#FTF: Mari Matsuda addresses critics of identity politics

Last fall, due to an impressive display of academic bureaucracy, I found myself (as a mature student) back in an English 100 course despite having passed it before and taken a good deal of higher level English courses. Long story short, it was an exceptionally biased course about how to create an “unbiased” argument.

In addition to witnessing my teacher laud this gem by seasoned academic and king of impartiality, Dan Savage, as the next best thing to Hamlet, I also had to analyze why advertisements like this and this were so “brilliant and effective.” We were given Maxim magazines to look for inspiration for ad analysis.

Near the end of the course (after I’d had images of at least 20 women in various stages of nudity and sexualized violence branded into my corneas) the prof asked us why we use academic materials and impartial voice to make a convincing argument.

“Because academic stuff is facts, whereas media stuff is just someone’s opinion,” said one young man, fresh out of high school and thrilled that university featured soft-core porn.

“Right,” said my prof.

Wrong. Dead wrong.

Mari Matsuda
Mari Matsuda

In “On Identity Politics,” Mari Matsuda reminds us that the material academics consider “unbiased,” “disinterested,” and “neutral” is often little more than Euro/male-centric. I’ll admit that I have some reservations reviewing this piece, as my generation often uses identity politics as an excuse to reject legitimate feminist arguments or to perpetuate ageist tropes about our feminist foremothers. If I see one more 20-year-old white college kid online mis-label anyone who rejects the objectification of the female body as a proponent of “white feminism,” for example, I’ll sexily vomit. Millennials seem to have received the false message that any branch of feminism that still works toward equality for women as a collective (not just individuals) is stuck in a bygone era and needs to be quickly silenced or publicly ridiculed.

However, I also can’t subscribe to the notion that we should throw out the identity politics baby with the libertarian-gender-studies-student-with-an-asymmetrical-haircut bathwater. Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, notes that she’s been accused of “nationalism, narrowness, polemics (attacking), essentialism, vulgarization, parochialism (narrow-mindedness), balkanization (division), and sidetracking” [parenthesis mine] for speaking from her position as a Japanese-American Feminist woman rather than a more universalized position of “law professor.”

Why is it still critical to raise issues like race, sex, and class as relevant factors in how one explores the world? Matsuda responds:

Because it is still a radical act to stand in my shoes and speak when someone who looks like me is not supposed to do what I do. This is resistance. None of us were supposed to become law professors, write books, teach elites, or speak with authority about the words and systems that were designed to keep our kin under control […] We were not mentored by our law professors. We were not the assumed, the chosen. Our students are still unsure of our capabilities.

Counter to how those in my generation often use identity politics – as an excuse to suffocate questioning and critical thought rather than provoke it – Matsuda encourages us to use our particularities to expand academic and social discourse, to enrich conversation and literature by offering perspective.

While I can’t speak to the experience of being a woman of colour in a Eurocentric learning or working environment (I would recommend that readers explore Matsuda’s work on Critical Race Theory more in depth for this purpose), I can attest to the fact that being a woman – and not the “cool girl” kind – puts me at a relative disadvantage when it comes to proving my relevancy with my peers and, apparently, with my middle-aged profs, too. My English 100 class felt a bit like “learning” in the context of a boys’ locker room. When I objected to the use of Dan Savage’s article – two dudes in hysterics over a woman’s “Freshman 15” – my classmates rolled their eyes.

Did I owe it to my classmates and prof to educate them on why condom ads which feature women with their mouths split open or so-called “edgy” pieces about frumpy “fat” girls make the learning environment hostile to women?

No.

It was, is, and probably always will be an uncomfortable and even humiliating chore. Similarly, do women of colour or working class women have a responsibility to educate me (as a white woman who was raised lower-middle class) if I behave in a way that disregards their experience? Of course not, but for the women that have taken the time to do so and the women that may take the time to do so in the future (while I’ll do my best never to expect it), I’m very appreciative.

As Matsuda says, I think we’re all the richer for it.

Jess Martin
Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.

