Identity Politics and Racism: Some Thoughts and Questions

by Elliott batTzedek

Published in Rain and Thunder Issue #5, Winter Solstice 1999

This article is excerpted from a much longer essay analyzing the role of Identity Politics in Feminist and Lesbian communities. I wrote this work as part of my MS in Women’s Studies, and was therefore free to combine theory and metaphors from political science, anthropology, and history with a freeflowing form of autobiography. The larger essay, entitled “Suckled at Sarah’s Breast,” is mainly concerned with the creation and defense of boundaries around various identities.

What I want to bring out of this bigger work to Rain and Thunder are two ideas: how the wholesale adoption of Identity Politics (IP) by Feminist communities shaped (and limited) our discussion of race, and how an understanding of the need of IP to defend boundaries created some of the ugliness that has happened in our communities around race, racism, and other oppressions. But to get there, I need to first explain two of my underlying ideas/bodies of knowledge: my working theory about how IP defines which identities “count,” and what anthropology has to say about social groups and the ways their conscious and unconscious behavior around “taboo” subjects reveal deep beliefs about how the world is structured.

Identity Politics: Background and Strengths

Let me give you a vastly oversimplified, yet still basically true, version of how Identity Politics came to be. By the middle of the 1960’s, the heady, heroic days of the Civil Rights movement were ending. Major battles had been won, territory had been granted, and the vast, multi-racial group of people who had won so much were faced with having to settle in for the long haul. Like all movements, there were splinters and splits and disagreements; the unity began to wear, as Black participants began to live the message of self-love and pride and grew weary of the continuing liberal racism of their white cohorts.{1} Black activists began to build Black Power, and women, who had had it with the macho posing, began to come see themselves as members of the group Women and break off in search of their/our own agendas. As the New Left reached its final days in the late 60s and early 70s, Identity Politics became the guiding philosophy of social-change groups and communities. IP is what I learned as Lesbian Feminist politics, learned so deeply and well, in fact, that reading about its history sometimes shakes me up; for my first dozen years as a Feminist dyke, IP seemed not like a political theory, but a description of how the world actually is.

Like the permeations of New Left groups before it, Identity Politics is based in a search for “authenticity,” meaning, and civil power. Within IP, each person’s identity is based in membership in various social groups or categories, and that membership is seen as inherently politicized. Each identity group took from the Civil Rights victories the political stance that their identity is an inherent, immutable category. Because membership in this category is innate, the argument went, full membership in Civil, democratic society must not be blocked. “This is who I am,” the Civil Rights argument said, “and I didn’t choose it and I can’t change it, so you must give me rights based on this.” The fallout of this choice of strategy is still with us in many ways, including the horrified proclamations by many Black clergy that the call for Gay and Lesbian civil rights is nothing like their own fight, for Blackness is immutable whereas “homosexuality” is chosen.

And before I go on to talk about the huge limitations that came with defining identity and politics in this way, I need to say that the version of Identity Politics I came into as a Feminist and Dyke has been of tremendous value to me. As only one example: going off to a middle-class college and learning to pass as middle-class was really destructive to me. I got a BA in literature, but lost my ability to write because I could not give voice to my now-silenced working-class life. Recognizing that I had been raised working-class and connecting with other working-class women gave me my life story back. It helped me identify and laugh at the shame I had internalized, helped me find pride and strength again, made space for me to write a story such as this. I don’t think the questions IP asked, the positions it built or the answers it invented are at all silly or useless or wrong. I think they are limited by the nature of the political world around us, and by their own nature. The strategies, the activists, and the demonstrations accomplished a lot of change. The emphasis on cultural pride reconnected people to their lives, and encouraged the construction of historical narratives of resistance that greatly strengthened “identities” that had been devalued in the US, such as women, Chicanos/Latinos, lesbians, disabled people, and more. And, of course, the groups that invented the strategy which became IP, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, accomplished amazing things. As Paula Rust argues at length in Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics,

the adaptation of IP (alongside Feminist politics) created space for lesbian identity to take shape and to become a social force, for “any group that could adapt the language of ethnic politics to its own ends could tap into a well-developed social change ideology.”{2}

