Huang: For the Community

We ought to distance ourselves from identity politics.

by Todd Huang | 2/15/18 1:15am

Dartmouth has a problem: It self-segregates. In addition to the various diversity offices and committees that Dartmouth will forever adore, the College has institutionalized affinity houses, such as the Shabazz Center, the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies House and the Native American House. It also has race-specific Office of Pluralism and Leadership advisors and academic programs that divide race into neat compartments. For example, by grouping together African and African American Studies, the College combines ethnic studies and area studies, two very separate fields with very different histories and theories. Despite these fundamental differences, Dartmouth merges them solely based on racial identity.

Dartmouth is not unique in this multiculturalist logic; much of the current diversity rhetoric in the U.S. centers on multiculturalism, and even dominant social justice culture has centered identity politics in its praxis. The Afro-American Society, Dartmouth Asian Organization, La Alianza Latina, Native Americans at Dartmouth and Spectra are examples of identity-based groups that operate to bring the community together or promote a stronger racial identity as a form of social justice. However, there is a fundamental issue to this type of community.

These “communities” can implode or dissolve because of a lack of interest and drive, a clash of politics or both. What’s the point of creating so-called communities based on identities that were highly politicized when there are no politics involved anymore? For instance, the term “Asian American” originated from Asian pan-ethnic organizing and was used as a political tool to recognize the common racism that affected Asians in America. Nowadays, the term “Asian” has been depoliticized to refer to “Asian culture,” which falsely assumes that people of Asian origin belong to a monolithic culture, or just “East Asian,” an essentialist erasure of non-East Asians. Asian (American) people are not bounded by any cultural or even experiential connection. Rather, they are linked through structural racism such as militarism and Orientalism. People are not cultural or political monoliths; forcing people to come together based on identity alone depoliticizes the radical history of these formations, flattens people’s politics and differences, ignores people’s abusive behaviors and creates an essentialist identity. If one of our goals is for the liberation of racialized and indigenous peoples, we only reify these essentialisms by not questioning them. One of the main components of identitarian community is political action (and not simply performative feel-good ones) that prioritizes our radical history over a reductive identitarian descriptor.

There are several other consequences to this particular way of thinking about identitarian communities. First, these communities neatly fall into the more insidiously racist multicultural system based in false equality. Is it not suspicious how corporations, universities and even the army have embraced diversity and started spectacularizing to the public how diverse their institutions are? By flattening into so-called communities, people of color fold further into the (diverse) U.S. empire by making race countable and clean-cut rather than destabilizing this idea of community. By reducing ourselves to a homogeneous identity, people of color play into the white liberal perception of us as politically monolithic people rather than as complex, politically diverse people. Second, by attempting to unite people with similar identity, people of color erase the violences committed by other people of color, especially rich ones, because we falsely assume a common connection with people of the same race. When Taiwanese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of stealing U.S. nuclear arsenal secrets (which was not proven by the courts in the end), many Asian American activists organized around this case of anti-Asian American racism. But as Vassar College professor Long Bui noted, the protesters never really questioned Lee’s actual job, in which he simulated nuclear explosions at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, an undoubtedly military and imperial project. When the protesters invoked identity politics and community, they were uncritically using identity without questioning the way many people of color uphold U.S. empire.

If we are to maintain these identity-based organizations, we must at least escape this trap that limits our organizing and alliances. An alternative is a radical organization that returns to radical roots and centers anti-capitalist and anti-colonial praxis rather than supposedly building community and reinforcing identity politics. Another alternative could be a total rejection of identity-based organizing through an interracial group based in people’s radical politics. This would not be a color-blind method to organizing, but rather one that acknowledges the current political state where people of color can also uphold the U.S. empire. Community needs to be redefined so that people of color are not simply included into the state as diverse subjects. A redefinition of community away from identity politics will reduce burnout and foster healthier people and stronger activism.

Huang is a member of the Class of 2019 and a member of Asian/American Students for Action.

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