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Identity Politics

posted Jun 11, 2012, 1:42 PM by Interfaith WS

This is the fourth installment in our look at “Acts of Faith,” by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.  The book is available online at  


Chapter 3 -- Acts of Faith:  Identity Politics


College is a time of developing an understanding of how the world sees you, how you see the world and how you see yourself.  Sometimes it’s brutal.  Almost always it’s revealing.


“The world never seemed so new to me as it did during those first few months of college.  My first lesson was on race.  I was stunned to learn that not everybody wanted to be white….Cafeterias were balkanized by race and ethnicity.  Unlike in high school where the popular (mostly white) kids sat at one table and others longed for a place there, people wanted to be where they were.  In fact, they were fiercely proud and protective of their own zones….


“My skin color, my ethnic name, the food my mother cooked meant no access to certain circles….For so long, I had simply accepted this as a fact of life.  But college gave me a different framework in which to see race.


“Having swallowed the pill of white supremacy whole during high school and allowed its poison to spread through my body, I suppose it should come as no surprise that I would accept uncritically the first elixir that presented itself.  That elixir was identity politics, and it was in full swing during my undergraduate years.  The grand idea of identity politics circa 1994…was this:  the world, and one’s place in it, was entirely defined by the color of one’s skin, the income of one’s parents, and the shape of one’s genitalia.  Middle class white men had built a culture, an economy, and a political system designed to maintain their own power.  First they called it Western civilization, then they called it America, and now they were calling it globalization.  These people were the oppressors.  The rest of us, the oppressed, had been pawns in their game for far too long….The rise of identity politics was the beginning of a new age, a great intellectual liberating force that allowed us not only to understand the true workings of the system but also to perceive and return to our own authentic selves.  Our authentic selves were, of course, totally determined by our ascribed race, class, and gender identities, which shaped everything from one’s politics to one’s friendships to one’s tastes in food and music.


“The one thing that connected me to my past was volunteering.  Something about my YMCA experiences and my parents’ insistence that service was essential stuck with me.  Also, I needed the human connection.  My head was swimming with radical theories and my spirit was bursting with anger.  The moments I spent trying to concretely improve somebody’s life kept me from falling over the edge….


“But I was aware of a more creative movement bubbling up.  It had volunteering at its core, but its broader mission was social change….These organizations (Teach for America, City Year, Habitat for Humanity) took diversity seriously.  They realized that service was an ideal place to bring people together from different racial, ethnic, class and geographic backgrounds.  People built a special relationship with one another when they passed bricks at a Habitat for Humanity site of planned lessons for children at an inner city school.  The common purpose gave them a common bond.  Furthermore, because these people came from different backgrounds, they inevitably brought different perspectives to the various challenges that emerged in their service projects.  In other words, a diverse team made for better service.”


It was during this time that Eboo was introduced to the life of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement which she started.   “The most radical part about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement was the insistence that everything the movement did was guided by a single force: love.  I was tired of raging.  It left me feeling empty, and what did it achieve anyway?  I wanted to improve people’s lives because I loved humanity, not because I hated the system….Day’s view that God is the source of love, equality, and connection – and that He requires His ultimate creation, humanity, to achieve the same on earth – made sense to me in a deep place….”