Normalization and its Discontents: An Interview with Ladelle McWhorter

Ladelle McWhorter is the author of Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization(Indiana, 1999), Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy(Indiana, 2009), and numerous articles in feminist, queer, and race theory. With Gail Stenstad, she edited Heidegger and the Earth: Essays in Environmental Philosophy(University of Toronto Press, 2009). She holds the James Thomas Chair in Philosophy and is Professor of Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Richmond. In addition to engaging in ad hocqueer and feminist activism on and off campus, she serves as the secretary of the state governing board of Virginia Organizing, which connects and empowers communities across Virginia to confront and grapple effectively with environmental, race, poverty, and queer issues.She was interviewed in the summer of 2010 by Shelley Tremain.

In your book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America, you elaborate upon Michel Foucault’s claim that a form of racism – “racism against the abnormal” – emerged in the late 19th century. How is this understanding of racism different from the ways that race and racism are generally understood in mainstream culture and feminist anti-racist discourses?

Frankly, when I first encountered the phrase “racism against the abnormal” in the final lecture of Foucault’s 1975 Collège de France series Abnormal, I was incredulous. It seemed to me both methodologically and politically suspect. Why confuse analytic categories to that degree? Sure, people deemed abnormal are often mistreated, harassed, discriminated against, ostracized, brutalized, and exploited for menial labour and medical research or as pretexts for police action; there is no question that people who fall into various classes of abnormality are oppressed. But why call that oppression “racism”? Racism is oppression, exploitation, brutalization of people on the basis of their presumed race, not because of their location on a scale of normed development. Race and abnormality are different things entirely, right?

Well, no. The more research I did, the more clearly I saw that the modern conception of race would have been unthinkable withoutthe historical emergence of notions of normality – normed and normal development. The main reason is that through the 19th century, as the concepts of progress, development, and finally evolution took hold, racial differences – that is, differences from what Europeans and Euro-Americans variously referred to as the white, Caucasian, or Nordic standard – were interpreted as deviations from the norm. There was one Human Race, whose most advanced representatives had achieved civilization and who were set to progress even further, and then there were these evolutionary leftovers, peoples whose development had not kept up with this advancement or who had diverged from the norm in some supposedly terrible way. Racism was first of all about freeing the Human Race from these remnants; it was about purification in the service of progress.

As far back as the 18th century, when the term race first began to shift in meaning from an identity category based on cultural lineage, language, and religious practice to one based on morphology, people speculated about the process by which racial differences developed. It wasn’t long before the idea that racial differences developedbecame the idea that racial differences were signs of more or less advanced or healthy development– that is, signs of maturation or progress, or a deficiency or lack thereof. Even pre-Darwinian race theorists held that racial differences (that is, differences from the peoples of northern Europe) indicated degrees of developmental arrest or deviation from one human norm, from the Human Race. When these theorists produced hierarchies of races, they alleged that the groups they located at the bottom of these hierarchies were less rational and more impulsive than groups at the top of the hierarchies. Developmentally speaking, the members of these “lower” groups were likened to the children or, sometimes, the women of the superior races.

At the same time, research was being done on members of “superior” races who broke laws or were identified as cognitively abnormal, and new categories of human beings were being produced – criminals, idiots, imbeciles, morons, etc. – all of which were defined as developmentally suspect types, atavisms, throwbacks to the superior races’ savage past. (Notice I’m not saying, simply, “the white race,” because race theorists believed there were inferior white races as well; these racial typologies were very complex.) Theorists frequently pointed out ways in which suspect subgroups of superior races resembled other under-developed groups. Like members of other races, those identified as idiots and imbeciles, for instance, were perpetual children in need of life-long supervision, both for their own protection and for society’s. In fact, with the advent of IQtesting, mental disability was mapped directly onto “normal” child development; “morons,” for example, were adults with a “mental age” of nine to twelve years. Likewise, “mental retardation” was mapped onto morphological race; you may remember hearing
people with Down Syndrome being called “mongoloids,” which is a remnant of such racial mapping. John Down believed that Caucasian children passed through all of the lower stages of racial development and that, if developmentally arrested, they would display the morphological characteristics of a lower racial stage. “Mongoloids” were fairly advanced in their development compared to many other people identified as diverging from cognitive and psychological norms, so “naturally” they displayed the demeanour and intellectual ability that Down imagined to be common in the Mongolian race.

