Thoughts on Strategic Essentialism

The first chapter of Juana Maria Rodriguez’ Queer Latinidad, “Divas, Atrevidas y Entendidas,” provided me with some useful vocabulary, and raised some important questions about the formation and categorization of marginalized identities in relation to the structures of power which themselves create those very identities. One term she introduces, strategic essentialism, refers to the tactical imagining and expression of a unified and monolithic group identity in service of specific political agendas. Once example which she gives is the “myth of harmonious Mexican nationalism,” a discourse which renders invisible the complex ethnic, cultural and political histories of la patria, but which also serves “as a form of resistance to dominant Anglo-American culture”: “The imposed necessity for “strategic essentialism”…serves as a double-edged sword, cutting at hegemonic culture as it reinscribes nation/gender/race myths on both sides of the border (11).” The essentialism which she describes organizes itself for the purpose of challenging orders of domination and oppression, yet in so doing represses and erases the complexities of its own constituency, committing a similar form of violent dominance. Is it possible to achieve a group identity which does not sacrifice its complexity for the sake of solidarity? Are the categories created by power (i.e. nationality, gender, sexual orientation) inherently repressive, or can they serve as rallying points to challenge the very power which created them?

These questions become further complicated by the book’s second chapter, “Activism and Identity in the Ruins of Representation,” in which the author describes the revolutionary workings of Proyecto, a community-based health and education center in San Francisco. Even as she outlines the collective’s radical platform, she also acknowledges the financial and political complications it encounters as a state-funded organization. In order to procure the monies and resources necessary for its programming—which are allocated by the state based on the specific missions of each funded organization—Proyecto must necessarily compete with other Latin@-defined organizations for state support. Rodriguez notes poignantly: “…the strategically essentialized identity categories asserted in opposition to the state have now become a centralized feature of the workings of the state (81).” Power, as the example illustrates, is adept at absorbing activist efforts into the tools of its own promotion and maintenance. Is the bind in which Proyecto finds itself proof that the categories created by power can never truly serve to dismantle its authority?

Rodriguez cites the words of scholars and activists who have fought notions of troubling such categories as race, nationality and gender, arguing that such postmodern efforts efface collectivism, community visibility and organized political action. Why, these figures ask, are the categories with which we seek to name and bolster ourselves under attack? Yet, Rodriguez argues, the true act of naming one’s self “…can take place only outside the tyranny of binary categories (45).” For her, the defining of the self through the polarizing effect of the other is an important root cause of repressive essentialism. Do the imaginings of gender, sexuality and nationality outside of a binary model aid in the fostering of more a nuanced and revolutionary type of solidarity?

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About rad fag

rad fag is a Black, mixed-class, queer femme dedicated to combining arts and education to inspire direct action. Their writing has been featured in the AK Press anthology Taking Sides, as well as at Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker and other abolitionist and feminist-based media.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Strategic Essentialism

  1. This is great, Ben. I’m particularly compelled by your closing question, “Do the imaginings of gender, sexuality and nationality outside of a binary model aid in the fostering of more a nuanced and revolutionary type of solidarity?”

    I’ve been trying to think of anti-binary moments in activism. The hard-won “T” (for transgender) in LGBT politics might serve as an example, depending on how its framed and to what ends. The term Queer itself as a strategic renaming seems like a move against binarism, and tellingly it hasn’t always stuck in many parts of the country, partly because some folks feel it has yet to shake it pejorative meaning. How do we make anti-binarism itself essential while fighting for access to material (economic) rights distributed via highly binarized channels of identity/identification?

    -RP

    • This was a very thought-provoking post! You re-articulated Rodriguez’s message in a way that really resonated with me. While Rodriguez refers to group solidarity through identity formation in relation to politics, I still feel I can relate to this idea of defining my identity in opposition to the mainstream. I am Japanese-Swiss-American and I tend to emphasize one identity over the other depending on the context. Although I am half-white, here at Wesleyan I tend to self identify as Asian American because I feel the need to assert myself as a person of color in relation to a mostly white-dominated institution as well as to make a conscious marking of my difference from international Asian students. When I visit family in my dad’s hometown in Japan, I often feel alienated by the rigid social code and behavior that females in a small village seem to have to uphold. In Japan, I like to emphasize that I am loud, I am raised American and I am not giggly and obedient like my cousins.
      After reading your post Ben, I started thinking about the ways in which I do identify myself as “the other” depending on the context and looking at my examples, it is all about binaries–I tend to separate parts of myself, leaving things out, flattening myself-perhaps contributing to and fueling binaries, stereotypes, and systems of power rather than breaking them down. This is not really productive, and it definitely made me think about how I can define myself…does the identity I have created for myself exist outside of the many binaries that have defined my life?

      • May Lee,
        I thought that your comment was particular interesting. Throughout my life I have always felt as if my environment has also had an impact on the way in which I assert my identity. However, I feel as if this is not very common. Most people that I have come in contact with would rather assimilate into the dominant culture in an effort to avoid struggling with the thought of not being accepted. I have attended predominately white schools since kindergarten and I was always considered “too Hispanic” (lets not get into how I feel about their use of the term “Hispanic”) for all of my non-Latin@ friends until I got to college. I was always that “loud Dominican girl” that everyone talked about. Despite this, I never questioned the worth of my Latinidad. I was even more prideful in these situations in order not to give the dominant culture the satisfaction of seeing me struggle.

        About a week ago I was in the Dominican Republic with my family for the first time in several years. All of my family members were very quick to criticize my Spanish and tell me about how “Americanized” I have become. This was confusing to me at first because I had always felt like I had done such a good job at keeping in touch with my culture. My family would talk about me and my American ways right in front of my face and act as if nothing was wrong with what they were saying.

        This all made me really look back at the text and your post because I feel like I had very similar questions about myself and who I want people to see me as. Should I risk loosing parts of my identity to fit in with the dominant culture? Should I pick and choose what I tell people about myself? Do I necessarily have to go against the dominant culture to make assert my own culture?

  2. I was also really struck by the term “strategic essentialism.” My initial reaction was one of alarm, but I think that’s because it’s uncomfortable for me to think that in celebrating differences, it may necessarily entail ignoring other crucial ones. There is always the problem in forming counter-cultural identities the notion of who qualifies and under which circumstances. In the attempt to form momentum for any particular movement, it’s hard to think that there still exists the tension of qualification and validation. At the same time it’s also hard to think that there are inevitable trade-offs as well. That makes me wonder what the benefits of acknowledging solidarity to be “strategic essentialism” are. Would it ultimately be a positive method of creating strong and effective movements or would the ideological disconnect invalidate the successes? Does this also indicate that there is a disconnect between true self-made and anti-binary identities and identity-based movements? That perhaps, these terms need to be reevaluated and reconsidered? You also bring up the question of whether it’s possible to achieve a group identity that does not compromise its complexities for solidarity. That makes me wonder whether it is possible to achieve an anti-binary that will remain effective and potent in all discursive spaces, as it seems to be perpetually tempting to constantly simplify and streamline. What would that look like?

  3. Hola gente–your prof sent me this blog post. I just want to say how much I appreciate these thoughtful responses to my work–starting with Ben’s–these were precisely the tensions I hoped to raise, pointing to how we are called upon everyday to perform our identities in particular ways for different audiences. Hope the end of your semester is going well, saludos from the left coast (where I am on sabbatical working on my new book).

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