Elliott batTzedek on Identity Politics and Racism

…I know this about identity politics (at least the versions I learned and lived within): We messed up, at the beginning, first by choosing to reify identities as they were already defined in the world, and then by describing these identities as if they were inherent to us in some way instead of as descriptions of positions within extremely hierarchical, pre-existing social structures of power…So what was wrong with these categories, since all of them do describe who we are in the world? What they describe are places within a broader society which, at its very foundation, uses gender and racial categories to establish and maintain a small powerful elite. The problem with them is that simply restating the categories ignores the deeper truth that all of these categories are a creation and an expression of social power. Race and gender aren’t pre-existing reality; they are socially constructed categories.* By choosing to build identities around these constructions instead of choosing to attack the ways the categories had been constructed, IP from the outset seemed destined to be more concerned with establishing new boundaries than with eliminating the establishment.From this initial choice has grown years of skirmishes around defining those pre-established categories. If you’ve worked within Feminist and Lesbian groups, you know what I’m talking about. Who exactly is or isn’t a woman of color?…And on, and on, and on. Within IP, these questions felt like life and death issues, felt like we were defending thin boundaries of Radicalness. But looking back, I have to ask what ultimate change was served by dividing into “white” and “of color” when the social meaning of “white” was rarely explored, and both identities were treated as if they were actually about the color of skin?** Imagine, instead, if we had taken all that insight and work and decided to explode “race” as a category. Not to ignore it, to be “color-blind,” but to no longer honor definitions that grew from and continue to uphold colonialism?*** What if we had been doing thousands of workshops that went beyond saying that racism is learned to saying that race itself is learned? What if we pushed white people not only to try to stop being racist, but to try to stop being white, to actively become race resistors and race traitors? But Identity Politics wasn’t willing to say that race itself either is learned or is a social construction. Activists within the world of IP relied instead on seeing race, gender, and other identities as inherent, immutable categories from which to wage a battle for a place at the table of power in broader U.S. society. Even groups that were mainly or entirely Separatist from their onset used this understanding, because, I think, it was the most successful strategy anyone had seen in a long time. Such a position was a strong base for fighting, but in the end, granted a position from which to fight while taking away our best weapons–questions. As long as we could ask questions about how power around us was constructed, we stood a chance of cracking open the foundation. But after we began to think of our social positions as identities that were “real” or “inherent,” the question of how they were built, or why, became unnecessary, maybe even unthinkable. Once Identity Politics became the organizing structure of our social change groups and committees, the question of how whiteness could be taken apart all but disappeared. Anyone reading this knows without thinking about it that racism is learned, and can cite at least a hundred racially offensive words, phrases, or ideas, but could we, together, list more than five things we might do to actually stop Whiteness?…Our entire dialogue around racism has become anthologies of women writing almost exclusively about individual racist words or actions directed at them. These are valuable, both for the women writing for them and for those of us who are always struggling to understand more about racism’s details and women’s lives. But the profusion of detail should not be confused with having new ideas about what to do.

*This should not be read as saying categories of race, gender, and culture aren’t socially real. People are discriminated against, tortured and killed every day because of belonging to these categories. We can’t ignore social reality, but we also can not treat it as the only reality.

**I still remember the shock of a Costa Rican woman in my graduate program when we explained to her that, in the U.S., she was “a woman of color.” She held her arm next to ours, and asked us to explain the difference. That day, we didn’t even approach the idea that she, a member of the ruling class, might also be considered “a third world woman.” So much of U.S. Feminist thinking is still so limited by ideas based on U.S. citizenship categories that we continue to be a source of great mystery and humor to more international-based feminists.

***One thing we would have gotten, of course, was tremendous resistance. The U.S.’s entire definition of itself is based in mythology about race and racial difference, and to attack this mythology is to violate a national boundary; to violate the national boundary of a state supported by military power is to become the “legitimate” target of deadly force. For an excellent analysis of the mythology, and examples of the deadly force the state uses or permits, see Mab Segrest’s Memoir of a Race Traitor (Boston: South End Press, 1994).

From Identity Politics and Racism: Some Thoughts and Questions by Elliott batTzedek. Published in Rain and Thunder Issue #5, Winter Solstice 1999.


Leave a Reply