Placed on the same developmental scale, all these categories became more or less interchangeable. Children were savages. Savages were criminals. Criminals were morons. Morons were children. And non-white races (indeed, even white races that could not be traced to north-western Europe) were childlike and criminal and moronic by nature. Measured against the norms of the Human Race, they were all arrested or deviant in their development, as were people with various sorts of “deformities,” disabilities, and illnesses. Tuberculosis and syphilis were considered marks of degeneration or atavism in the early twentieth century, as were addiction, prostitution, and chronic poverty or “pauperism.” Racism was a set of programs intended to purge the Human Race of these untimely elements, to eliminate the evolutionary drag, so to speak. It was imperative to prevent those people from mingling with – and spoiling the minds and bloodlines of – “normal people.” Hence, the segregation laws, the reservations, the prisons and “asylums,” the involuntary sterilizations, the lobotomies, and the extreme anxiety over white child development and family structure – dynamics that mark the 20th century. It was not that these people were less than human. The problem for proponents of scientific racism was that they werehuman; they were members of the single Human Race, which had tremendous evolutionary promise, but their continued presence in the breeding population threatened to pull the evolution of the Human Race off-track. The racism of the 20th century was about developmental norms and normalization and the control and management of populations. By constructing a “genealogy” (as Foucault might term it) – that is, by tracing the historical development of racism (a task Foucault himself did not undertake, as he makes clear in the fifth lecture of Society Must Be Defended ) – I show how normalizing power supports and reinforces what Foucault calls biopower in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, a concept that he elaborates and refines in subsequent work, especially in the 1979 lecture series published as The Birth of Biopolitics.

I am not suggesting that all groups that have been oppressed over the last two centuries have had the same experience or have suffered to the same degree. Nor am I attempting to analyze experience. I am attempting to analyze power relations. I am suggesting that much sense can be made of the last two centuries if we understand racism as a set of mechanisms that produce and maintain the superimposed notions of the White Race and the Human Race, rather than as a set of mechanisms that simply oppress a particular set of morphologically-defined groups. If we look at these phenomena in the context of their genealogy, we can see close connections between the different experiences of very different groups, the common “lineage” of those oppressive mechanisms, so to speak. We can see how they were shifted from site to site and deployed in sometimes only slightly altered ways in different locations to different ends. And seeing those genealogical connections is helpful as we look for common ground to work in coalition.

I would contrast that approach with feminist intersectional analysis, for example, which tends to keep us focused on identity, on the things we don’thave in common, and thus tends to preclude analyses of power relations that produce identities and change them over time. By taking the metaphorical “intersection” of identities as its object of investigation, intersectional analysis maintains identity categories even as it tries to trouble them, whereas I take as my focus, not identities, but institutionalized power/knowledge relations, some of which generate identities. If our identities are generated within normalizing networks of power, we need modes of analysis that enable us to critique them not merely at their margins, but also at their centers. Intersectional analysis has given us some important insights, but in my view it has some very serious limitations that a genealogical analysis of racism as a changing set of power/knowledge relations helps overcome. It is important to see how race affects gender or sexual identities; seeing that these categories of identity and experience vary across contexts and in relation to one another helps loosen their hold on us. But seeing how they arise historically and what interests they serve does that and more. We learn not only that identities are contingent; we also learn what their contingencies are, what invests them, and what holds them in place. A genealogical analysis thus helps to open doors for resistance.

What is your analysis of the relationship between race and sexuality?

