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What Jonathan Chait Doesn't Understand About Identity Politics

02/10/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

Race is an absurd illusion with material consequences, a paradox that makes it slippery to discuss. (In the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "race only matters because of racism.") Race is an invented political idea with no biological basis, but because of our collective buy-in to this idea, it has very real power and effects -- ones that have profoundly shaped the contours of our society.

Whiteness, similarly, is not an essential state, but a social status and a state of mind fostered by that status. That state of mind may include feeling like your experiences are the norm, and thus universal, because that's the message society reflects back at you. It may include never having to think about race, because society doesn't put "race" onto you until someone (most likely a leftist) brings it up.

This state of mind afflicts the line of reasoning in Jonathan Chait's much-criticized article arguing that political correctness is "perverting liberalism."

The article suffers from a central confusion that seems to come up every time someone writes about the perils of "call-out culture." Let's take a moment to untangle that confusion: that between what is essential and what is experienced.

Of course, a white man is allowed to criticize identity politics. It's not that some essential quality of being a white man renders Chait incapable of having smart thoughts on the subject. But whether he'll completely miss the mark because he hasn't had to experience the very pains that brought about the need for identity politics in the first place -- that's another matter.

A lack of experience can be overcome by a leap of empathy. Chait, however, seems to have made no such leap, instead casually dismissing words that were conceived to describe experiences he has never had.

For instance, microaggressions erode quality of life for many, but Chait writes the term off as some kind of frivolous fad. It's easy for Chait to dismiss concepts like "non-binary" and "mansplaining" as p.c. jargon. He doesn't have anything to lose without them.

And Chait has made no effort to show the empathy required to understand what other people have to lose. He says that "p.c. culture" is "exhausting." Yet there's no sign he's tried to understand how exhausting it can be simply to exist in the world as a member of a non-dominant group, sitting quietly and tolerantly through "reasonable debates" in which your counterpart diminishes your experiences and humanity, or the experiences and humanity of others.

Take the way Chait handles a conversation leaked from a private Facebook group for women writers: He quotes a post in which one of the women appeals to the group to be more mindful of the diversity of its members, a message that was clearly written out of long-standing frustration. Chait doesn't examine what might have caused this frustration, even though he's launching readers into the middle of the story -- a story that wasn't actually meant to be consumed by the general public, and one that has much more to it than he presents (Disclosure: I'm a member of this Facebook group, and the sub-group for women of color).

Chait blames members of the group for turning what should have been "a 'laid-back' and 'no-pressure' environment for conversation and professional networking" into "a kind of virtual mental prison." But he doesn't consider how implicit racism can create an environment that's decidedly not "laid-back" and "no-pressure." Instead, he cherry-picks from the ensuing argument in a way that paints the frustrated women of color as the only aggressors.

There is no acknowledgment that people say things all the time that Chait might find inoffensive, but that, to a person of a non-dominant group, are as antagonizing as the tone policing he associates with political correctness. Instead, he anoints himself the arbiter of legitimate offense. Describing a campaign to highlight racial microaggressions on a college campus, Chait writes:

... the stories ranged from uncomfortable ("No, where are you really from?") to relatively innocuous ("'Can you read this?' He showed me a Japanese character on his phone).

Dear Jonathan: Imagine you have a lifetime of cumulative experiences in which people constantly assume you don't belong, continually react to you like you're some kind of exotic aberration, never the default, the assumed subject of our collective story. Then look at those examples again.

* * * * *

Clearly, identity isn't the only point of entry from which we can engage with these issues.

But here's where I'm coming from: I'm a woman of color, an ethnically ambiguous, brownish person. I haven't experienced the worst of racism, but I've experienced enough to be pretty tired of it.

In college, I read "This Bridge Called My Back," a landmark anthology of writings by radical women of color, with a feeling of great relief. The book made sense of my experiences that hadn't previously made sense. You're not alone and you're not crazy. There is something going on here. To me, that sentiment is a big part of what identity politics has achieved.

When Chait criticizes "political correctness," he's actually criticizing the culture of identity politics, an intellectual moment that has much deeper roots.

As Brittney Cooper has pointed out, the idea of identity politics was first articulated by the Combahee River Collective, a group of queer black feminists, in 1977:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

Identity politics today is animated by two key ideas, intersectionality and the privilege discourse -- so it's surprising that Chait doesn't explicitly engage with either.

Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is the theory that competing oppressions, like racism and sexism, interact with each other to shape the lives of individuals, and can't simply be analyzed in isolation from one another.

The privilege discourse arose out of Peggy McIntosh's 1988 essay "The Invisible Knapsack," which argued that people who are free of systemic oppressions derive invisible benefits from that status, ones that shape those people's worldviews. McIntosh's essay gave rise to the concept of "checking your privilege," or stepping back and examining how your social position might contribute to your deeply held assumptions.

Chait seems to think that the "extensive terminology" born out of the identity politics moment is itself the problem; he claims that so-called p.c. language "plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible."

But it's a misconception that the central conflict within identity politics is about superficial language, about the Most Correct Terminology with which to discuss marginalized people. As though language were not reflective of a passively absorbed worldview. As though words were not load-bearing conveyers of meaning, and did not suggest bigger things about how you see the world.

Racism isn't an intention, but a worldview, even if passively absorbed. The same is true of transphobia, ableism, homophobia, sexism.

