You may have seen articles in the press about the issue of identify politics. Numerous white commentators depict it as something that is dysfunctional to the body politic. When these authors refer to identify politics, they are referring to the perspectives put forth by GLBT folks, BIPOC folks and women. In addition, a vocal group of white commentators maintain that the perspectives expressed by BIPOC activists are highly contentious, and reflect an erroneous view of who and what this country is. Some go so far as to say that these BIPOC perspectives are part of a campaign to distort US history. They claim that BIPOC folks and white allies want nothing less that to make all whites feel bad about being white.
Interestingly, those who condemn identity politics never acknowledge that their viewpoint is itself a form of identity politics – white identity politics. This oversight is part of a long-standing pattern. For instance, a newspaper article would say: “He is a man in his late forties.” Only if the person were BIPOC would the article state his race. That pattern racializes all other racial groups, but not whites. In many cases a white writer will state their view point or concern as though it was shared by everyone, when in fact, it is a viewpoint that that is shared primarily by whites. This leaves the impression that it is people, other than whites, who disagree with that viewpoint. This avoidance also blurs the issue and fails to acknowledge where whites are on an issue. It also ignores that whites have a stake in the situation, just like BIPOC do.
In advocating that history be scrubbed of accounts of institutional racism, these whites are seeking to maintain a long history where the only narrative that is allowed is the narrative that whites want told. If anything, the history of this country has been the enduring power of white identify politics. It began, to quote the historian Robin Kelley, when white elites became alarmed at the number of poor whites or indentured whites who were running away and living with either indigenous people or escaped enslaved Africans. As the historian Gerald Horne writes, therein is the beginning of the cross-class collaboration that is white identify politics. Poor whites were informed that they would no longer be whipped. They were promised land (eventually) and given guns so they could join wealthier whites in protecting land that had been taken from indigenous neighbors by force. Herein was the beginning of whiteness.
Previously, there was no such thing as whiteness. Everyone was either indigenous (“Indian”) or a subject of Britain, Spain, France, etc., or they were African. In the case of a baby born to a white woman and an African or indigenous person, that baby like its mother, would be British. It was mid-seventeenth century before this changed and a baby born to a white woman and either a native person or an African would be considered African or indigenous. The white woman would also be punished severely.
Those who warn that identity politics fragments society ignore history and actually long to return to the days when the only politics allowed was white identity politics. The contention that they warn about is finally felt among whites. Until recently, BIPOC people experienced plenty of contention. However, they were forced to stay silent, either out of fear of retribution or because they lacked access to media outlets that would publish their viewpoints. Whites who are upset by “identify politics” are whites who are feeling shocked at being exposed to viewpoints that radically differ from the dominant white narrative. These viewpoints also challenge the white narrative of who this country has been.
This alternate narrative differs radically from the narrative that portrays US history in a very positive light. In challenging that depiction, the viewpoints of BIPOC people are challenging the very identity that these whites so cherish. It is no wonder that they are so vehemently seeking to suppress this alternative narrative. What is at stake is their very identity. In a very real way, they have lost a privilege – the privilege to enjoy an uncontested view of reality.