The fact that we must specify our identities in advance before making our argument is an index of how powerful, widespread, and largely unquestioned is the premise that arguments always reduce to identity positions. While 21st century anti-oppression politics in the US is an evolving, ad hoc patchwork of theories and practices, we argue for the necessity of identity-based organizing while criticizing how dominant forms of anti-oppression activism have been incapacitated by an unquestioned rhetoric of checking individual “privilege,” by a therapeutic idealization of “culture” and communal origins, and finally by the assumption that identity categories describe homogeneous “communities” of shared political beliefs. We argue that left unquestioned these practices minimize and misrepresent the severity and structural character of identity-based oppression in the US.
According to the dominant discourse of “white privilege” for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Whiteness simply becomes one more “culture,” and white supremacy a psychological attitude, instead of a structural position of dominance reinforced through institutions, civilian and police violence, access to resources, and the economy. At the same time a critique of “white privilege” has become a kind of blanket, reflexive condemnation of any variety of confrontational, disruptive protest while bringing the focus back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. We contend that privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that the psychological attitudes of individuals are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague programs of consciousness-raising will somehow transform oppressive structures.
This politics assumes that demographic categories are coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures.” In Oakland, police, politicians, downtown business interests, and even many “progressive” activists have promoted versions of “community” with radically conservative political content. Communal identity is not automatically a site of political resistance. The violent domination and subordination we face on the basis of our race, gender, and sexuality do not immediately create a shared political vision even though it may create a shared sense of oppression. Identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. But the uneven impact of identity-based oppression across society creates the conditions for the diffuse emergence of autonomous groups organizing on the basis of common experiences and a common political understanding of those experiences. There is a difference between a politics which places an idealized and homogenizing cultural heritage at the center of its analysis of oppression, and autonomous organizing against forms of oppression which impact members of marginalized groups unevenly.
Anti-oppression, civil rights, and decolonization struggles clearly reveal that if resistance is even slightly effective, the people who struggle are in danger. The choice is not between danger and safety, but between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of continued violence, deprivation, and death.Read the whole thing.