Identity politics: dead end for student activism

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After being denied the truth about our history in early schooling and fed lies about the causes of racism in the United States, people of color care deeply about learning their history in college. As a first-generation student and woman of color, I know how oppression on campus directly hits new students. Tuition is huge, financial aid scarce, classes not that relevant to what’s happening in our lives. Our campuses are predominantly white. Living proof that higher education under capitalism is as infected with inequality and bigotry as life off-campus.

Most freshman of color rush to join a club where they think they best fit in — from the Black Student Union, to Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán (MEChA).These main student-of-color groups have branches nationwide. They could be vitally important for progressive organizing, on campus and off. Autonomous organizing groups demanding social justice are great, so long as they also come together in united fronts to take on the same oppressive system. But the divisiveness that I have seen on campus has been one of my most disappointing experiences in college.

Many campus groups claim to be in solidarity with other organizations and struggles, but in reality they act more like exclusive social clubs. They think we should stick within our own circle of the persecuted — Chicanos with Chicanos, Blacks with Blacks, etc. This makes no sense to me. You can’t truly be in solidarity if you intentionally isolate yourself. Many students of color care about radically changing things. We all need to seek out each other and organize in one big circle. That’s often just not happening.

Attending the 22nd annual MEChA conference in Chicago in April definitely gave me the push to write this article. Discussions focused obsessively on Chican@ racial and cultural identity, and on the importance of excluding whites especially, but also other non-whites, from our campus work. The competitive attitude — “Our oppression is worse than others” — permeated the conference. So Latinos, Filipinos and Korean farmworkers should go on strike against the same boss separately?!

These politics of exclusivity create an atmosphere of one-upmanship that undermine collaborating and building the skills and leadership of new activists. Washington MEChA chapters argued over their roles in the Sakuma farmworkers strike in Washington State, rather than team up on how to build that important fight. When someone spoke English to make a point, others said, “Are you too American to speak Spanish?” This ignores the racist history in this country that blocked immigrants from speaking their own language!

When I asked who I could contact to make a proposal I was told, “There’s nobody in charge. We don’t believe in leaders. Individuality is more creative. … People who belong to other groups are leftists with an agenda.”

Hey wait! Leadership is not a dirty word, and what’s wrong with leftists? We’re on the same side. And our agendas are open, not secret.

These sketches each show racial and cultural substitutes for seriously studying political theory and history and philosophy, and organizing strategies for change. In the Civil Rights movement the Black Panthers called working in isolation “pork chop nationalism.” The Freedom Socialist Party characterizes it is as cultural nationalism.

Call it identity politics, separatism, cultural nationalism, sectarianism, exclusivity, segregationist, whatever. It cannot topple capitalism, which depends on racism and division. Segregated activism weakens and demoralizes the Chican@ movement and other movements confronting bigotry, and causes hostility instead of comradeship between races.

We can’t have a narrow view in political life because it limits hope for true freedom. Any person — woman or man, of color or white — who cares about the liberation of all human beings has a rightful place in figuring out and advancing the struggle for that liberation. There will never be a revolution without women and there cannot be a revolution without an integrated class struggle against our rulers.

In my own experience organizing on campus, it is ironic and sad and infuriating that a Mexican sees me as “too American” and an American sees me as “too Mexican.” That’s why it so necessary for me and students like me to raise our voices for radical, multi-racial student activity. Otherwise, we could be smothered by cultural nationalism. There’s too much urgent work to do to let that happen.

Miriam Padilla is a student at The Evergreen State College where she co-leads a chapter of the Freedom for Nestora Committee. Contact:

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