Thursday, November 12, 2015

Shannon Gibney - What is ‘Black’ in #BlackLivesMatter? Uncovering the Politics of Identity in the American Present

Shannon Gibney lives, writes, and teaches in Minneapolis. Her creative and critical work has been published in a variety of venues, including in the anthologies Parenting as Adoptees and The Black Imagination: Science Fiction, Futurism, and the Speculative. Her young adult novel See No Color was published by Carolrhoda/Lerner Books in November 2015, and she is currently at work on a novel about African Americans who colonized Liberia in the 19th century.

In a recent forum on the fight for $15 minimum wage movement, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza articulated some of the present tensions around “identity politics.”

Garza was impatient with the notion that 21st century black folks can talk about our racial identities without also talking about our class, gender, sexual, and other identities. She said, “There is space for us to fight along multiple dimensions at once. We don’t have to pick one. I don’t have to be a worker today, a queer person tomorrow, a woman tonight. I can be all of those things, all at once, hallelujah. …It’s not about identity politics. It’s about our lives. The very sanctity of our lives is at stake. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

If we take apart Garza’s statement, we see that she is arguing that “identity politics,” at least how it has been practiced up to now, requires us to embrace one social identity over others. This in turn presents a false sense of unity, since social identity is always complex. So, as black people, we are always and at once women, middle-class, American, and more.

But if this is, in fact, a social reality of identity, what about its political implications, especially considering that affinity groups such as people of color, queer folks, and women have all used notions of a unified social identity to move forward a politics of inclusion? Put another way, can the #BlackLivesMatter movement put forth its political demands effectively and successfully without a shared, although limited, notion of what it means to be “black”?

These are just some of the questions we will be considering at the next #UncoveringPublic session on “Identity Politics in the American Present.” The discussion will take place on Tuesday, November 17 at 7 pm, at the Minnesota Humanities Center and simultaneously on Twitter under the hashtag #UncoveringPublic.

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