Tipping toward possibility: an alternative framing of identity

This week in North Philly Notes, Milo Obourn, author of Disabled Futures, writes about the thorny issues of identity politics. 

A recent episode of NPR’s 1A featured a story about the great divide in political thinking that blamed, you’ll never guess, identity politics.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media was arguing that the U.S. has an “identity obsessed culture” which “erodes the ideal of e pluribus unum” and inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Identity politics in this reading is factionalism that keeps us from working together, not the result of long histories of resistance to very targeted and explicit violences and discriminations. I could not help but think of the images that circulated after the 2017 Women’s March of a person I read as an older woman looking bored and holding a protest sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” The image is now a poster, pin, and T-shirt you can buy on Amazon. Even the wry commentary on the never-ending cycle of the same political and social arguments is commodified into the never-ending cycle of capitalist incorporation of political and social arguments. How to get out?

Disabled Futures_022719_smThis question of “how to get out” underlies many of the theoretical moves I make in Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion. In this book, I explore the concept of “racialized disgender” as a way of framing identity that is not about a series of contemporary differences but rather a complex and nuanced framework of power in which ideologies of ability inform and construct our understanding of gender. A framework of power in which racism and constructions of dis/ability and its use to do violence to bodies are inextricable. A framework of power in which no one living in contemporary U.S. society is unaffected or unharmed by the ways race, gender, and dis/ability are assigned to our material selves. And finally, a framework in which no one couldn’t use their own experience to start to unpack how all oppression is, to quote Staceyann Chin, connected.

My first book Reconstituting Americans: Liberal Multiculturalism and Identity Difference in Post-1960s Literature was a way for me to deconstruct the fear of an “identity politics” that looms in popular culture as a force of divisiveness that causes those with historically marginalized identities to cling to our pain and/or is criticized for being empty politically correct nonsense—the kind of identity politics that turned “diversity and inclusion” into buzzwords translating into serving tacos in school cafeterias to represent Mexican culture. I wanted in this first book to think about how narrative and literary representation can help readers understand the ways American liberalism has eroded or put up barriers to our understanding of the politics surrounding identity oppression as offering us actual avenues for justice, knowledge, and ways to thrive in this world. It was a “how we got distracted” after all this work kind of book. Our world is full of these distractions—instead of wondering why things are so deeply inequitable we focus on Black people and Jewish people not getting along; instead of wondering how to make people feel more valued, safe, and included we argue about whether we should call it a “safe space” or a “brave space;” instead of asking why we have so many homeless trans youth and trans women of color being murdered every year; we focus on whether it’s okay to allow people in bathrooms and the struggles cis parents have understanding trans kids.

When I started writing Disabled Futures, I was ready to move beyond why we get stuck and look at models for how to frame our work toward greater justice in relation to inextricable intersections not just between marginalized identities but between systems of power that impact us all. What made me ready? Two things. First, I lost a child in infancy, I got very depressed, and the only thing that I could manage to do productively was work related to implementing active change based on knowledge from my academic research. Need a workshop on white privilege and how white people can process and own that? I was on it. Build a team to offer trainings on why respecting names and pronouns is important? I’m your trans person. The loss of this baby, Woolf, made any more critique without implementation feel like yet another distraction. I wanted a more potentially realizable (if still complex and very challenging) framework for understanding questions of identity and justice. The second and related thing was that I stepped in as Brockport’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer and found myself excited to be in a different relation to the immediate systems around me, to have my focus be big picture systems and the communities that inhabit them, as well as building connections with students outside of the classroom where I could mentor them in self advocacy that was not draining and distracting, but helpful to their ability to flourish in their academic life as well.

As an academic, I have been trained in critique. I have not been formally trained to present solutions. Disabled Futures is not a solution per se. But I felt at the point I was writing it that I needed the perspective of solution to survive and to thrive and that is the perspective I carried into my writing. I am committed in Disabled Futures to the idea that analyzing complex representations of race, gender, and dis/ability closely offers shifts in perspective that can keep us out of the cycle of distraction and argumentation, without devaluing the political and social knowledge that comes from living with and advocating from our social identity positions.