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  • Survivorthriver

    From the hometown of Dan Savage, I think he’s done a lot of damage for lesbians and women as part of the gay mafia. I do like his position on Santorum, the “other definition” of that name that is worth a peek at, albeit gay boy humor. Women wiped the man AIDS arses in this town, but the lesbians in that gentrified neighborhood where they soup brigaded for years are now priced out of its high-priced housing.

    I resented when “women’s studies” were formed. I thought that would make it easy to cut their budget after the menz ignored our scholarship, the women’s perspective and all legit feminist analysis…but, it was worse. They made it into “gender studies” and ultimately, here came the clown bus.

    Let’s revert to the old terms – women’s liberation. Women’s emancipation. Woman Power. Sovereign Female Nation. I feel the richer for these words.

  • I think the definition of “identity politics” being used in this article is far too broad. It basically implies that any discussion of the hierarchies that exist in our world (e.g. class, race, gender) constitutes “identity politics”. Sure right wingers may use the term that way, but that’s because they want to treat all their political opponents like they are part of one homogeneous mass. In reality identity politics is distinct from traditional leftist and feminist politics in the following ways.

    1. It justifies hierarchical systems (e.g. capitalism, male dominance, white supremacy, etc.) by taking what I call “social categories” (i.e. roles within a social hierarchy, such as being a capitalist or a worker) and turns them into “identities”. Instead of seeing ourselves as human beings who are being compelled to behave in a dominant or (usually) submissive manner, identity politics encourages us to believe that these roles are “who we are”. They usually, though not necessarily, imply that conformity to these roles is innate, but more importantly they see the existance of these hierarchical roles as a GOOD THING that creates “diversity”.

    They denounce opponents of these roles (and by extension, opponents of the social hierarchies that create them) as anti-individuality (sounds a lot like conventional anti-communist rhetoric, doesn’t it?) Of course they ignore any source of identity (or individual difference) that is not based on these roles (e.g. one’s personality, interests, philosophical viewpoints, etc.) or on sex (the most important thing in the world according to liberal feminism.)

    Fact is there are many different ways to be a human being who avoids dominating or submitting to others. While the abolition of these dynamics may require the abolition (or at least reduction) of certain personality traits (e.g. greediness, aggression, superficiality, etc.), this will not lead to some dystopian nightmare where everyone looks and acts exactly the same. If people saw themselves as human beings, first and foremost, and not just as a collection of “identity” traits, the thought of a world without hierarchy would not be so terrifying to them.

    2. It is idealist (in the Marxist sense of the term) and individualist. People are encouraged to base their sense of identity on how they feel, not on their understandings of real life social systems.

    I am sure the comments know that this sort of reasoning is often applied to gender (I will not say any more on the subject, for reasons many of you are all too familiar with), but in modern academia it is applied to economic class as well (and I am worried that people may be starting to apply it to race, by equating “whiteness” with conventionality.) People denounce Marx’s understanding of capitalism by arguing that they don’t feel think workers, because they don’t conform to stereotypes about working class people, even though it is objectively true that these people have little control over the economy and thus little say over how their own labour is used (which is what being working class means, in my view.)

    In reality the whole point of revolutionary socialist politics is to promote a class consciousness that we acknowledge does not exist yet for many workers or, at least, does not fully exist. This oh-so-horrific process of presenting ideas to people are asking them to engage with them is denounced by liberal academics as a promotion of the concept of “false consciousness”. Well guess what, a lot of people have “false consciousness”, meaning that they have ideas about themselves and society that are incorrect and in post-modernist, liberal land, telling someone they are incorrect is the worst thing you can do to someone (particularly if the claim is about “identity”.) Liberals would rather be called all kinds of horrific, pornography inspired names ( slut, whore, you know the rest) than be told that they are wrong. Surely this fact should cause to reflect on their supposed “open-mindedness”.

