by Maya Mackrandilal
“While members of the editorial board might have trouble wrapping their minds around terms like ‘cisheteropatriarchy’ and ‘womxn’, I promise you that thanks to Twitter and Teen Vogue, your average American teenager has encountered them and would welcome the opportunity to delve deeper than 280 characters, which makes them more qualified to comment on the value of this curriculum than the board of a nationally recognized newspaper.”
But the paternalistic tunnel vision continues as the LA Times publishes a series of Op-Eds that cater to a particular type of politics, a politics clearly on display in Karin Klein’s most recent Op-Ed attacking the curriculum on September 30th (the ink had barely dried on her last attack published by the Times in August). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice…who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” We find ourselves in the wake of his words, building coalitions of resistance against a nation-wide wave of white supremacist organizing as the white liberal establishment focuses their political will on reigning in disobedient “leftist activists,” public intellectuals, and even congresswomen of color. We can call this state of affairs, both present and historic, white identity politics. White identity politics dictates that it will be the white ruling class who will draw the boundaries of our struggle, that they will tell us what our liberation will look like and the means by which we should achieve it. The ultimate goal is the preservation of white social and economic dominance, offering incremental adjustments to our oppression in order to improve its optics rather than dismantling the structures that sustain the oppression of people of color.
A perfect example of white identity politics is playing out right now in California. After a grassroots effort to add Ethnic Studies to the state’s education code (section 51226.7), a committee of leading educators and Ethnic Studies scholars was formed to create a draft model curriculum. The mobilization against the resulting curriculum was swift. Conservative political groups attacked the curriculum as both “jargon”—as if a discipline centered on communities of color can’t have its own academic language—and politically biased. This is to be expected, as the right has espoused a broad anti-facts platform that spans from the hard science of global climate collapse to social sciences like history, where the severity of slavery and its central role in the Civil War are now open to debate. It would be impossible to put forward anything remotely based on scholarship that would not upset some portion of their Eurocentric patriarchal cosmology of magical thinking. What is more concerning (though not surprising) is the ease with which the white liberal establishment fell in line, including the (very white) LA Times Editorial Board, proving that going to that one social justice march a few years ago and tweeting #resist every once in a while was just as empty as most people of color suspected. White identity politics always wins out, because it is the foundation of political power in the United States. It was planted in the soil at the beginning, when Native land was stolen under the premise of “saving the savages from themselves”, when colonial law prohibited the generational enslavement of white people and ruled that the killing of an enslaved African by their master could never be considered murder. It is what bonded the founders of this country together, what allowed them to say “all men are created equal” while owning human beings. It is what tore down the achievements of Reconstruction and what fuels the prison industrial complex and border militarization today.
White identity politics is a politics of erasure and institutional violence. It seeks to maintain the invisible hand of white privilege, to keep its mechanisms hidden behind “color-blind” rhetoric and neoliberal multiculturalism. It treats whiteness as a neutral position from which non-white experiences are deemed non-neutral, excessive, messy, politically correct. Our project now, as a nation, is to see whiteness. Not simply in the nazi salutes and confederate flags of the far right, but in the “well-meaning” actions of those who claim to be the allies of people of color.
We must understand that whiteness is political, and this politics infuses every institution in this country, from senate floors to boardrooms, from prisons to the focus of this article, the press and our education system. The value (and thus threat) of Ethnic Studies, for young people of all backgrounds and identities, is that by studying the historical and contemporary struggles of POC communities in the United States, the white identity politics of the rest of the curriculum becomes clear. It highlights the omissions, the concealments, the mythologies of white identity politics.
For the white liberal so quick to align with conservative attacks, the threat of Ethnic Studies, the threat of white identity politics becoming visible, is more dangerous than the systems of oppression that are killing POC every day. This is the trap of neoliberal “multiculturalism” – the idea that all narratives are equal, the concealment that certain narratives (colonial, white supremacist, Euro-centric) are predicated on the oppression of others, and that other narratives (Black liberation, Indigenous sovereignty, worker’s rights) by their very nature disrupt the mechanisms of power. Our freedom lies beyond the bounds of the white liberal imagination, fenced in so tightly by white identity politics. Dr. King knew it, and because of Ethnic Studies, we do too.
Thanks to the tireless grassroots organizing of communities of color and the Save CA Ethnic Studies movement, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft now has broad support across many diverse groups, including over 100 organizations and institutions, the California Teachers Association, a petition of support signed by over 10,000 individuals, and positive feedback from California State Board of Education and Instructional Quality Commission members. These are the broad coalitions that the LA Times opinion pages seek to undermine with their relentless concern-trolling. Is it too much to ask that the LA Times Editorial Board uplift those who are working to bring people together rather than those who wish to divide us? The lessons of Ethnic Studies are the lessons that will sustain us in our fight against white identity politics and towards a future where people of color can carry the telling of our own stories.
Maya Mackrandilal is an LA-based artist, writer, educator, and arts administrator.