By the end of the 19th century, race and sexuality are so entangled that I would say they are almost conceptually inseparable. Practically, they are inseparable. One of the major points in my book is that activists who focus solely on either race or sexuality will never fully understand the power networks they are up against. Ignoring the intimate relationship between race and sexuality condemns us to political failure.

Consider the history I recounted above. Race theorists produced studies showing that northern European women were intellectually analogous to men of races belonging to the second tier (for example, Asians and Jews), as well as studies showing that those men were in many respects effeminate. Black and Native American men, too, were thought to be effeminate; Native American men were thought to lack sexual ardour as well as beards, while black men were seen as emotional and deficient in courage, characteristics typically attributed to women. So sex and gender were certainly all mixed up in this way of thinking and in the institutions and scientific discourses that sustained it. Note, these were not marginal discourses; these studies appeared in major anthropological and medical journals, authored by widely respected researchers.

Many biologists, as well as psychologists and sexologists, held that sexual difference is heightened with the advance of civilization and, therefore, androgyny is a sign of arrested development, degeneration, or deviation. It did not escape notice in the 19th century that the females of many indigenous groups were physically powerful and capable of heavy labour, and in-depth “studies” of their pubic regions indicated that they, compared to allegedly normal white women, had large clitorises and other “masculine” genital formations. Sexologists into the mid-20th century drew on these studies to generate theories about what they initially called “sexual inversion.” Sexual inverts were men and women who acted, desired, and sometimes looked like members of the “opposite” sex – in other words, people whose comportment blended masculine with feminine – and thus threatened the sexual difference that civilization had produced and depended on for its furtherance. Reputable psychotherapists were quoting this work well past the middle of the 20th century and applying it in their therapeutic regimes. Sexuality was an object of extreme interest, because it was thought to be a crucial point where deviant development displayed itself and also the means by which deviance was retained in the gene pool and passed to the next generation. Controlling sexuality was the way to control human development at the level of the population. (Of course, it was also a way to discipline individuals for all sorts of economic and political ends.)

Like inferior races and white throwbacks – criminals, the mentally retarded, etc. – inverts had to be contained to prevent the degeneration of the Human Race’s avant garde, the civilized races of northern Europe and their North American cousins. By the mid-20th century, what we know as racism was all about keeping the superior white race pure and protecting it from the dangers lurking in the less advanced, mostly darker races. That agenda was all bound up with fantasies of normality, and it was tightly bound up with fears of deviant sexual practices, from miscegenation to homosexuality.

The figure of the sexual predator, with roots in the late-19th-century myths of the black rapist and the black Jezebel, arises here. By definition, “savages” and “throwbacks” have little or no moral restraint and so will force themselves upon normal people and corrupt them. The young are especially vulnerable – children, high-spirited but naïve young women, young men away from home at university, in the military, or in the “big city” looking for work and boarding at the YMCA. In the 1930s, the US FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover actually “declared war” on sexual predators, launching a massive campaign to put all sorts of people under surveillance with the public’s blessing. These sexual deviants were threats to the advancement of the Human Race. Tens of thousands of people suffered horrible oppression because of this configuration of knowledge and power, which was very closely tied to the oppression of people of colour both conceptually and institutionally. In fact, much of it just was oppression of people of colour, who as members of “less advanced” races were considered sexual deviants by definition and likely to become sexual predators if given any opportunity.

This is the racism – the mechanisms and practices – that thoroughly shaped the world that people of my generation were born into, the racism that powered violent resistance to the desegregation of schools, public facilities, the US military, hospitals, churches, and neighbourhoods. And though much has changed in my 50 years, most of those power/knowledge mechanisms are still at play in one way or another in the 21st century. They still make life especially hard for anybody labelled abnormal. And they still frighten or entice those not (yet) so labelled into rigid conformity.

What do you think are the most effective ways to organize against, resist, and transform normalizing forms of power?

This is a scary question for a Foucault scholar. As you know, Foucault always resisted giving political advice. For one thing, he believed there were no universally applicable answers. But, more importantly, he believed that freedom is a matter not of attainment, but rather of action, of practice. We must enact freedom, not seek it; that means we must discover and invent our own paths and strategies, not adopt somebody else’s principles and deduce our actions from them.

