Long Live Identity Politics: A Word to the Complainers

Here we go again.

Like 2016, here come the think pieces on the evils of identity politics aka talking about difference (race, gender, sexuality) and complaints about politicians crafting policies based on identity rather than adopting broad- based economic strategies.

And then there are the White folks making the case for White identity politics (a.k.a. White grievance/White nationalism).

Newsflash: y’all ain’t fooling nobody. We know what you’re trying to do.

The granddaddy, of course, is race. People just don’t want to talk about it. They want it to go away — -but don’t want to do anything to help make it go away.

Just why, they implore, are people of color so wrapped up in their identity? They’re always talking about it. They can’t stop! Always bringing it up at the most inopportune time. They’re always playing the race card. Why? Why?

Identity is multi-faceted. Here’s an historical perspective on Black American identity borne of suffering and sustained by systemic, institutionalized marginalization.

A primer on African American Identity that Binds

William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963)

A substantial scholarly body of literature exists on identity formation — -especially on how African-American identity determines the confines of individual behavior, community solidarity, mobilization, and the place that identity reserves in the national identity-cohesion.

Identity cohesion sits at the foundation of the Black struggle over generations.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois’ argued that identity formation could be aptly illustrated by the Black American quest for identity and place in a world dominated by White culture — -what DuBois, reflecting a gendered conception of the world, called, the “longing to attain self-conscious manhood.” In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois argued that, although Black Americans gained freedom from bondage and were granted citizenship, the freedmen had yet to be acknowledged as persons by Whites. In this way, they remained “the problem,” to be endlessly pondered by White society with little input from Black Americans themselves.

DuBois realized in words what most Black folks had known for millennia — — that their sensibilities were much more imbued with the intricacies of White people than the White world knew or cared about the lives of African-Americans. In his exposition of African American “double consciousness,” DuBois theorized that African Americans’ conceptualization of the way white people saw them — -as well as how they saw themselves — -offered African Americans a unique perspective on American society. That is to say, DuBois argued that, by being black, one had to maintain a “double consciousness” — looking at oneself from one’s own perspective and through the eyes of White society. For DuBois, the task for the Negro was to use this understanding “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (P. 4). Problematizing the way forward lay DuBois’ “two worlds” thesis:

There stand in the South two separate worlds; and separate not simply in the higher realms of social intercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and street-car, in hotels and theaters, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, in asylums and jails, in hospitals and graveyards. (P. 47).

DuBois’ conceptualization of double consciousness presents several questions about identity that remain today: How does African American identity survive the obstacles of being “other?” How can African Americans maintain a self-respecting identity in a culture that devalues it? Where to find solace?

We’re still trying to answer these questions today.

At least some folks get it. Check it out.


DuBois, WEB. (1903/2007). The souls of black folk. New York: Oxford University Press.

A native of of the great state of Mississippi and proud resident of New Jersey. Lecturer and Doctoral candidate in Media, Race, Class, and Politics @Rutgers.

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