I grew up in a segregated city. Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I was able to tell at a fairly young age that certain types of people did not live in my neighborhood. As I went through high school, I came to understand that my city was a glaring manifestation of a glaring racial hierarchy that absurdly disadvantages Latin@ and black people while privileging white folks. This is how race was taught to me and how I understood race. When I came to the Claremont Colleges and was exposed to Asian American studies and Asian American political groups, it was the first time I was made to think about my own racial position. Whereas in Chicago I existed in a strange racial limbo, I discovered Asian American as a legitimate position. I continued to explore this idea of Asian American issues for the next few years to the point where I find myself now. An AARC intern and an Asian American studies minor, I feel securely packed into the Asian American community at the Claremont Colleges. Yet, while this community has developed me and enriched my life in innumerable ways, I feel something missing.
As I became Asian American, I observed similar processes occurring for other people. People who identified as women or gender-queer found themselves gravitating towards the Women’s union. Black students took Africana studies courses. Students who had these marginalized identities moved toward the wonderful communities centered around these aspects of identity. And while self-actualization and community that I and many of my peers got to experience is invaluable, I seek to raise at some level the dangers of these purely identity-based politics that I fear our student body slides towards.
Here at the Claremont Colleges, we tend to use identity as a metric of credibility. As an Asian American, in circles discussing social issues, I have become the expert on the Asian American experience. Of course, this is true to a certain extent, as I do have a version of an Asian American lived experience. However, this discourse creates a sort of binary between non-Asian American people and me. If I am the expert, others become non-experts, listeners subjected to the role of the listener or the ally. As one blogger puts it, “we use concepts like “privilege” to ensure that people stay in their lanes. People of color are the authorities on race, while LGBTQ people are the authorities on gender and sexuality, and so forth and so on. Yet, experience is not the same as expertise, and privilege doesn’t automatically make you clueless.” In a way, these boxes of identity act as rules about who can and cannot speak on the issue of marginalization. In turn, we isolate each of our individual experiences of oppression and place them into some sort of master file of oppression.
What we risk by enacting this mode of politics only is serious. With a master file, with individual stories from each identity label, we potentially miss the big picture. With each person only concerned with the plight of their own identity category, we might fail to understand that all of these experiences are linked to larger systems of power. We might fail to see that it is not just the struggle of working, middle, and upper class peoples, but the conditions of contemporary capitalism. The plight of Latin@, black, Asian Americans, and other races are not insular, they are linked to the problem of a white supremist racial hierarchy. My argument is not that we ought to cease understanding our own experiences in terms of our identity, but rather that it cannot stop there. We cannot be content to understand ourselves and the plight of those that fall into the same identity categories because what we will miss is the very conditions that have oppressed us in the first place. Instead, once we have figured out our own identity, we need to look outwards and see how the experiences of those dissimilar from us fall under the same larger system of power that creates the conditions for marginalization. Only then can we take a stab of something that can raise all communities, not just the ones that we might identify with.
I’ll end with the example of Grace Lee Boggs. During the AARC retreat this year, the corner piece film we watched had to do with Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American activist largely known for her work with the black community. Heralded as one of the most influential Asian American activists of all time, she notably did not focus her efforts on people of Chinese or Asian descent. Grace Lee Boggs identified an unreasonable system of oppression and moved herself to address the issue. Here at the Claremont Colleges, we need to ask ourselves if the type of border crossing that Grace Lee Boggs gave no thought to is possible here, and if it is not, we need to ask what is the next step.
Much of my writing here is inspired by this blog post who I reference in the piece http://www.orchestratedpulse.com/2014/03/problem-identity-politics/
-Tom, PO ’16