Having said that, I acknowledge that there is a push in my book toward coalition-building and away from organizing around identities. For at least the last decade, what has seemed most important to me is listening carefully to and working with people whose backgrounds and perspectives are different from my own. For example, my work with Virginia Organizing – a grassroots organization that works on issues ranging from racial profiling to tax reform to climate change – has been eye-opening and deeply enriching for me. And it has given me first-hand experience of the fact that ordinary people can find or create common ground across ethnic, socio-economic, religious, and other differences and really succeed in changing their communities. Working across our differences makes practical success more likely, because it greatly enlarges the number of people co-operating to reach a particular goal. But even more significantly, I think, it creates an intellectual and practical space where goals can be examined and critiqued, where learning can happen, where people can transform themselves and be transformed. Our political goals and directions emerge in that kind of interaction and in that kind of subjective change.

Foucault talked about political and philosophical engagement as a way of wrenching oneself free of one’s self, of the kinds of subjects we are and have been made to be. I think the work that goes into creating common ground is that kind of engagement, a practice of freedom. That is the sort of work that is exciting to me, both because it is subjectively freeing and because it can have far more political impact than organizing around single-identity agendas.

Consider this past June’s meetings of the G8/G20 in Toronto – both the elaborate preparations in anticipation of and the various means used to squelch and discredit protest. Those techniques and mechanisms have been honed in use against migrant workers, immigrants in menial jobs, and people of colour in inner cities for decades in the name of securing free markets. Why should anyone be surprised when they are turned against “normal” citizens who voice dissent? On the one hand, if we analyze what happened in Toronto as simply “us against them” in some global capitalist showdown, we lose the racial dimension altogether. On the other hand, if our only means for conceptualizing racism comes out of identity politics, we will focus only on acts of suppression against our own particular communities, while failing to see how racism permeates global neoliberal projects.

Racist and sexually oppressive mechanisms discipline and normalize individual bodies and thus affect each group differently, but those individualizing mechanisms have always served projects of population management and control and thus are readily available for global labour and market management. If we are to see how racism supports and furthers neoliberal globalization, we absolutely must get past facile accounts of racism that construe it as a moral failing or psychological defect. We must face racism as an assemblage of power/knowledge mechanisms operating far beyond the experience of our own particular identity groups if we are to begin to grapple with the forces shaping the world today.

How does an approach based in the tradition of Foucault’s genealogies change the sorts of questions that we ask about power?

My impulse is to say that it changes everything, but that is not very helpful, so I’ll focus on just two ways in which a genealogical approach differs from many other modes of analysis. First, as Foucault often says, a genealogist doesn’t ask why things happen as they do; instead a genealogist asks how things happen. Now, that might sound like empty wordplay because, of course, we can ask much the same questions beginning with either word. But Foucault isn’t making a semantic point. He is distinguishing between approaches that analyze phenomena with reference to something supposedly external to the context in which they occur and approaches that analyze phenomena as networks of “internal” relations. It is the difference between asking whyAbraham made ready to sacrifice his son Isaac – a question that would send us out of the context of questioning and toward an ahistorical discursive practice such as transcendental theology or psychoanalysis – and asking howit came about that Abraham came to hear a command that he attributed to a god – a question that would keep us focused on events, practices, and regimes of knowledge in Abraham’s world, insofar as we have access to them. The wording doesn’t really matter so much, but the orientation of the questioning is crucial.

Of course, a Foucauldian genealogist is never interested in the past for the past’s sake. Is anybody? Part of any genealogical study is an awareness that our questions themselves arise in a context. How did it become important to know why or how Abraham did what he did? What is at stake in that question? Genealogies are histories of the present, Foucault said. They are ways of making sense of how we are now by looking at how we got here and how this, here, now is historically possible.

