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Any activist movement that lacks a broad commitment to ally building across all group lines—class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and more—risks becoming narrow and ultimately ineffective. To say that strong identity politics keeps groups from advocating for each other misses a key point: powerful interests keep oppression in place by systematically encouraging divisions among groups, often setting groups up to fight each other for limited resources.
Divide-and-conquer strategies weaken us by pitting groups against each other. In the recent marriage-equity campaigns in many states, for example, anti-gay activists methodically went into Black churches to organize opposition, hoping to split the Black community and the gay community. Identity politics does not, in itself, always cause greater divisiveness among groups; rather, activists must be vigilant in resisting the divide-and-conquer strategies that can splinter progressive coalitions.
I’d like to share some insights into how we can bring together identity politics and class struggle to resist those divide-and-conquer strategies—insights drawn from decades of work with the National Coalition Building Institute, a nonprofit organization that I founded thirty years ago with the goal of training leaders on issues of diversity and inclusion. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of communities, public schools, law-enforcement organizations, governmental agencies, colleges and universities, and faith-based groups throughout the United States and overseas. Here is what I have learned.
Strong Allies Have Strong Roots
There is value for leaders in being deeply rooted in their own primary identity group while at the same time learning how to be a fierce ally for all groups. Having trained hundreds of students, administrators, police officers, and community activists to become trainers themselves and take on institutional-change work on diversity issues, I can say unequivocally that the best trainers have always been those who are fierce advocates for their own primary identity group. For some, the identity group may be race; for others, it may be ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, class, or sexual orientation. For many, the identity is a combination of two or more groups.
Why has the ability to identify with one’s own group proven to be such a key prerequisite for effective leadership? From my experience in working with groups on identity-related issues, those who say, “Don’t put me into a group-identity box, I’m just human” or, alternatively, “I’m just an American,” are often those who have experienced most acutely the impact of internalized oppression. Internalized oppression is the negative feeling we have toward our own group. We devalue members of our own group, perpetrating the oppression we have experienced from the outside by turning against each other. I have found that there is a significant relationship between being a fierce ally for one’s own group and the ability to be an effective ally on behalf of another group.
No One Is “Colorblind”
Members of dominant groups are often the ones who rail the loudest against identity politics. In my training programs, whenever there is an opportunity for people to claim their group identities, I regularly hear the comment, “Why are we talking about all these group issues? We’re all human. Isn’t that the most important thing that binds us together?” This resistance to examining group identities often comes most tellingly from white people, heterosexuals, or men. When we are members of a dominant group, we cannot help but see the world through our own, often invisible lens of dominance. We do not experience the daily indignities that a targeted group does, so it is easy to conclude that anything less than treating every person as a unique individual, and not as a member of a group, is oppressive.
I often now hear high school students say, “Why are we focusing on all these issues of oppression? Racism and sexism are over. Don’t blame me for what happened decades ago.” This growing attitude that racism and sexism are problems of the past is behind, at least in part, the...