Havens and echo chambers: Identity politics at Stanford

Havens and echo chambers: Identity politics at Stanford

In an age of SOCC and divestment from Israel, the politics of identity have created healing, separation, and power for Stanford students.

The United States witnessed massive social change in the last century, as various movements arose to fight for the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups. Even today, the Civil Rights Movement and the latest two waves of the Feminist Movement still dominate our national consciousness. The first years of this century have only continued the trend of social change. We may well live in the golden age of the LGBT Rights Movement, for instance, thanks to the downfall of sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, the acceptance of same-sex marriage in a supermajority of states, and the beginnings of widespread visibility for trans* people.

Amidst these movements, a new type of politics—identity politics—gained traction. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines identity politics as political activities/theories that “aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context.” Defined this way, the “identity” half of the term refers primarily, and often exclusively, to the marginalized identities associated with minority races, sexes, sexualities, etc.

The essence of the idea behind identity politics’s framework—based on the specific sense of the term “identity” described above—shines through in rhetoric about glass ceilings and in lyrics about lifting every voice and singing; the idea is that the common struggle that comes from a group’s identity should lead to a common political voice. Many groups who use identity politics as a tool to effect political change, therefore, often seek first to unite a given identity group, then galvanize that group into action.

These tactics work well enough for federal and state politics, where the major battles of identity politics have taken place (and, in many cases, where those battles have become victories). But what about here on Stanford’s campus? How do students see the framework of identity politics as applied to Stanford-specific situations, like our campus debates about divestment from Israel or ASSU elections?

*The Review *reached out to several current and former students involved with Stanford’s community centers and/or identity-based voluntary student organizations (VSOs) to gather their thoughts on identity politics at Stanford. Though not necessarily representative of general campus opinion, these students do show some of the varying perspectives that exist in the groups and communities that take part most directly (at least ostensibly) in campus identity politics.

Some saw the term “identity politics” as something akin to a verbal eye-roll, if a strong one. One respondent, who will go by the name Alice for the purposes of anonymity, summed up this view, saying that she’s “pretty sure ‘identity politics’ is a negative term that people use when they’re frustrated by the various conflicting pressures and opinions on identity.”

Other respondents, conversely, not only seemed to construe identity politics more positively, but also more broadly than wider, off-campus discourse does. David Patiño ‘14, who helped found the group Latin@s Unid@s, defines identity politics as “politics that center around identity (religion, gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, etc) and identities that center around politics simultaneously.” Looking at the political tool in this way does not automatically exclude majority identities — such as Christian identities — whose historical oppression has become largely rectified, forgotten, or replaced with privilege. Instead, it allows any group, privileged or not, to politicize its identity to effect some change beneficial to its members.

[![The Markaz, Stanford’s newest community center, which serves “all students interested in Africa, the Middle East, and central, south and southeast Asia, as well as the American Muslim experience.” Photo courtesy the Markaz website.](/content/images/markaz.jpg)](/content/images/markaz.jpg)
The Markaz, Stanford’s newest community center, which serves “all students interested in Africa, the Middle East, and central, south and southeast Asia, as well as the American Muslim experience.” Photo courtesy the Markaz website.
Stanford experienced this change in a major way with the rise of the network of community centers—including the newest, the [Markaz](https://markaz.stanford.edu/) which serves “all students interested in Africa, the Middle East, and central, south and southeast Asia, as well as the American Muslim experience.” Though absent from our campus for much of its history, community centers themed around minority identities now span the center of campus, stretching in an arc from Hillel on the Row to the Black Community Services Center (BCSC) near Roble. Those organizations have become as much a part of the fabric of this institution as ethnic-themed housing (and dining, in the case of Wilbur’s “Star Ginger” and Stern’s “Cardinal Sage”).

Those community centers often illustrate a potential effect of using identity politics to unite people, namely the creation of a dynamic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ on campus in a more deliberate way than might exist elsewhere. El Centro Chicano y Latino provides a striking example of this phenomenon, particularly given the fact that it has only bore the name “El Centro Chicano y Latino” for as long as the Class of 2018 has been on campus. From its founding in 1978 until this school year, Centro’s full name was ‘El Centro Chicano’—referring not to the *comunidad latina *at large, but to a specific subset of that community.

Those who identify as Chicano/a (or, to use a gender-neutral convention, Chicanx) are almost exclusively Mexican. Though some use it simply as a Spanish replacement to the term ‘Mexican-American’, many (such as those who led the push to found Centro in the first place) used the term to identify themselves with the Chicano movement, which ranged from advocating for the empowerment of Mexicans in the US to its most extreme form of radical Mexican nationalism and reclamation of the Southwest for Mexico.

Though Centro tried to broaden its scope over the intervening decades and appeal to the wider Latinx community on campus, the name remained until this year. Around this time last year, when Stanford Race Confessions was at its zenith, several posts described how that official neglect (even with de facto support) could alienate members of the Latinx community who do not identify as Chicanx. Even now, Centro still has the term ‘Chicano’ in its name, either in an attempt to acknowledge a divide between the radical and the mainstream in the Latinx community or in a subconscious furthering of that divide.