After my 1999 book Bodies and Pleasures, my question was: How could it be that race seemed like an all-pervasive, formative phenomenon in my world yet I could not articulate the outlines of that phenomenon to save my life? How could I know that race and racism were all around me, penetrating every part of me, and not have the first idea how to define either word, much less how to resist the terrible aspects of what they named? I knew my inability was not mine alone. Assumptions about, and analyses of, race in popular culture and in scholarly work seemed hopelessly jumbled and confusing and, despite decades of political struggle that amounted at times to genuine upheaval, we were apparently no closer to dismantling the oppressive structures that “racism”names. I did not know how to make sense of racism. I did not know how to make sense of my own experiences in a racist society. I did not know how to make sense of the ways in which racism felt threatening to me as a white lesbian. I did not know how to make sense of the rising tensions between predominately white LGBTQactivists and predominately black civil rights activists. Racism was just a multi-headed monster in constant motion, deadly and ubiquitous, here and everywhere yet always just beyond my intellectual grasp. Why are people racist? Why is our society racist? I could not begin to answer questions like that.

But I felt a growing need for answers of some sort. Genealogy didn’t promise answers, but it did suggest a path. How did racism arise? I looked first at the history of the word racism –which is very short; it only dates back to 1936 in English, 1935 in German. Obviously it refers to phenomena that date back several centuries, so why was it not named before? Such a recent coinage suggested another set of questions, which I pursue at great length in the book: what led to the invention of this term at just that time and in just those languages? Why had no one grouped the phenomena that we now call “racist” together and give them a name? What new distinction was being made, and what interests did it serve? What was being resisted when that term was deployed? These questions led me directly into consideration of a network of power relations that were in crisis in the 1930s. My study of that crisis revealed the outlines of a vast network of power relations that had assembled during the previous century, a network far more extensive than what was intended by the 1936 coinage “racism.” In 1936, that network of power was protecting itself and furthering itself by isolating a small set of practices embedded within it and condemning them, so that the rest of the assemblage, the machine, could continue humming along. Then, as I traced the processes that had assembled the machine, I discovered a vast set of interlocking discourses and institutions that acted in concert and upon each other over time to completely reshape people’s conduct and experience – to shape what we know as the world.

The second thing I want to mention – in addition to a shift in emphasis from “why” to “how” questions – is that Foucauldian genealogy does not presuppose a constant form of subjectivity. This is important at two levels. First, because I did not privilege subjectivity as the site of racism, I did not have to sort through endless questions of psychological motivation or moral responsibility. I don’t mean to imply that these things are unimportant or nonexistent, but they are not part of genealogical analysis (except insofar as one might ask how a particular issue –say, masturbation – became a matter of moral consequence or a cause for psychological distress). Instead, psychology and morality are historical phenomena alongside others, discourses and practices that can be treated genealogically; their objects of analysis have no particular privilege in genealogical work. Genealogy is concerned with power relations, with mechanisms deployed within strategies of governmentality (that is, managerial programs aimed at influenc-ing free people’s conduct), with points of reversal, with shifts that create reinforcement, enabling a set of forces to squelch opposition and fix themselves for a time as an institution. Subjectivities – specific types of identity and active and affective possibility – form in these processes. They are secondary phenomena. That is not to say that people are not free to manoeuvre within and alter the networks of forces in which they find themselves; people themselves are networks of force relations persisting or transforming in tension with overlapping networks of force relations. Change is always possible, even inevitable, and sometimes we can affect it knowingly and willingly. What the practice of genealogy does is reveal those networks in their formations and transformations, their strengths and vulnerabilities. If we want a shot at making change knowingly and willingly, such revelations are invaluable.

