Joanna Russ on Identity Politics

“What do you do when you feel that somehow your favorable historical moment has passed, that people don’t like you any more, that your friends now consider your “obsessions” passé, that attacks are hitting you not only personally but economically (and this at a time when jobs are scarce and money tight), and that the freedom, conviction, support, and energy that sustained you are somehow gone? …

The attempt to claim worth for an oppressed group by praising the psychology it’s always supposed to have had and the activities to which it’s always been restricted leads right back to the oppression everyone in the group was trying to get out of in the first place. The position of “you-say-it’s-bad-but-we-say-it’s-good-therefore-we’ll-change-everything-by-retreating-right-back-into-it” may at first salve the lack of self-esteem generated by oppression, but it does not deal with the oppression itself. This oppression continues and goes right on undermining everybody’s happiness and self-esteem. Eventually people notice that what used to make them feel good doesn’t anymore, and having no clear idea of what’s causing such a deprivation–since they’re certainly continuing to follow the program that made them feel so much better in the first place–they turn and rend one another, and you have the whole dreary catalog of accusations, betrayals, factionalization, and ultimate loss of hope with which all oppressed groups are so dreadfully familiar. The only way oppressed people can reclaim their damaged self-esteem is by struggling against those responsible for their actual, objective, material oppression. Struggling with each other will not do. Attempting to make the group a haven where one can ignore the deprivation and devaluation enforced on the “outside” leads to the suppression of anger and conflict and falsifies the genuineness of whatever interchange is going on; the result is again the mysterious fading away of what at first seemed to make everything all right.”

From “Advancing Backward” in What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism by Joanna Russ


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