Identity Politics: Structural Flaws

Yet–and a very large “yet” it is–from here and now, my mid-30’s in the late 90’s, 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, preexisting social structures of power. “Woman,” for example, was one of the main identities of IP, as a statement of biology. “Of color” was another main category, with groups dividing around the racial categories recognized within the US. at the time, as if those categories were physical features and not a colonial classification system. “Class” was another group, although its boundaries were never as tightly guarded because it couldn’t be treated only as a physical or inherited “true” self. “Jewish” was a group; “Muslim” should have been, too, as people “oppressed by the tyranny of X-tianity,” but there was only silence around the different but overlapping categories of Muslim and Arab women.{3} “Lesbian,” as opposed to “heterosexual,” was the other main identity of Feminist IP, although not until after years of skirmishes around defining “lesbian” as a statement of feminist politics, when it settled into being a “sexual orientation” or a “sexual identity” determined in early childhood or at birth.

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 expression of social power. Race and gender aren’t pre-existing reality; they are socially constructed categories.{4} 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? Are Jewish women “of color,” or are we white? Is a woman with a Latina mother and white father, who was raised as white in a white world with no Latina culture an “authentic” 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? {5}

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?{6} 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 communities, 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? I know that Rain and Thunder, like other Feminist journals, is likely to get few or no articles in response to their call for contributions for an issue about fighting racism. 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.

Another important problem created by Identity Politics was what to do with “oppressor” categories. If we were going to argue that social categories of race and gender were inherent identities, what in the world were we going to do about maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality? To talk about these “identities” within the framework of IP would be to say either: 1) those people were also born that way, inherently flawed or 2) those people were not born that way. The first option wasn’t going to work 100%, because then the ultimate answer to social wrongs would be to get rid of all of the members of certain categories. Even for those of us who like to fantasize about a world without men, this answer was too genocidal, too ugly, and too simplistic. For those of us who are white feminists, this argument was particularly ironic, unless we actually believed that only white men ever benefited from racism and that it would die with them, thus preventing us from being the next on the list to be destroyed in the name of ending oppression. The second option would, of course, lead to revealing IP identities as socially constructed, undermining the very base IP was built on. Because either option would lead to uncomfortable questions, I think that IP simply chose not to engage with these “oppressor” identities at all.{7} In the years that Identity Politics was being constructed, white men dropped out of political activism in droves, and white women either invested heavily in a universal view of womanhood or choose to talk about themselves only as victims of gender oppression.

Of course, not engaging didn’t make these “identities” go away. And for all that IP has strengthened social groups such as “women” and “people of color” by encouraging us to talk among ourselves about our lives, it doesn’t have answers about how to bring down the foundation of the power we are up against. Sure, we feel empowered, but, as Audre Lorde was prone to ask, empowered for what? By insisting on measuring who we are only by the social categories we were born into, IP mirrors social power as it already exists by setting up identity based on opposition. ‘Woman” is “not man,” “of color” is “not white,” “lesbian” is “not heterosexual,” just as “man” is “not woman,” etc. Even while both IP and mainstream power claim that social categories are real, both actually define groups by what they exist in opposition or resistance to, instead of anything that could exist in its own right. Within both systems, members of groups therefore act out a lot of anxiety about the groups’ boundaries, and therefore engage in ritual pollution behavior. People who exist on the margins of these groups, or who blur the categories in some way, become sources of threat, and have to be purged or made invisible for the “safety” of the group. Feeling “polluted” comes easily to a group which shares only a sense of what it is not, and the rules/customs/laws that protect the group will always demonize categories of people who are threatening, and will act to purge polluters in rituals that are quick, public, and ugly.{8}

Ritual Pollution and other threats to social power

“Dirt is matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then is never a unique, isolated event.” -Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger{9}