The second way in which genealogy’s refusal to privilege subjectivity is important is that it lets the practitioner off the objectivity hook. No one is a pure observer. We all have a position in the world we analyze. The practice of genealogy does not demand that the practitioner – whether writer or reader – attempt to hold herself apart from the process of its unfolding. I underwent the genealogical movement of the text I wrote; my perspective changed as I worked. As a genealogist, I needn’t pretend otherwise; in fact, I can celebrate the fact. An alert reader can hear the change in the authorial voice from beginning to end – its loss of control is sometimes destabilizing. Although, why attend to that when you’re busy undergoing the genealogy yourself in the reading of it? It took eight years to write the book. It was an intense process that deeply altered the way I see the world, the way I am in the world, me. I hope it has similar effects on others; and if it is good genealogical work, it will.

Many feminist theorists draw upon the slogan “the personal is political” to motivate their analyses. How has your experience of growing up in Appalachia and your social positioning in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality conditioned your work?

My father was a labourer in a copper-tubing factory who worked a lot of overtime and moonlighted as a watch repairman, and my mother ran an alteration business out of our house. They both worked about 60 hours a week, yet we four children grew up with no luxuries; in fact, by contemporary middle-class standards we lacked many necessities and nowadays might well be classified with the working poor. But there was food on the table, even if it was often only beans and cornbread, and my father’s World War II combat service gave us the advantages afforded by the US GI bill, which provided returning servicemen low-interest housing loans and other benefits. My mother had grown up horribly poor in a two-room cabin without electricity or running water, so I was not far removed from poverty, certainly not far enough to have the illusion that poverty is somehow deserved or asked for. I was close enough to poverty to acquire a vivid picture of what it was like to be poor and to feel the injustice of it.

I felt the injustice of sexism acutely early on. People nowadays seem shocked by the kinds of things little girls were routinely told –and not told –in the third quarter of the 20th century, what we were expected to do and not allowed to do. I hated it. But my experience was nothing unique in that regard.

I was born in Alabama in 1960, about mid-way through the civil rights movement. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a formative moment in my life –September 15, 1963. I don’t remember the actual event itself. What I remember is the intense fear and anxiety that came in its aftermath, the knowledge that white supremacists had everybody under surveillance lest we express empathy or outrage, the realization that people who would kill little girls in a church would stop at nothing. Naked violence exercised against the few was a carefully calculated means for controlling all of us. Everybody knew that perfectly well, no matter which side they were on. Violence was one mechanism in a vast array of population-management techniques. It was both disciplinary and biopolitical. It was disciplinary insofar as it was exerted against individuated bodies. It was biopolitical insofar as it produced generalized patterns of docility in a total population. Those facts –absent the poststructuralist terminology –were obvious to anybody, even a young child.

I also don’t really remember Bloody Sunday, 1965, on Selma’s Pettus Bridge, which I reference in the book –but I do remember how angry people were. The adults talked and argued and voted and demonstrated and who knows what else. Some took heroic stands. Some died.

It should be remembered, however, that some of the most heart-rending moments of the civil rights movement actually happened to and among children. It was the children they were all fighting about, at least so they claimed –where we would go to school, whether we should share a swimming pool or a Sunday School room or a library, who we should and should not be allowed to talk to, and befriend, and fall in love with, and marry one day. People –white and Black –said it was all about us. And once desegregation finally occurred, we children, black and white, were more or less left alone together to figure out how to interact. We bore a tremendous emotional, moral, and political burden.

For white children, particularly white girls, segregation –and, thus, resistance to desegregation –was supposedly all about keeping us safe, protecting us. But I knew all my life that that was a lie. I knew it viscerally and affectively well before I could say it articulately. The whole thing was a lie. They weren’t protecting me; they were imprisoning me in all their rules and codes and expectations so that I would become a docile, domesticated woman sequestered in my home with my requisite four white children, my apron, and my rolling pin, afraid to speak up or venture out and grateful to my white husband for continuing to protect me.

