The No-Self of Identity Politics
It’s a kind of Buddhist-feminist koan: if the personal is political, and the personal (self) is also illusory, are politics illusory, too?
Addressing a recent conference of engaged Buddhists and liberation theologians, professor of theology Dr. Melanie Harris candidly recalled how her encounters with Buddhadharma initially challenged her womanist framework — Black feminism that centers race, class, and gender in analyzing systems of oppression. Following these early brushes with dharma, she soon realized:
We would have to redo identity politics completely, from a Buddhist perspective.
Identity politics without identity might seem like game over. But as womanist practitioners like Dr. Harris well know, feminism — in its diverse manifestations — has been grappling with the paradox of contested identities for quite a long time. Many permutations of the conflict have boiled down to the seemingly simple yet piercingly profound question, variously couched in philosophical, biological, or equal-rights terms:
“Ain’t I a woman?”
What makes a woman? In the fight to establish the lady-vote in the United States, it had something to do with race. Hence Sojourner Truth’s famous speech at the Women’s Rights Convention of Akron, Ohio in 1851, in which she exposed the hypocrisy of white suffragists who claimed to fight for equality while ignoring or even profiting from the subjugation of Black women. Today, racism within ostensibly “universal” women’s movements is so tired, yet incredibly persistent. (Remember the paternalistic “liberation of oppressed Middle Eastern women” as one of the justifications for U.S. imperialist wars?) It’s enough to make plenty of folks give up on the word “feminism” altogether. Still, I think most of us at Buddhist Peace Fellowship can agree that neither race nor ethnicity qualifies or disqualifies a person from womanhood.
So what else could it be? Perhaps heterosexuality — in the specific, socially sanctioned form of marrying a guy and birthing a few future-heterosexual children. This was the strong view of many U.S. feminists of the late 60’s and 70’s who shunned the “Lavender Menace” (radical lesbian feminists) for their “mannish” and indecorous ways. Homophobia — overt and subtle — still infuses plenty of supposedly pro-women spaces. And even in the staunchly pro-hetero world, institutionalized incentives, support, and punishments for female procreation vary wildly across race and class-stratum. (Think of the “anchor babies” accusations hurled at working-class immigrant mothers of color, and last year’s Wisconsin bill pushing criminalization of single motherhood.)
Okay. If we agree that women deserve respect and inclusion in women’s empowerment movements regardless of sexuality or how many babies we may or may not have, then what else does it come down to?
Physiology? “Real Women Have Curves?” What about skinny women?
Anatomy? Oppression of trans* people continues to divide many feminist circles — from gender verification controversies in women’s athletics, to the transphobic gender essentialism of Derrick Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance movement. The gender binary underpinning man-woman dualism is looking pretty shaky these days, both from a biological perspective (humans are built, genetically and physically, in more than two configurations), and acknowledging multi-gender cultural systems that have existed for thousands of years.
The samsaric whirl of identity is endless; the “myth of shared female experience” (as author of Black Girl Dangerous Mia McKenzie recently described it) dissolves on closer inspection. In The Second Sex, Simone DeBeauvoire famously noted that “One is not born a woman; one becomes one.” But what if being a woman is not the point? What if, rather than only viewing feminism as “women’s empowerment,” we use a view like that of scholar (and Buddhist) bell hooks, who summarizes feminism as “a movement to end sexist oppression”?
Could endeavoring to end sexist oppression help free us from the confines of a fixed “self,” and point our focus instead toward historical processes of harm, sources of resilience, and creative means for social and political transformation?
Can we honor identities, with their long tails stretching far into the past, their wide breadth spanning entire societies, and their ongoing change, their beautiful in-out breath? Can we befriend identities without reifying them?
Sitting across from me as I write, my friend’s laptop displays a sticker: “Brown and Proud: Todos Somos Arizona.” I believe there is room for this kind of compassion and upaya (skillful means) in anatta, no-self — when we look for the meaning beyond fixed identity. When we befriend identity-as-experience, connecting it to our movements against oppression.
Organizer and anti-war activist Clare Bayard beautifully expressed this sentiment just yesterday, so I leave you with her words. And would love to hear your thoughts on identity, politics, dharma, gender, and power!
On my heart: the breathtaking beauty of queerness and chosen family. I love my family of origin, and I also am so grateful for queer chosen families, the kind where we help carry each other down the rockiest stretches of the road, and then celebrate the hell out of each others’ fabulousness. I’m so grateful for how queerness saves lives in so many ways, and invites us to see each other so fully– both who we are and who we can grow into. Queerness benefits everyone– teaching us all how to live into our most wonderful, authentic and loving selves, and how to build communities that keep us alive and celebrate our gifts. Queerness asks us to risk joy, to relentlessly search for wholeness, and to seek new visionary ways of respecting everyone’s dignity.
Be well, everyone, and see you tomorrow as we continue our exploration of Sex, Gender, Power: A Systemic Take On The 4th Precept of Buddhism.
Metta and solidarity,
Photo credits: Jeremy Kirk, Dora King, Kristen Krissy Guest, and Lily Tinker Fortel from “Enlightenment and Liberation: Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians In Dialogue.”