and take political stances that drew on more than my lived experiences. When I returned to the United States and became involved in leftist politics, I soon realized that the political scene was, unfortunately, still stuck on personal identity.
What Is Identity Politics?
In this age of (misinterpreted) intersectionality, our politics tend to rely on the body. When we deal with race, White people embody White supremacy and privilege, while non-Whites are the corporal manifestation of resistance. We obsess over White privilege and how we can get more people of color involved in our spaces and projects, but does White supremacy really disappear when there are no White people in the room?
Some people look at these flaws and call for an end to “identity politics”, but I think that’s a mistake. At its most basic level, identity politics merely means political activity that caters to the interests of a particular social group. In a certain sense, all politics are identity politics. However, it’s one thing to intentionally form a group around articulated interests; it’s another matter entirely when group membership is socially imposed.
Personal identities are socially defined through a combination of systemic rewards/marginalization plus actual and/or potential violence. We can’t build politics from that foundation because these socially imposed identities don’t necessarily tell us anything about someone’s political interests. Successful identity politics requires shared interests, not shared personal identities.
I’m not here to tell you that personal identity doesn’t matter; we rightfully point out that systemic power shapes people’s lives. Simply put, my message is that personal identity is not the only thing that matters. We spend so much energy labeling people—privileged/marginalized, oppressor/oppressed—that we often neglect to build spaces that antagonize the systems that cause our collective trauma.
All You Blacks Want All the Same Things
We assume that if a person is systemically marginalized, then they must have a vested interest in dismantling that system. Yet, that’s not always the case. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas, who last summer wrote an article in the Guardian in which he admitted that he hates being Black.
I can honestly say I hate being a black male… I just don’t fit into a neat category of the stereotypical views people have of black men. I hate rap music, I hate most sports, and I like listening to rock music… I have nothing in common with the archetypes about the black male… I resent being compared to young black males (or young people of any race) who are lazy, not disciplined, or delinquent. Orville Lloyd Douglas, Why I Hate Being a Black Man
As we can see from Douglas’ cry for help, membership in a marginalized group is no guarantee that a person can understand and effectively combat systemic oppression. Yet, we seem to treat all marginalized voices as equal, as if they are all insightful, as if there is no diversity of thought, as if—in the case of race– All you Blacks want all the same things.
Shared identity does not equal shared interests. John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer of 12 Years a Slave, is a good example. He’s written screenplays based on Jimi Hendrix, the L.A. riots, and other poignant moments and icons within Black history. He wants to see more Black people in Hollywood and he has a long history of successfully incorporating Black and Brown characters into comic book stories and franchises.
However, in 2006, Ridley made waves with an essay in which he castigated Black people who did not live up to his standards; saying, “It’s time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck.”
So I say this: It’s time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don’t travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send niggers on their way. We need to start extolling the most virtuous of ourselves. It is time to celebrate the New Black Americans—those who have sealed the Deal, who aren’t beholden to liberal indulgence any more than they are to the disdain of the hard Right. It is time to praise blacks who are merely undeniable in their individuality and exemplary in their levels of achievement. The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger
While Ridley and I share cultural affinity, and we both want to see Black people doing well, shared cultural affinity and common identity are not enough– which recent history makes abundantly clear. Barack Obama continues to deport record numbers of Brown immigrants here at home, while mercilessly bombing Brown folks abroad. Don Lemon, speaking in support of Bill O’Reilly, said that racism would be lessened if Black people pulled up their pants and stopped littering. Last fall, 40% of Black U.S. Americans supported airstrikes against Syria.
My skinfolk ain’t all kinfolk, and the Left needs to catch up.
No More Allies
John Ridley, Barack Obama, myself, and Don Lemon are all Black males. We also have conflicting political positions and interests, but how can we decide which paths are valid if we only pay attention to personal identity?
Instead of learning to recognize how the overarching systems maintain their power and then attacking those tools, we spend our energy finding an “other” to embody the systemic marginalization and legitimize our spaces and ideals. In some interracial spaces I feel like nothing more than an interchangeable token whose only purpose is to legitimize the politics of my White peers. If not me, then some other Black person would fill the slot.
We use these “others” as authorities on various issues, and we use concepts like “privilege” to ensure that people stay in their lanes. People of color are the authorities on race, while LGBTQ people are the authorities on gender and sexuality, and so forth and so on. Yet, experience is not the same as expertise, and privilege doesn’t automatically make you clueless. As I’ve discussed, these groups are not oriented around a singular set of political ideals and practices. Furthermore, as we see in Andrea Smith’s work, there are often competing interests within these groups. We mistake essentialism for intersectionality as we look for the ideal subjects to embody the various forms of oppression; true intersectionality is a description of systemic power, not a call for diversity.
If we don’t develop any substantive analysis of systemic power, then it’s impossible to know what our interests are, and aligning with one another according to shared interests is out of the question. In this climate all that remains is the ally, which requires no real knowledge or political effort, only the willingness to appear supportive of an “other”. We can’t build power that way.
After having gathered to oppose organized White supremacy at the University of North Carolina, a group of organizers in Durham, North Carolina found that the Left’s emphasis on personal identity and allyship was a major reason why their efforts collapsed. They proposed that we adopt the practice of forming alliances rather than identifying allies. (h/t NinjaBikeSlut)
Much of the discourse around being an ally seems to presume a relationship of one-sided support, with one person or group following another’s leadership. While there are certainly times where this makes sense, it is misleading to use the term ally to describe this relationship. In an alliance, the two parties support each other while maintaining their own self-determination and autonomy, and are bound together not by the relationship of leader and follower but by a shared goal. In other words, one cannot actually be the ally of a group or individual with whom one has no political affinity – and this means that one cannot be an ally to an entire demographic group, like people of color, who do not share a singular cohesive political or personal desire. The Divorce of Thought From Deed
While it’s vital for me to learn the politics and history of marginalized experiences that differ from my own, listen to their voices, and respect their spaces and contributions — it’s also important for me to understand the ways in which these same systems have shaped my own identity/history as well. Since we know that oppression is systemic and multidimensional, then I’m going to have to step outside of personal experience and begin to develop political ideals and practices that actually antagonize those systems. I have to understand and articulate my interests, which will allow me to operate from a position of strength and form political alliances that advance those interests– interests which speak to issues beyond just my own immediate experience.
Ultimately, I want to attack power, not people. In order to get there, the Left needs more identity politics, but with less emphasis on the identity and more focus on the politics.