It is a very difficult thing to step outside of one’s worldview to question it–think of the effort needed to get women to see women’s oppression. When I was searching for a way to step out of Identity Politics in order to think critically about it, I eventually turned for tools to anthropology, the study of human culture. I began to look at the ways all cultures deal with those things that are “ritually impure” or ritually “polluted.” Both of these terms refer to same idea, which has nothing to do with physical dirt, but instead is about how categories of meaning are created, and how social proscriptions are upheld. A quick example: imagine being asked to shake hands with a mortician. Consider your first response. Sure, it’s irrational, and mainly unconscious, but very, physically real–and, as such, is pure and simple pollution behavior. Even ‘advanced’ societies like the US, which claim no such “primitive” behavior, carefully control, by law or custom, everything understood to be ‘dirt.’ U.S. culture draws boundaries around death and corpses which regard the dead and all who touch them as ritually impure, and proscribes behavior for those who become polluted by dealing with the dead. In some vital ways, you might think of ritual pollution as the factor that makes you say “yuck” to things that you have no rational reason to abhor.

Anthropologists usually think of ideas of ritual pollution/impurity and ritual purity as guides to the deepest, organizing beliefs of a culture. Pollution behaviors are invoked when an individual or group faces a serious crisis: death, invasion, widespread disease, threats to underlying social power. If we use pollution behavior as a lens for thinking about the ways groups respond to challenges, we can examine the cultural category being challenged and locate who feels that challenge as an attack upon their self-hood and therefore their very life. Think about the phrase thrown at lesbians, Feminists, and cross-dressers: “You people make me sick.” Think of how the person screaming this phrase may commit physical violence against what so disturbs him/her. This is one extreme of purity laws being violated and of the resulting pollution behavior. “Even to gaze steadily at distorting apparatus,” Douglas writes, “makes some people feel physically sick, as if their own balance was attacked.” What is the danger Lesbians and feminists and crossdressers pose in common? We cross and blur gender lines. Why is this so threatening? This is an easy question for Feminist theory, for we’ve encountered it so often: because strict gender divisions uphold male power, and our society is about a gender hierarchy at its very core.{10} If we add to this an understanding of ritual purity and pollution, we come to see that those in power do actually feel sick, feel their lives being threatened. Knowing this, we can better understand the force behind the backlash. Men protecting male power have a much clearer view than Feminists do of exactly how threatening crossing gender is. Because we don’t always get that we are threatening their lives, we are unprepared for their ability to morally justify any response, up to deadly force, as self-defense.

Purity and Ritual Purity

But let me backtrack for a moment about the idea of “purity.” Feminists, especially Radical Feminists, have for years been accused of engaging in “purity politics” and/or “political correctness” as a way of belittling or ignoring the issues we raise. This type of “purity” is a different beast than the study of purity/impurity ritual behavior that I use as a way to think about my communities. The former, a kind of Ideological Purity, comes, I think, out of one of the most dangerous parts of Christian ideology, a belief that one must have “purity” of soul, mind, and body. This worldview has driven many inquisitions, and the kind of antipornography crusade obsessed with men’s souls but not women’s pain. The latter is a way of thinking about unwritten cultural rules and categories and their influence on behavior. In this work, I am mainly thinking about rules and categories.

But I can’t ignore ideological purity, for all of US. political life including Feminist community politics has a strong element of the push towards the Pure; U.S. thinking is Christian to its core in a way we are mostly unconscious of. In Feminist politics, this often surfaces as a way of monitoring women’s choice of words and symbols, condemning or praising one another for the form rather than content of our lives; behind this lies a mainly unspoken belief that, if we can attain a purely un-oppressive form, we will magically have ended oppression.

Ritual Pollution and Race: One Example

As a way to think about what analyzing pollution behavior can tell us about IP and race, consider the role of bi- or multiracial people in both mainstream and IP cultures. In both, they have a clear mandate to identify with only one racial identity. Mainstream culture either insists on either seeing them clearly as “of color” (if their features/skin do not look “white”) or on telling them to shut up and pass (if their features/skin look “white”). Within Identity Politics such people are told that they must classify themselves as “people of color.” If they choose to identify as white, or to embrace their white heritage in any way, they are labeled traitors, or are accused of “selling out,” and are often purged from groups or organizations.

