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Can the Left Take Back Identity Politics?

Members of the Combahee River Collective, 1974. Included are (back row, l-r) Margo Okazawa-Rey, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Chirlane McCray, and Mercedes Tompkins;

(front row, l-r) Demita Frazier and Helen Stewart. 

The Combahee River Collective

“We were asserting that we exist, our concerns and our experiences matter,” said Black feminist activist Barbara Smith in an interview she gave almost four decades after the publication of the seminal Combahee River Collective Statement, credited as the first text where the term “identity politics” is used. “We named that ‘identity politics' because we said that it is legitimate to look at the elements of one’s own identity and to form a political analysis and practice out of it.”

Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. The Collective got its name from a military expedition at the Combahee River in South Carolina planned and carried out by the abolitionist Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863. The raid, which freed 750 slaves at the time, was the first military campaign in American history led by a woman. When asked to describe her work with the Combahee Collective in Boston, Smith said, “I think it was really fated that I ended up there. In Boston there's something about the size and the scale of the city that made it more possible for those of us who were like-minded to find each other.”

But the Collective's impact extended much farther than the local activist scene, thanks to its widely circulated statement of principles. Written by Barbara Smith, her sister Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier in 1977, the statement was published in 1979 in Zillah Eisenstein's anthology Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, and has since become one of the foundational texts of Black feminist thought:

Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity ... In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

This was indeed a very different understanding of identity politics than the hollowed-out versions that dominate public debate today. First, it refused the idea of comparing and ranking oppressions, focusing instead on the particularity of each lived experience. “We actually believed that the way you come together is to recognize everyone fully for who they are,” Smith said, “as we work toward common goals of justice and liberation and freedom.” This opened the door to cooperation and coalition-building, including with those who don't resemble, or necessarily agree with, us. Second, it rejected single-issue politics by pointing to the “interlocking” nature of major systems of oppression. This was in fact the reason the Combahee statement was written in the first place: to point to the failure of the Civil Rights movement, Black nationalism and White feminism to sufficiently address the realities of Black lesbian women.

But the statement didn't prioritize the liberation of one group of people over any other, and proposed what was effectively a new model of social justice activism — foregrounding what would later be called “intersectionality.” Oppressions were multilayered and experienced simultaneously, and that required multi-issue strategies that reject a rights-only agenda. And third, the Combahee vision was unabashedly internationalist and anti-capitalist. The members of the Collective were actively involved in the anti-war movement, for they considered themselves to be, in the words of Barbara Smith, “third world women”: “We saw ourselves in solidarity and in struggle with all third world people around the globe.” Growing out of the organized Left, they defined themselves as socialists, and believed, as their statement put it, “that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses.”

Till Identity Do Us Part

But times have changed, and not for the better. A new type of identity politics was forged on university campuses, one that didn't fully grasp the connection between theory and practice, or concerns about bread-and-butter issues that affect all women. This narrow version “was used by people as a way of isolating themselves, and not working in coalition, and not being concerned about overarching systems of institutionalized oppression,” Barbara Smith said, expressing her discontent with the ways in which identity politics was reconfigured by the campus Left. “Trigger warnings and safe spaces and microaggressions — those are all real, but the thing is, that’s not what we were focused upon.” Like other groups of Black women who were organizing around Black feminism, Combahee was “community-activist based. Focusing on looking at real issues affecting all Black women, which includes poor Black women.”

Demita Frazier, another co-author of the Combahee statement, concurred. Part of the problems is “the commodification of everything,” including identity politics, which was completely detached from its anti-capitalist origins. This was because of the way it was co-opted by academics, she added: “I wouldn’t say co-opted if it weren’t for the fact that there’s still this big divide between practice and theory, right? I mean, I’m glad that the children and the young’uns are getting educated, but it looks like a factory to me right now.”

This brief excursion into history, and the reflections of the veteran activists of the Combahee River Collective on the legacy of their statement, provide several insights into the problems that plague current understandings of identity politics. The radical identity politics of campus activists, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainers and anti-racism gurus is everything that the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective is not. The new upgrade is profoundly narcissistic, and focuses on perceived individual harm at the expense of structural injustices; it establishes hierarchies of oppression by resuscitating the theological concept of “eternal sin,” which is then imputed to certain groups of people who are expected to devote a certain percentage of their daily lives to confess and repent (after all, no salvation without self-flagellation!); it interjects the term “intersectionality” here and there as a catchphrase, but treats identities as if they are fixed, insulated categories with no internal hierarchies or divisions; it disparages the idea of universal values or human rights, treating them as tools for domination invented by the powerful to maintain the status quo; it sees no allies, and it seeks no allies; it is thus “separatist,” in the sense in which Barbara Smith used the term. “Instead of working to challenge”, Smith said, “many separatists wash their hands of it and the system continues on its merry way.”

“This Bridge Called My Back”

For the Combahee women, identity politics was about politics, and identity was one way of doing politics and challenging hierarchies. For the campus Left, identity politics is about identity, and identity is beyond politics. It's a sacred value that needs to be preserved intact, at all costs. The questions of who defines a particular identity, or what causes harm, are left unanswered. In that sense, early critics of radical identity politics, Marxists and liberals alike, were right, but only partially. It's true that for the campus Left, “symbolic verbal politics” was the only form of politics that was possible. But today, even verbal politics is out of bounds. Terms are not discussed but dictated; truth, in an ironic twist, is no longer relative but absolute. Paradoxical as it may sound, new identity politics is “anti-politics” — not only in the conventional sense of alienation from or distrust in mainstream politics but also in the broader sense of how we understand “the political,” as a space of contestation. The current obsession with privilege closes up that space, ruling out the possibility of dialogue and building alliances. In such a scheme, anyone who criticizes dominant progressive orthodoxies is branded as a “useful idiot,” advancing or unwittingly enabling a right-wing agenda. White progressives, Black conservatives, centrists or bona fide liberals are considered to be more harmful to the cause of social justice than explicitly racist modern day Ku Klux Klanners. It may well be so. But what does this mean, politically speaking? Are we not supposed to reach out to fellow progressives or, indeed, regular people, and explain to them that in a society built on White values, colorblindness may not be the best way to achieve racial equality? And if we cannot even speak to the progressives, how are we going to convince the conservatives, reactionaries, or overt racists who still constitute a substantial part of any given society?

The Combahee women who coined the term identity politics knew the answer to these questions because they were doing political work and consciousness-raising in the real world, with women of all colors and walks of life, not peddling virtue in sterilized boardrooms or slick vodcasts. They were guided by the motto “This Bridge Called my Back” (which was later to become the title of a ground-breaking feminist anthology edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa), which they saw as the key to success. “The only way that we can win — and before winning, the only way we can survive,” said Barbara Smith, “is by working with each other, and not seeing each other as enemies.”