Sunday, June 10, 2012

The New Identity Politics?

This article in today's New York Times really fascinates me. It makes me wonder whether we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of politics in which intersectionality prevails over difference as the basis of identity-based political organizing and identification. If so, that would be a pretty powerful shift in American society and culture: a new identity politics.

Intersectionality is the idea that the classic categories of modern social and political identity, including race, class, gender, and sexuality, may perhaps be viewed in distinction for theoretical analysis, but in real life practice are always all going on at the same time. It is a concept of particular interest to people who study and work on forms of discrimination, and therefore another way of putting it is that axes of oppression and privilege are overlapping, not distinct. One is not either black or gay, for example: one is both black and gay. As obvious as that may seem once I say it, this idea has only been gaining ground in academic and activist circles for about 20 years.

Indeed, in its classic 1990s form, identity politics was precisely about the need to choose which aspect of one's complex identity would form one's primary allegiance. Am I going to work on women's rights or lesbian rights? lesbian rights or civil rights? transgender rights or disability rights? That is, which is more important to me as a female-to-male transgender person in a wheelchair: access to a urinal that accommodates my wheelchair, or access to a gender-neutral bathroom that accommodates my gender?

Of course, it was usually not people who were black and gay, female and lesbian, transgender and disabled, etc, who wanted to make these painful and difficult choices. Rather, advocacy organizations, from leadership down to rank and file membership, tended to force these choices for the sake of their  movements. As Julian Bond notes in the Times article cited above, people in the civil rights movement in the 1960s knew that Bayard Rustin, one of their major strategic and tactical architects, was gay, but in order to maintain the movement's focus on civil rights, Rustin had not only to stay closeted, but to make sure that his concerns as a gay man were kept completely distinct from his concerns as a black man. His blackness could be a public matter, but his gayness had to remain private, even secret, and indeed, I would suspect, more than just a little shameful, except perhaps within a very tight circle of very close associates (including Dr. King? maybe yes, maybe no, to judge from published statements and sources).

To be continued...

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