Why? Because, in a society built on a hierarchy of race, bi-racial people are in a profound sense marginal and, as Douglas explains about all marginal people, “These are people who are somehow left out in the patterning of society, who are placeless. They may be doing nothing morally wrong, but their status is indefinable […] and their ambiguous status in the structure makes them appear as a danger to those belonging fully to it.” Bi- or multiracial people who insist on claiming all of their identity categories reveal that the racial categorizing which underlies U.S, society is entirely constructed; there is no “white blood” or ‘black blood.” Neither is there a mindset which is genetically linked to skin color. But mainstream White culture cannot admit that White is a category of power, not skin color, and IP cannot admit that anyone who is not fully “of color” could ever have an “authentic” experience or understanding “of color.” “In short,” Douglas writes, “Our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” Bi-racial people who refuse to make a choice are shunned by mainstream and IP cultures, either treated as objects of ridicule (“she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”) or made invisible.

What All of This Has Taught Me About How NOT to Deal With Oppression

There are many kinds of boundaries around groups. Some are physical: our land goes from the mountain to the river. Some are cultural: our people are the ones who dress and speak like us. With the arrival of the nation-state, boundaries became geo-political: invented lines on maps which states enforced with armies. Without state power, nor a common culture, nor physical boundaries, Identity Politics used what I call geo-paradigmatic borders, ideology-based but still clear and enforced boundaries around groups which are defined by their political and theoretical approaches. These new boundaries were built upon the pre-existing chaos of our lived experience of identity: a crossroads of social meaning, personal meaning, personal and social history, and spiritual, emotional and theoretical understandings. Having boundaries tidied the chaos, gave us a clear sense of purpose and a way to tell “us” from “them.” As Douglas explains, “Rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience … [I]deas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience.”

Out of the chaos of our lives rose answers based in our experience, explanations for what happens to us, suggestions for gaining our own kinds of power. But this process of separating came with a strong need to defend boundaries, for two reasons: 1) the chosen identity categories really aren’t inherent, but are built on the lies of existing social power, and 2) many of the identities were mainly defined by what they were not, so didn’t have a strong center. Because these underlying, organizing structures were not to be spoken of, calling them into question in any way was sure to invoke pollution behavior.

As part of this pollution behavior, all challenges and transgressions were met with intense boundary-setting and defending, including separating out and/or purging those seen as a threat. This drive toward purity and punishment almost always happened in the name of addressing “oppression,” of eliminating ‘bad’ knowledge and attitudes and replacing them with the “truth” which would, as the saying goes, set us free.

But is achieving ideological purity and conforming within well-defended boundaries the same thing as having equality and freedom? Did all of our purging of “oppressive” people and ideas change anything? From the window into my own culture offered by considering pollution behavior, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve seen charges of being “oppressive” function within IP groups. This is the scenario played out time and time again: tension builds within the group, sometimes around an actual problem, but usually, I think, around leadership and position within the group pecking order. Everyone in the group has the feeling that something is wrong. Then someone who either has power within the group or is trying to gain power names the problem. Within Leftist/Feminist IP groups, the problem is often identified as “racism.” Racism is, after all, an easy target because the effects of racism are always present, because theorists of color have worked so hard to make visible its working, and because we do honestly want to be anti-racist. Of course, charges of classism, anti-Semitism, ageism, etc. also work. However, no matter the charge, whether or not it is taken seriously is more about the social status of the accuser within the group than about the presence or absence of discrimination.