Years ago, when I discovered disability theory it gave me the seeds of some of the connections I make in this book. It let me talk about woundedness and impairment without shame or feeling like I had to isolate the harm of violence from the power of processing and living through it. To me this was applicable not only to disability as we understand it in our current moment but to the ways disability and ability form and inform all of our identities. It was a way to talk about whiteness and identity without fear that it would become white supremacy (the only choice according to the 1A interview with Garfield); a way of thinking about how dominant social identities work in complex collaboration with marginalization, not as its opposition, and not in ways that leave any of us unscathed by history. It was a way of connecting to myself and to years of academic study that I hadn’t known before and it became the platform for a theory of possibility. I hope that readers will leave this book tipping slightly more in the direction of possibility.

Celebrating University Press Week: Scholarship Making a Difference

November 6-11 is University Press Week. Since 2012, we have celebrated University Press Week each year to help tell the story of how university press publishing supports scholarship, culture, and both local and global communities.

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Today’s theme: Scholarship Making a Difference

This year Temple University Press had three authors prominently featured in the news for their writings about race. Their scholarship made a difference; it generated broad discussions about topical issues.

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smIn August, in light of the nationalist rally in Charlottesville, BuzzFeed News created a reading list for people looking to become informed about the history of systemic racism and white supremacy in the U.S. Coming in at #4 on the list was George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Cultural Critic Irene Nexica explained why:

In The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz offers an exhaustive analysis of the many ways in which whiteness is centered and rewarded in housing, education, health care, employment, and culture, as well as an examination of white privilege as it’s long been defined and critiqued in radical black culture.

Lipsitz deftly weaves a diverse set of knowledge into social histories of popular culture that simultaneously shapes and is shaped by society with analyses that are both accessible to a general reader and containing sharp cultural critique…The Possessive Investment in Whiteness looks at whiteness in America from many angles, including OJ Simpson (‘White Fear: O.J. Simpson and the Greatest Story Ever Sold’), Stephen King’s Lean on Me (where Lipsitz complicates things by describing how ‘not all white supremacists are white’), and the ways that different nonwhite communities are impacted by whiteness.

Lipsitz’s book, which will be re-issued in a review, 20th Anniversary Edition by Temple University Press this spring, is one of several titles that have generated attention for its discussion of race and inequality.

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In June, Temple University Press published Tommy Curry’s provocative book, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, a justification for Black Male Studies. He posits that we should conceptualize the Black male as a victim, oppressed by his sex, challenging how we think of and perceive the conditions that actually affect all Black males.

In The Man-Not, Curry suggests that Black men are the primary targets of white supremacy and white patriarchy. He addresses issues of police brutality as well as how Black males are victims of domestic abuse and rape—a topic rarely discussed publicly given the current focus on intersectionality and sexual violence. Moreover, Curry writes about Eldridge Cleaver and his same sex lover Richard, a discovery that has generated considerable interest.

The author was profiled in both Inside Higher Ed and in The Chronicle of Higher Education this year. Curry’s past comments on race incited death threats, but his new book has generated attention for its provocative nature. A review that appeared in Choice this month read,Many readers may find this book an uncomfortable read, and that is the very reason it should be read.”

Ishmael Reed, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and Visiting Scholar at the California College of the Arts said this about The Man-Not:

“Tommy Curry has written a cool, brilliant defense of the men who are the pariahs of American society: the ones who, regardless of class, find themselves at the bottom of every hierarchy; the ones whose demographics and statistics in terms of the criminal justice, health care, and other systems are abysmal. Countless billions have been made from the portrayal of Black males as Boogeymen. The Man-Not is heavy work, but the general reader will find its arguments well worth the time and effort. This book is controversial. Those who’ve dogged and stalked Black men in the academy and popular culture for the past few decades are sure to have their critical knives out. I know. But it’s rare for an American intellectual to step up, regardless of the fallout. This book is the one that I’ve been waiting for. Curry has taken a bullet for the brothers.

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look-a-whitesmLastly, in July, George Yancy, author of Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, interviewed Noam Chomsky: On Trump and the State of the Union,​ for his Opinionator blog in the New York Times. 

Yancy’s book examines whiteness through both a personal and philosophical lens, offering a convincing argument for the permanence of whiteness and how such a recognition can help to create a substantial anti-racist stance in philosophy and in the larger world.

He is also the author of the controversial essay, “Dear White America,” that stemmed from his book.​

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