Michael Novick on White Identity
Turning The Tide editor Michael Novick recently did a series of monthly commentaries on “Freedom Now,” hosted by Dedon Kamathi on Pacifica radio’s KPFK-FM (90.7 in Los Angeles, 98.7 in Santa Barbara; online at KPFK.org) Tuesdays at 8:00 PM PST. Here is the text of December’s commentary. Posting here does not imply uncritical agreement or endorsement. -Nick:
In response to the revolutionary struggles of the 60s and 70s, a counter-revolutionary critique emerged within the left. It raised two dismissive slogans – “politically correct” and “identity politics” – to oppose self-critical struggle raised against racism and sexism within the left. People struggling for awareness of the dangers of national, racial and sexual chauvinism were attacked as being so-called “PC language police.” Struggles for self-determination and sovereignty by colonized people were put down as “identity politics” that created unnecessary division among supposed progressives.
The reactionary nature of those put-downs have been demonstrated as they were taken up as rallying cries by the establishment right and even racist forces. The first President Bush made “politically correct” a slogan in national politics, putting down student activists and sympathetic members of college faculty, as he launched a campaign to purge the left from the academy. And to this day, the Limbaughs and Glenn Becks, bombastic media racists who seem to have taken control of the Republican Party, dismiss struggles by African or indigenous people and opposition to anti-immigrant or anti-Mexican hysteria as “identity politics” or “the race card.”
The reduction of revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist initiatives to language games or so-called “identity politics” is a manifestation of inadequate attempts by people of European descent to distance ourselves from the Empire and model ourselves on the liberation struggles of colonized people.
In response to the Black liberation struggle, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement for Native sovereignty, and the Chicano-Mexicano liberation movement, European-descent radicals started using the same terminology, such as women’s liberation, gay liberation, and later earth and animal liberation.
On the one hand, this impulse was a positive one – a movement towards resistance to the Empire. But it sidestepped the need for a self-critical examination of identification with the oppressor among people of European descent. It also undercut the anti-colonial nature of the struggles among oppressed people, reducing it to a question of personal identity and cultural differentiation. So this impulse to call all movements “liberation movements” took on a negative aspect. It liquidated the national and anti-colonial content of African, Asian and indigenous struggles.
It’s not merely a question of “identity” – and certainly not racial identity. It ‘s a question of identification with the oppressed and exploited rather than with the oppressor and exploiter. This is not a static matter determined by skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status. It is a matter of dynamic struggle against the Empire, against capitalism and the class system, and for international solidarity. Identities are created through economic and political struggle, class struggle.
The so-called white identity or white nationalism in the US, for example, was created by liquidating the pre-existing national identities and class consciousness of working people of European descent. The Irish, Italians, Poles, Swedes and Bohemians, even the eastern European Jews and Slavs, were made “white” by obliterating their true histories and cultures. Those were replaced by an identification with the imperialist project of settler colonialism, the white supremacist doctrine of manifest destiny, land theft and genocide, and with the wages of whiteness created by an economic system built on the racial chattel slavery of Africans. We must reject this not by creating a new cultural variant of white identity that is somehow “anti-racist,” but by deepening our understanding of our true histories, our recognition of class contradiction and class struggle as splitting issues among so-called ‘white’ people, and by strengthening our identification with all who resist colonialism, imperialism and capitalism.
Trying to appropriate Black or Native cultural identity, as many white folks uncomfortable with whiteness try to do, only worsens divisions. Instead, we need to question the cultural appropriation involved in the propaganda for us to identify with the Pilgrims. Conscious and conscientious people of European descent need to identify with Native resistors, with John Brown, who 150 years ago launched, with Black and white allies, an armed struggle against slavery, with Fred Hampton, a Black revolutionary who was assassinated for inspiring a revolutionary rainbow coalition 40 years ago, with the LA Panthers who learned from his murder to defend themselves against the LAPD. The way to cement that identification is by fighting back against the Empire.
h/t to Greg Lewis