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.

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