Now, sometimes, when the charge is leveled, the point is to actually describe and interrupt racism or classism, or whatever the problem at hand is. When this is the case, and the accusation isn’t about defining personal or group power, positive change can actually happen. I saw this in effect at the “Intersections and Parallels” anti-racism conference in Iowa in the late 80’s, when the established social norm was that we would all make mistakes, and that doing so did not prove you weren’t dedicated to ending racism. In this setting, I watched as a Jewish daughter of immigrants sang the song ‘We all came over on different boats, but we’re on the same boat now,” and Native women raised a completely justified complaint. Because there was no power to be gained by purging anyone, the singer had social space to say, “You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about that,” the Native women had a chance to educate everyone, and no one left the conference in tears only to be written up in national Feminist press as a “danger to Feminists.”

However–and this is a BIG However–too often these rituals are about establishing or maintaining power within a group. Often, the exact nature of what “racist” thing has happened is not clear. Or, if it is, the “degree” of the problem becomes defined by how much status the accuser has in the group; not all women of color are granted equal authenticity, so some can stop a festival with a sentence, while others are simply ignored. Regardless, it is not the clarity of oppression that matters, but rather the sheer fact that the “problem” has been named at all. If the charge is granted power, the group must act to fix the problem; members must choose a path, either changing something within the group or within group members, or by identifying the source of the “threat” and purging it. The former can happen, bringing real change. But usually the latter happens; some marginal person–someone who never quite “fit” in the group anyway–or some outsider, is identified as the “racist” one and is publicly purged. “Ah, triumph” the group then sighs with relief, “see, we’ve addressed racism!” Or, if the accuser doesn’t have power within the group, she herself is purged, as a way of “proving” that the accusation wasn’t real.

Sheer pollution behavior, this is. If all of this purging was ever actually about solving the problem of racism, it would be long since solved. Instead we have endless re-enactions of the scapegoat ritual, except that in this actual ritual, the group members knew that they were putting their “sins” onto the goat and sending it into the wilderness; they didn’t pretend that the goat itself was the source of “sin” in the community. Within the boundary-defending war games of IP, where our social group is our inherent identity, it is far too easy to confuse the “sins” and the goat. This confusion has cost us precious time, over and over again, as we’ve used pollution rituals to make the group feel better without actually addressing racism or race, or age, or ability, or economic privilege. Purging has actually kept us, time and time again from being able to challenge oppression and exploitation by focusing on one person’s “bad” words or action instead of asking questions about power.

Purging has also cost us our most precious resource–women of good intention who actually do want a different, more just world. The point of a purging ritual as we’ve enacted it is not only to make the group feel clean, but to make the “guilty” party believe in her guilt. If, for example, a lesbian group could only get Susie to admit that she was, in fact horribly oppressive and would leave for the good of the group, then the lesbians who remain never have to question themselves about their relationship to oppression or their role in banishing Susie. She admitted to the charge, so off with her head and everything is peachy again.{11}

Getting someone to confess and withdraw is the ultimate signal that pollution behavior is in full force for, as Douglas writes: “Pollution rules, by contrast with moral rules are unequivocal. They do not depend on intention or a nice balancing of rights and duties. The only material question is whether a forbidden contact has taken place or not.”{12} If Susie confesses to being oppressive, the problem of “oppression” is solved, clearly and absolutely, with no left-over, messy issues of intention or meaning. “A polluted person” Douglas writes, “is always in the wrong.” Even if she doesn’t confess, a public campaign against her can work to convince everyone that she is the source of the pollution, so that no one has to look any further upstream.

Once Susie has been identified and purged, she is gone forever, there is no way for her to become “ritually pure” again. This is another function of IP’s denial that it is engaging in pollution behavior. In societies with conscious pollution rituals, there were clear rules for how the ritually impure person could re-enter. Within Hebrew tribal laws as described in Leviticus, for example, people who had become impure would wait outside of the camp until nightfall (that is, the beginning of a new day by the Hebrew calendar), do ritual cleansing with water, and then return, understood by all to no longer be polluted. Within our Feminist and Lesbian communities, where we leave all of this unspoken, there is no way back in for Susie once she’s been labeled as racist or classist or ableist. Her status of polluted will follow her from community to community, long after anyone cares to remember what happened, as if she personally had the power to bring social, economic, and spiritual oppression to any place she enters. Nothing she has ever done, or will ever do, to bring justice into the world will matter to her status as impure. And so we have lost women, one at a time or in groups, sending them into the wilderness bearing what should be our responsibilities. We’ve done this for years, then we wonder why there are so few of us left in “the fight,” blaming those who are gone for having “sold out.”

