One of President Obama’s most popularly recognized speeches is on the topic of race – a subject that pits histories of injustice against the American promise of equality. Since the civil rights movement, strategies for overcoming social barriers have been as diverse as the groups they attempt to represent. And UC Davis students need not look far for a case in point.
Vociferous protesters on “May Day” (International Workers‘ Day) certainly invoked some discomfort, no doubt to raise awareness about racial, ethnic and cultural issues. Other incidents illustrate the vain tactics being used to foster acceptance, such as reminding people to “check their privilege” and accusing men of their inability to be marginalized (a surely debatable claim). But these cases, to name only a few, raise a serious question: Is it possible that when groups continually emphasize differences, they inadvertently reinforce the feelings of otherness and marginalization that they attempt to overcome?
To begin the discussion, identity group politics attempt to advance the interests of its members, whose collective identity is based on the perception of being oppressed. Contemporary examples of groups include African Americans during the civil rights movement, feminist women and the LGBT community, not to mention some of UC Davis‘ own student organizations and activists. And to be sure, many of these identity groups remain marginalized today.
However, the hurdle of identity group politics is that in order to achieve a group identity, the group members must continually reinforce what makes that group so apparently different. In other words, the group must define how it differs from the norm and announce how its members continue to be oppressed because of it. By extension, preserving that newly established identity means being able to say who is and who is not a member of the group. In many cases of racial and ethnic-based politics, group membership therefore becomes based, not on shared experiences, values and ideas, but the expression of our biology.
Is there an essential or authoritative experience to being of mixed-race or African-American or mestizo? Do we unintentionally marginalize others like us by over-generalizing? At what point are we simply stereotyping?
Instead of connecting people based on common empathies, the homespun form of identity politics often fixates on exclusion. Theorist Michel Foucault explains the rationale: By emphasizing a group’s distinctness – or “peculiarities” – the subjected group can take ownership of the things that make them different from the norm. This can feel very empowering. Theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak accounts for the “strategic” value of crude generalizations about a people, which through public protest and demonstration can tactically dismantle the structures of suffering.
But when used uncritically, writes Spivak, group identities based around stereotypes – and not necessarily shared experience – tend to be fleeting shortcuts to empowerment. They’re especially damaging to the group members themselves.
In a recent study, Claude Steele, a Stanford psychologist and researcher, demonstrated that racial and gender stereotypes in standardized testing could be overcome simply by changing the students‘ expectations. In other words, by eliminating the storied expectations that women/minorities underperform on these exams, Steele virtually eliminated the expected “achievement gap” between them and White male students as well as Asians. The similarly documented “Obama effect” suggests that the inspiration of an African-American president has helped black students perform better on exams by decreasing racial anxieties.
Underserved groups deserve better representation than the yellers and shouters that dominate much of campus politics. Whether by megaphone or in student senate meetings, the tone by group advocates should no longer be accusatory and divisive. Ultimately, including as many people as possible into the discussion about identity means listening more than we speak.