How did I know that? How did other children not know it? I don’t know. Maybe I just hated the thought of growing up to be some man’s wife a lot more than most girls did. Or maybe they all knew it too, but they kept quiet because they just didn’t know what else to do. Most of the children I grew up with wormed their way into one or another reasonably comfortable nook in one or another corner of our bewildering little world. I was too queer to find a niche readily, so my worm-like thrashing around was more violent and extended than most. I went off to college when it was still possible to earn enough money from a menial summer job to pay a year’s tuition. And then it was 1982 and the economy collapsed, and I accepted a graduate fellowship because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. How did I get where I am now? How did this angle of vision on the world come about? Quite by accident, all down the line. I don’t claim any credit for it. And I know it can’t be unique, because whenever I start describing how things look from here, heads start nodding. There is a way this confusing world makes sense; we just have to remember and piece together the tattered fragments of knowledge that we were supposed to suppress. I really think that is what genealogy is all about.

Is the personal political? Yes. Except, doesn’t our awareness of that confluence tend to obliterate the very meaning of “personal”? Some things are private. Some things are so trivial that we wish people would not bother making them public. But if subjectivities are formed in networks of power relations, in strategies of governmentality, nothing is really “personal” in the sense in which people commonly use the word. In the feminist phrase, the concept of the personal just combusts, which is precisely what feminists wanted to happen, I think. And I say, bravo!

So, my work is certainly conditioned by my background, as well as by my current circumstances and position in the university. What I see and think and advocate has a genealogy. In a way, then, my work is very personal. But it is also very impersonal, very much the product of forces that clash and stretch across and through me and through this time in economic and geopolitical history and through all of us. That is why many people nod their heads as they read my work. It’s not about me; it’s about the networks of power/knowledge that shape me and so many of us. And in that sense it doesn’t matter who I am or might once have been.

Does this mean that we should move beyond identity politics altogether? Can identity politics play any role in organizing and devising political strategy?

That’s a hard question that can only really be answered, as they say, on the ground. It is a question of tactics, and tactics always depend on concrete local variables. For that reason, I don’t rule out identity politics altogether. For one thing, there are diverse ways to conceive it. I do believe it is dangerous to valorize identities; our racial, sexual, and gender identities are formed within oppressive histories and bear aspects of those histories within them. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is always wrong to found political action on those identities. As I said in Bodies and Pleasures, we are normalized subjects; we have to start there. The same holds for identities: insofar as we are our identities, we have to take account of them and work from them. We can’t just repudiate them. But we do have to keep ourselves aware of the dangers they pose.

One of the big dangers is letting our different identities obscure opportunities for making common cause. I get very impatient with activists and organizations that take narrow views – for example, feminists who don’t think “gay issues” are pertinent to their political goals, gay and lesbian groups that won’t work against racism or for health care reform because these are not “gay issues,” and so on. It is a kind of Puritanism, an unwillingness to engage in any action that might help people who are not members of one’s own identity group. Would middle-class, white gay men and lesbians really rather abandon all the queer people struggling to pay for medical care for fear they might do something that would help impoverished straight people or straight people of colour – as has certainly seemed to be the case in the US in recent times? Why should we be enforcing these boundary lines?

One reason many activists do so is because their “progressive” organizations have sold out in order to court wealthy donors; they have to stick to the “identity” embraced by those donors, which, in effect, means the issues the donors are prepared to recognize. Another reason is that many progressives do not really believe grassroots democracy is viable. They think it is impossible to organize diverse groups of people, many of whom are poorly
educated and under-resourced; they don’t trust people like that with political authority. (This is also one reason why so many North American progressives fail to stand in solidarity against the G8/G20 with workers and activists elsewhere). But the most significant reason, I think, is that the very networks of forces we fight collude to keep us expending our energy separately because, that way, we won’t make much of a dent in the machinery of power. In fact, often, the energy of our resistance just gets used to fuel some other part of the machinery. That is what I show in Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America. Some of the ways we try to fight racism reinforce sexual oppression; some of the ways we try to fight sexual oppression reinforce racism. And because racism and sexual oppression are so tightly interconnected, when – in fighting the one – we reinforce the other, we also end up reinforcing the one. We tend our own jails.

Some people may need to start organizing together with people like themselves. That makes sense; we start where we live and with people near us. But if we stop there, we fail. That’s the long and short of it.