And In Conclusion, As Such….

So, where does all of this leave us? I don’t have a solution to offer, clear actions to take. I see a direction to go, toward more action and less searching for a purity of form. We have to start scheming about how to disrupt the meaning AND power of Whiteness; we have to figure out how to be at least as courageous in the face of white as we have been in the face of male. We need to become deeply focused on how we think and talk about race and other oppression: do we understand difference and privilege as a source of inevitable conflict, or do we see the chance to learn something new, to work together with other wonderful creative women to find new pathways out of the trap of who we were raised to be? For those of us who are white–are we willing, in the name of forming bonds across divides of race or class or age, to be in spaces with women who don’t share all of our answers or opinions, or will we roll our eyes, laugh to one another about them, or feel the need to “confront” them about their use of word X or image Y? Maybe what I’m asking, as much of myself as of anyone else, is whether we’re willing, finally, to let our dream of a just and safe world be bigger than the little kingdoms of our identities. And, if we are willing to do this, can we do so in a way that has nothing to do with feeling ourselves compromised and everything to do with a life of integrity.


  1. For more on the history of this, see Douglas Rossinow’s book The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press), 1998.
  2. Paula Rust, Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty and Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 173. In a very interesting discussion in the chapter “The Pink and Blue Herring,” Rust explores the tensions within lesbian identity created when both “ethnic” discourse and feminist discourse were used to explain lesbian identities.
  3. In her introduction to the anthology Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Women (Boston: South End Press, 1994), editor Joanna Kadi writes: “…after one particularly bad day, I coined this phrase for our community: The Most Invisibles of the Invisibles. [… ] It raises questions about who the other invisibles are, and whether Arabs really are the most invisible. I believe we are. In the United States and Canada, it is not only white people who refuse to see us, it is other people of color–Latinos, Africans, Asians, Natives–who do not acknowledge our existence.” (pp xix-xx) Even the call for writings for this very issue never mentioned Arab women. They simply don’t exist in U.S. Feminism.
  4. This should not be read as saying categories of race, gender and culture aren’t socially real. People are discriminated against, tortured and killed everyday because of belonging to these categories. We can’t ignore social reality, but we also can not treat it as the only reality.
  5. 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 in U.S. citizenship categories that we continue to be a source of great mystery and humor to more international-based feminists.
  6. 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 try to violate a national boundary; to violate the national boundary of a state supported by military power is 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).
  7. I’m not suggesting here that no one ever asked what men, or whites, or Christians “get” from power, because a lot of good theorizing has been/is being done around these issues. I am saying that, for the most part, the upholders of IP went merrily along guarding boundaries as if that work had no implications for the identities they were protecting.
  8. And by “ugly” I mean a range of behaviors from the very public trashing of a woman to lynching campaigns to the Witch burnings. Remember, when people in any kind of power feel threatened, they can justify any act as self-defense.
  9. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ARK paperbacks), 1988.
  10. One might also then intuit that strict racial divisions uphold white power. Why, then, are self-identified Radicals within IP so invested in their racial categories? A very good question.
  11. As women, what we seemed to have learned from being the target of victim-blaming for thousands of years is not to avoid doing it, but to be better at doing it, and better at hiding the process of doing it.
  12. In our wider society, think of how the U.S. is handling people’s fear of violent crime: not by passing gun control or ending poverty, but by passing “three strikes and you’re out” laws, invoking the unequivocal laws of pollution instead of the measuring and weighing of justice. Something is wrong, everyone knows it, and people already on the margins–in this case, mainly young, poor Black men–are going to be held responsible for our sins and be cast into the desert.

Copyright is held by the author, Elliott BatTzedek. All rights reserved. Used by permission.