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Barbara Smith Shares the Real Meaning of Identity Politics, the Most Misused Phrase in Our Lexicon

Illustration for article titled Barbara Smith Shares the Real Meaning of Identity Politics, the Most Misused Phrase in Our Lexicon
Image: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Getty Images)

If you want to know the real definition of identity politics, don’t expect to get it from a bad leftist podcast, a right-wing reactionary, or opportunists who believe that it’s another way of saying “representation.” Instead, ask the black feminists of the Combahee River Collective who coined the phrase in the 1970s to articulate a specific political ideology.

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In a recent New Yorker column, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor did just that, talking to Barbara Smith, a C.R.C. member who also founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and became a city council member in Albany, New York, about the continued relevance of the C.R.C. and black feminist socialism.

Taylor asked Smith what identity politics meant to the C.R.C., and her response reveals just how much the phrase has morphed beyond its initial objective.

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From the New Yorker:

Smith told me, “By ‘identity politics,’ we meant simply this: we have a right as Black women in the nineteen-seventies to formulate our own political agendas.” She went on, “We don’t have to leave out the fact that we are women, we do not have to leave out the fact that we are Black. We don’t have to do white feminism, we don’t have to do patriarchal Black nationalism—we don’t have to do those things. We can obviously create a politics that is absolutely aligned with our own experiences as Black women—in other words, with our identities. That’s what we meant by ‘identity politics,’ that we have a right. And, trust me, very few people agreed that we did have that right in the nineteen-seventies. So we asserted it anyway.”

This also included black women’s right to formulate political agendas in the socialist sphere, which was and still is prone to class reductionism.

The C.R.C.’s renowned mission statement argued that black liberation, feminism, and socialism—together—were essential factors required for the liberation of all people. “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” read the C.R.C. statement. If one attempts to extract sexism and racism from the equation, such an outcome would be impossible.

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Smith also spoke of the role that black women play in the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the C.R.C. helped shape the politics of those leading the charge:

As Smith put it, “These people were looking at the situation and saying, ‘What we have here is not working. We need to think about things in a different way.’ And who better to do that than feminists of color who are queer and on the left?” She added, “One of the signs to me that feminist-of-color politics are influencing this moment is the multiracial, multiethnic diversity—and not just racial and ethnic, but every kind of diversity—of the people who are in the streets now. That’s right out of the Black feminist playbook.”

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Still, Smith is reportedly “skeptical about the longevity of this particular moment.” As a woman who was up close and personal with the revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, fought to address economic and racial disparities as a politician and became a surrogate for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, Smith’s continuous push toward a more just world has met plenty of roadblocks. Still, she doesn’t despair:

But her caution also betrays the hope and deep desire for radical change that all revolutionaries harbor. Smith told me, “I’m not convinced that, despite the millions of people who are out in the streets expressing that they are done with things as they are—I’m not convinced that that translates into a movement. We now have language, we have an analysis of what’s going on with the prison-industrial complex, with mass incarceration, with police brutality, with extrajudicial murders—we have that, and we have bases of operation, because there are definitely Black Lives Matter organizations in various cities around the country.” She continued, “But the question for me is: What’s next? How do we mobilize all of this energy and actually bring about fundamental political, social, and economic change?”

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You can read Taylor’s New Yorker column in its entirety here.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

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DISCUSSION

claudeherdman
Imogene Herdman

Ashley (and all Jezzies), Professor Taylor wrote the introduction to and compiled an amazing collection of interviews with the founding members of Combahee (Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier), along with interviews with BLM founder Alicia Garza and comments by activist Barbara Ransby, called HOW WE GET FREE. It is fantastic as a primer, as a history, and as a manual for implementing activism in our lives now. Read it!