If one unintentionally reproduces that worldview in speech, it's not unreasonable for someone to take issue.

* * * * *

It's hard to gauge what identity politics does in general terms, because we can only describe its implementation in daily life anecdotally. But if we anchor our understanding of identity politics in This Bridge Called My Back, Chait misses a key premise of the whole enterprise. "Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America," he writes. But by indicting identity politics for alienating potential allies, he's not taking the movement on its own terms; he's not grasping who it's really for.

To understand this, consider Kate Rushin's "Bridge Poem," the first entry in This Bridge, which also explains the anthology's title. Rushin's poem laments the way women of color are always expected to educate men and white people about sexism and racism -- to act as a "bridge," to convince them that these negative experiences are real, to explain why they're dehumanizing -- no matter how exhausting or hurtful it gets to keep explaining:

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your humanness

I'm sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long

I'm sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf of your better selves

The title suggests a shift in focus: a shift toward allowing women of color to clarify these problems among themselves, to strengthen their own resolve, to have a discussion on their own terms and for their own consumption. To develop a means of hitting back when someone disavows their humanity and experiences.

Indeed, a key component of identity politics is shifting the idea of who's at the center of progressive discourse, and in that regard, I would argue we've made gains. We can no longer assume quite so comfortably that the subject of a given political project is a man, or a white person, or straight, or cis, or able-bodied.

Yet in a follow-up to his original piece, Chait suggests that "associating charges of racism or sexism with tendentious ideological hectoring naturally makes people more skeptical of the veracity of any such charges."

When he says "people," he seems to mean people who aren't affected by racism or sexism, people who'd be in a position to disbelieve.

Chait paints "political correctness" as inherently anti-democratic, but he betrays his own anti-democratic thinking in the way he frames the problem that identity politics seeks to address: as an issue of "tolerance."

The concept of "tolerance," as Barbara and Karen Fields explain in their book Racecraft, presupposes that there are those who must tolerate and those who are to be tolerated. "As a political precept," they write, "tolerance has unimpeachably anti-democratic credentials, dividing society into persons entitled to claim respect as a right and persons obliged to beg tolerance as a favor."

* * * * *

The state of mind that being white fosters can be overcome through reason. Through listening, reading and thinking hard about what it's like to have a lifetime of experiences different from your own.

Chait professes to be a fan of reason, in part because it exists independently of identity. "I submit that the answers need to be arrived at through reason, a channel to which everybody has access regardless of identity," he writes in his follow-up essay. "That settling these questions through reason rather than through appeals to identity has become controversial is, of course, my point."

But Chait is wrong to think that reason isn't informed by experience, and that reason wouldn't include acknowledging a divergence in experience along lines of identity.

James Baldwin illustrates such a divergence in his 1962 novel, Another Country, in a heated exchange between a black woman, Ida, and a white woman, Cass, about the death of Ida's brother, Rufus:

"Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don't believe it has a right to exist. Now, you've never felt like that, and Vivaldo's never felt like that. Vivaldo didn't want to know my brother was dying because he doesn't want to know that my brother would still be alive if he hadn't been born black."

"I don't know if that's true or not," Cass said, slowly, "but I guess I don't have any right to say it isn't true."

"No, baby, you sure don't," Ida said, "not unless you're really willing to ask yourself how you'd have made it, if they'd dumped on you what they dumped on Rufus."

The best version of "Check your privilege!" is a reminder that your thinking may be constrained by your social status, and you might want to try listening again.

* * * * *

It's true that there is something broken about the privilege discourse. But its most vocal detractors are so ignorant of the object of their criticism, and too willing to throw out all of identity politics' gains.

Identities are survival strategies, ways of taking ownership and control over the way society has branded us. We rally around identity to mitigate that injury, to take comfort in all the positive things that have come out of a shared experience of otherness.

The tragedy of identity politics is that, in rallying around our identities, we naturalize them as much as we build up the will to abolish the conditions that first brought about the need to rally at all.

The focus on identity can foster a backsliding into essentialism -- one of the things identity politics is meant to combat. The concept gives way too easily to an infuriating way of shooting down any argument: simply find someone of the same identity who disagrees (a crude example is the old justification for doing something racist: "I have a non-white friend who says this is OK"). The marginalized person's very existence, rather than her ideas, is marshalled to refute the point.

Even among the well-intentioned, constant "privilege-checking" turns the gaze inward and feeds white guilt, itself a dehumanizing force. The mode of the privilege discourse is confessional; it lends itself to a kind of anxious narcissism. Though I respect the privilege discourse as a corrective to the arrogance that can come with a dominant identity, it obscures the fact that everyone deserves to live in the absence of structural oppressions.

McIntosh recently told The New Yorker that when trying list instances of her privilege, she would ask herself: "On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn't earn?" But no one should have to earn what the privileged already have. In the world I want to live in, everyone would be entitled to what we call "privilege."

"Privilege" doesn't have that aspirational quality, though it describes the unfair distribution of freedoms and comforts in our present society. As a result, the word gets misused as a tool of unproductive self-flagellation, in which privilege is conceived of as something one must disavow and cast off.

Chait concludes that what he calls political correctness is "a system of left-wing ideological repression." I disagree: Identity politics embodies a deep commitment to social equality, although its tools are flawed, and contain paradoxes.

All I can do is sit with these paradoxes, in tension with them. I can't find a way out of them, because I know that without identity politics, a lot of us would have a lot more to lose.

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