    Liberals often equate consciousness with identity and assume that movements which spoke of consciousness (e.g. socialists who encouraged “class consciousness”, radical feminists who practiced “consciousness-raising”) were in fact talking about “identity” (as they understand it.) In reality, consciousness (in the general sense as well as in the political sense) is about understanding the real world and one’s (current) place within it. What liberals call “identity” is all about navel-gazing and focussing on yourself. The real world does not enter into it at all and anyone who wants to promote awareness (though not support for) of real world social structures is denounced as an identity-crushing oppressor. This is why, as radicals, we need to bring back the concept of consciousness and make it clear that it is materialist concept and that liberals cannot just substitute their idealist concept of “identity” in its place.

    3. It creates a false sense of ideological homogeny. This is related to the first point, since your social categories (e.g. your class and race) are assumed to be your “identity”, they are then assumed to be the sole factors determining ideology. Of course one’s position in a hierarachy influences how they feel about it, as does the culture they were raised in, but this relationship does not completely determine ideology. People may be raised with certain viewpoints, but reject them as a result of interactions with the real world (e.g. people who grow up economically advantaged think that capitalism is a great system until they travel to a poor area and then they may realise that it doesn’t work for everyone.)

    The assumption of ideological homogeny across identity groups, then leads them to automatically denounce anything said by someone of the wrong identity, regardless of the actual validity (or lack thereof) of the statement. This saves from having to actually think about the issue at hand. More importantly, this assumption enables them to find a particularly submissive or advantaged member of a particular group (e.g. women, non-whites, prostituted women, etc.) and treat their eager subordination (or agreement with liberalism) as representative of every member of that group and proof that whatever they are trying to justify (e.g. the sex industry, beauty practices, oppressive cultural practices) is “empowering” and that anyone who disagrees is bourgeois, “white”, self-hating, etc. Of course they sometimes try to agree that a person’s ideology is determined by the specific combination of social categories they belong to (e.g. claiming that is such a things as a “white women” viewpoint which is completely different from the “black women” viewpoint), which leads to my final point.

    4. It splits up movements for no good reason. According to post-modernism, attempts to draw numerous data points from a variety of fields into an overall theory are totalising and therefore bad (there goes Newton’s laws motion, plate tectonics, evolutionary biology and just about every aspect of science that does not consist solely of memorising boring lists and numbers.) Liberal academics, whether they realise it or not, are heavily influenced by this way of thinking and are thus horrified by the fact that people have tried to come up with theories regarding the oppression or workers or women as a whole. When political movements form around these theories, with the intention of uniting an oppressed group, identity politics is used to try and disrupt these movements.

    For example, liberals claim that the oppression of black women (or women in non-Western countries) is so radically different from the oppression of white women that no overall hypothesis can be put forward to explain the oppression of women (or that such hypotheses are automatically totalising and evil.) This then disrupts the ability of radical feminists to form a unified (though hopefully not ideologically homogeneous) movement against femininity (and other oppressive forces liberals want to defend.) In reality, while gender indoctrination (or capitalist exploitation in the case of workers) manifests differently across different societies and cultures, there are clearly overall patterns, which can be understood and used as the basis for forming movements.

    Throughout history, these movements have modified their ideologies in light of this variation, without abandoning their core principles and aims, yet they are still denounced as “unchanging” and “dogmatic” by liberals. No amount of change is good enough for them unless it leads to the abandonment of radical views (such as belief in the need for socialist revolution or gender abolition) and attempts to unify large groups of people, which can never succeed if we are obsessing over the unique experiences of some highly specific portion of the population, (e.g. young, poor, bisexual, disabled, black women.) In summary, identity politics is a highly de-radicalising approach to the world, aimed at discourage those who sympathise with leftist viewpoints from adopting a genuinely revolutionary outlook.

    • Stephie Smith

      Whew!

  • Sass

    I agree that identity politics are being used in very negative ways, but that analyzing systems of oppression remains critical. What we need is to look at identity groups as grown-ups, who understand about context and systems, rather than adolescents who are competing for “most oppressed.” I wrote more about this here, if anyone is interested. http://secretlyradical.blogspot.com/2014/03/moving-my-post-on-intersectionality-and.html

  • Alli

    http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2009-judith-butler-on-gender-and-the-trans-experience

    A recent Judith Butler interview, would like to read views on this too.

  • Christopher Ryan

    Testing – Testing – Teeeeeeessssttiiiing.