For years, the Right, across the board up to the point of the White Supremacy crowd, has excoriated and ridiculed Liberals for the practice of identify Politics. Coming of age as I did at the start of this, I can give a worm’s eye view of the unrolling of this idea. The first thought of myself as a White person came in high school as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. Those White people who supported it found it necessary to first establish that they were White and that they, we, supported the Negro cause. Those opposed to the movement felt that allowing a Black person to call himself Black rather than Negro or Colored was a call to arms against White supremacy; even identifying their race at all seemed to take that power out of the Man’s hands. Blacks had no call to identify anyone. Whites determined whether you could vote or not, go to a certain school or not, serve in certain positions in the military or not, join a union or not, occupy political posts or not, all based on how the Man identified you. Allowing Blacks to appropriate that power, the power to define themselves, was unsuitable to the White supremacy project aka the well-ordered running of the country.
In my case, I transgressed the conferred identity by marrying across those lines, by marrying outside my race, by marrying a Black woman and having Black children. Why didn’t I have White children? Because the society in which I swam reserved to itself the power to identify my children. There is a lot to Ta-Nahisi Coates’ titling his essay on Trump The First White President since Obama was labeled the first Black president, not the first mixed-race president or mulatto or half-breed or just plain White. My conversations with Whites on this topic usually do not go well.
I had to identify myself as straight as more and more gays stood up to the brutality of the society. If I were ambiguous in my statements about that identification, I could be fired. So it wasn’t enough to be male, I had to be straight. But then it became important to declare that, as a straight man, I supported gay rights. The title of the review of Mark Lilla’s book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, is “Speaking as a ….” Well, it may be clever but it reflects a reality people my age certainly encountered: if you spoke up in defense of gay rights, you must be gay. There was an ugly term for Whites who spoke up in defense of African-American rights. I once quoted from surveys the fact that married men do better overall than unmarried men and the reverse is true for women. The person I said that to asked who the author of the book was and I mentioned a female name. “Aha,” was his response, “That’s why she wrote that.” That sort of thinking was absolutely endemic to the society. The only way to break through the smugness of people who assume you share their prejudices is to say, “I am a X and I support Y.” That shocks them. Why would you support a group they despise when you are not a member of that group? Bear in mind that a good deal of the astounding speed of the turn-around on gay marriage and gay rights came as more and more gays came out to their families, friends, and co-workers, making it harder and harder to “other” gays.
So now we have the newest target of the smug crowd, immigrants without papers. Identity politics? Why not identify yourself as someone in the U.S. without papers, point out that you were brought here as a child, and that you are a productive, tax-paying citizen? Oh, that’s right, we’ve already done that. They’re the Dreamers. Another identify the smug ones would like to submerge under a blanket of indifference and ignorance.