Alice, like other respondents, saw dynamics like these in the community centers as a mixed bag: “When there are spaces and groups on campus specifically for a particular identity,” she wrote in an email to The Review, “it is often a safe haven for people who feel alienated because of their identity. These spaces allow people to explore and understand their identity.” Nonetheless, she continued, creating such havens “aggravates the problems of identity politics” by creating echo chambers that exclude outside opinions or trap people between two conflicting identity groups. “It makes informed and fair debate all but impossible, since people almost immediately feel attacked.”

Patiño explained this dichotomy further, albeit in a more tempered way. “I think its easily to feel left out [because of identity politics]. To feel that unless you agree with all of it, you can’t be aligned with some of it. It can be easily to alienate others and alienate yourself from others without realizing how everyone is connect or affected. But at the same time there’s a huge healing component around being able to share deeply held beliefs and deeply held traumas with others, that some people really won’t be able to understand, at least not in that same way…In my experience, [alienation] often came from folks, and myself at some point, not understanding the need for identity politics and the healing that happens [from it].”

This perspective helps to explain how identity politics developed influence on campus to begin with: finding an identity group on campus that represents who you are can help make Stanford a more welcoming place, particularly if that identity group is traditionally marginalized in this country or in higher education. Identity politics helps create safe spaces at Stanford for people to be themselves.

However, that perspective also explains some of the animosity that has developed within our campus’ political climate since September. A focus on identity encourages this animosity, more visible now thanks to the anonymous forum of YikYak and our homegrown knockoff, Whatsgoodly.

Take the case of the first campus demonstration related to the death of Michael Brown, when protesters blocked the Circle of Death (foreshadowing the controversial San Mateo Bridge protest on MLK Day). YikYak posts from that day plainly showed the identity-based divide between the protesters and the (would-be) bikers—a divide that exists in no small part due to constructions and politicizations of identity on campus.

More obviously, take the case of the divestment campaign against companies doing business in Israel allegedly to occupy Palestine. Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine (SOOP) supporters worked to connect the issue of Israel’s relationship with Palestinians to the militarization of US police forces—specifically against black men—and the ongoing effects of corruption in Mexico’s war against drug cartels, such as the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students. That forced connection furthered a trend that Coalition for Peace Vice President Yisroel Quint ‘17 pointed out, in which many on both sides of the issue believe racial, cultural, and religious identities should automatically swing people one way or another:

“I think that lots of communities of color were able to rally around SOOP [by] making connections…between their own background and the background of the Palestinians and basically argu[ing] that they have similar…identities in some way, and because of that, it’s a communal fight…And I think that that obviously plays into the Jewish community as well, where Jews obviously feel a strong identity related to Israel, and because of that, there’s a feeling within the Jewish community that everyone should be standing up for Israel, even though of course…there is diversity of opinions in all of the communities.”

If SOOP had not pushed for its divestment in Winter Quarter, the most visible manifestation of identity politics on campus would have come through the dog and pony show of the ASSU election, dominated by the six VSOs that form the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC): the Asian American Students’ Association (AASA), the Black Student Union (BSU), Movimento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) de Stanford, Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO). SOCC works to effect political action on campus via endorsements of ASSU candidates, and SOCC-endorsed Senate candidates almost always win without much contest. After all, the 16th Undergraduate Senate, currently in session, is one Senator shy of a SOCC-endorsed supermajority.

[![Promotional flyer for last year’s slate of SOCC-endorsed senators. All such senators who were listed on the ballot site won election to the 16th Undergraduate Senate.](/content/images/SOCC-flyer-791x1024.jpg)](/content/images/SOCC-flyer.jpg)
Promotional flyer for last year’s slate of SOCC-endorsed senators. All such senators who were listed on the ballot site won election to the 16th Undergraduate Senate.
In this way, the politicization of their identities has translated into real political power for the six SOCC groups. Rightly or wrongly, that power far exceeds what their individual members or even their entire identity groups would have on campus otherwise. SOCC may not be able to control what happens in actual Senate meetings, but it seems to control who ends up in those meetings to begin with—and even who leads them. [Former senators](http://www.stanforddaily.com/2013/04/10/students-of-color-coalition-reflects-on-influential-hand-in-assu-elections/) have pointed out that this ready-made coalition of SOCC-endorsed senators has historically translated into the ASSU’s leadership coming from the ranks of the SOCC endorsed. This year, though Senate Chair Ana Ordoñez was not endorsed by SOCC, Deputy Chair Rachel Samuels and the current chairs of two thirds of the Senate’s committees were.

Criticisms of this incredible amount of power, though they might foment throughout the year, become more visible around the ASSU elections every Spring Quarter. While some border on absurdity (at best) and are met with the roar of backlash, other critiques of SOCC’s power seemingly fall on deaf ears. After all, year after year, that power continues to exist.

Alice summed up this climate rather well, saying that, “At Stanford, people want [their] identity to be visible, proud, and sometimes political. I don’t really know how that impacts the culture and structure of Stanford because I don’t know what Stanford would be like without it.” Like her, none of us can conceive of a Stanford without identity politics, since none of us has ever experienced a Stanford without their influence. For better or worse, then, the politics of identity seem here to stay. They created SOCC, our community centers, and even the way we have constructed our own identities as Stanford students.

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