Not All Politics is Identity Politics

In the often polarizing and intense debates on identity politics you often encounter three talking points from those who oppose those who criticise identity politics. First, that all politics is identity politics. Second, critics of so called “identity politics” ignore the specific oppression of marginalized groups and third, they perpetuate a white male chauvinist worldview.

This particular form of argumentation is flawed because it ignores the fact that there have been many different critiques of identity politics by non-whites, many of whom have been deeply involved in struggles against racism, injustice, and colonial oppression. I of course believe white people should also be able to criticise identity politics and not have their arguments delegitimized simply because of they are white or a man. What should ultimately matter is if the content of the argument is good or not, not the skin color or gender of the author.

However, it is interesting to note that critiques of identity politics by non-white leftists and progressives often get ignored in much of the popular debates on this topic. Some people who take the anti-anti identity politics stance will say, or imply, that non-whites who critique “identity politics” are either inadvertently perpetuating class reductionism or are being exploited by white men to denigrate and erase the specific struggles of people of color, or worse that they are basically Uncle Toms.

I wonder then how these sordid types would react to the likes of Paul Gilroy or A.Sivanandan? How about Anthony Appiah? Edward Said (the author of Orientalism for goodness sake!)? Or Kenan Malik? All of whom are non-whites, most of whom are extremely critical of racism in Western societies and Western imperialism too but who have also criticized identity politics. Are they just regurgitating a white male chauvinist view of the world? I don’t like to do the whole “speaking as a [insert identity of choice]” as if it adds more weight to my opinions, but as a bisexual “man of color” I criticize identity politics not because I oppose the rights of marginalized groups, but because it is an impediment to these struggles of liberation.

What makes criticism of identity politics difficult, especially now in the age of Trump, is its often used as a dogwhistle from reactionaries to blame the gains of the 1960s liberation movements such as civil rights, feminism, and the emancipation of LGBT people for the rise of Trump and the alt-right. Therefore any criticism of what is perceived to be identity politics is axiomatically interpreted as an insidious attack on women and minorities and an opposition to their struggles for rights and equality.

However, what most critics of “identity politics,” whether conservative or liberal often conflate are two things: a narrow & essentialist way of viewing human societies, defining and assessing them solely through the prism of identity, and social justice movements combating specific forms of oppression against particular groups - racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigrant xenophobia etc.

So Black people protesting police brutality and the systemic injustice and the economic hardships they face is not “identity politics.” Women using #MeToo to raise awareness about sexual harassment & the multiple forms of sexual oppression they face is not “identity politics.” LGBT people struggling for their emancipation is not “identity politics”. This is in fact a politics of  liberation, of inclusion; of consistent democracy; of affirming the universal birthright of all human beings (not just white heterosexual males ) to equality and freedom than it is a politics of separatism or exclusivism.

The great British-Sri Lankan socialist and anti-racist activist and thinker Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote in an essay called “All That Melts is Solid”:

 “Any struggles of the oppressed, be it blacks or women, which are only for themselves and then not for the least of them, the most deprived, the most exploited of them, are inevitably self-serving and narrow and unable to enlarge the human condition…The question for me is: what is it in the black and Third world experience, in the experience of the oppressed and the exploited, that gives one the imagination to see other oppression and the will to fight for a better society for all, a more equal, just free society, a socialist society?”

The lesson we ought to learn is that we should not fetishize our experiences of oppression, as if “we” are the world’s greatest victims and no other people can claim that title like us. To echo James Baldwin anyone who has read history knows this kind of narcissism is false. Instead we should use these experiences of oppression and injustice to develop humanist and universalist routes in the struggle for liberation, not essentialized and parochial ones. It is not a good idea to keep people trapped in provincial silos and intellectual ghettos, we must always be aware of the bigger picture and how all our struggles are intimately connected. We should get out of our lanes not stay in them. It is necessary, dare I say possible, to oppose racial & gender based oppression and class exploitation. The necessary conversations we need to have around race, gender & class should be both/and not either/or. Too often conversation is shut down on whatever part of this equation because people are uncomfortable in having their prejudice and bias challenged.

So no, not all politics is identity politics and not all politics has to be identity politics. Universalism doesn’t have to be a cover for white ethnocentrism and solidarity doesn’t have to be defined in ethnic & religious terms. Universalism can be just that, universal, inclusive of all peoples and solidarity should be across color lines, not along them.

The challenge before us is to articulate a universalist politics that is truly inclusive and multi-dimensional, that goes beyond black and white, yet takes the specific struggles of marginalized groups seriously. Because as Frantz Fanon argued: You get into the universal through the particular. Univeralism can only be actualized through concrete political and social struggles based on solidarity, not as a distant abstract idea that has a little relevance to the real issues people face every day.

The personal is meaningless without understanding the political and you only enrich ones understanding of the universal through the struggles of the particular. If we are serious about social transformation then struggles of racial, gender and economic justice must be attached to a holistic analysis of international political economy. Without this you get nowhere and we are proverbially stuck in our ghettos again.

In other words, we need a difficult politics, a very difficult politics. It is much easier said than done. But remember this, comrades, we can do both/and not either/or.

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  1. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what “All politics is identity politics” means: That political actors (including voters) are motivated by what affects their lives. If you’re focusing on class, that’s still reaching out to an issue in the hopes that voters identify with it personally. The reason you’re being vilified is because, intentionally or not, you’re repeating a Conservative dog-whistle.

    Also, trying to separate race from class in the US requires ignoring quite a bit… Jim Crow, Redlining, The War on Drugs, and the Tulsa genocide all come to mind. It’s not a coincidence that today’s most-impoverished urban neighborhoods are all former redlined neighborhoods. Economic damage was, and continues to be, inflicted on Americans *due to their race.*

    So with all due respect, maybe time spent writing this should have been spent listening to the priorities of others, and not lamenting that they have progressive priorities that differ from your own.

    1. Nobody is trying to separate race from class: ‘The necessary conversations we need to have around race, gender & class should be both/and not either/or’

      He says multiple times that both should be tackled together. You just couldn’t be bothered to actually read the article, could you.

  2. The problem is that in democracy identity politics just works best. Black conservatives and libertarians vote for democrats. LGBT people vote almost exclusively for democrats too and Trump weaving rainbow flag means nothing.That’s the only valid way of building a loyal voter base needed for any political party to succeed. GOP will quite likely embrace white nationalism (in a coalition with Jewish nationalism possibly, maybe also Asians harmed by affirmative action) in the future to just survive.

    Even in an ethnically homogeneous country like Poland identity politics dominates, but it’s mainly class identity politics. PO represents big city, higher income, cosmopolitan population while ruling PiS represents workers as well as the lowest parts of the society. I’ve listened to both sides and not only they have not only profoundly different views of the world, value structures, but also their languages somehow differ. They hate and despise each other to the core. “Religious fanatics” vs “traitors”. Poland is so much like the USA!

    There has always been legends about the disenfranchised “middle electorate”, but it’s an illusion. Those people are usually uninterested in politics until they take a side and swing their votes easily.

    I don’t see any way of winning against it in democracy. At least not until I hear a better and more efficient way of building support base while avoiding identity politics. It can be called evil and destructive, but evil is often just what works best in our cruel world.

  3. “Essentialist ways of viewing human societies…” Very good description,six words that sum up the problem with Identity politics.

    Identitarians affirm the Three Pillars of Group Essence: (1) they believe that they can define the groups that form ultimate basis of human society; (2) they believe they know enough about you (a total stranger) to stick you into one of these groups; and (3) they believe they can assess what people should do to you because of it. The group they put you in is your essence, and the bedrock basis of your existence.

    This is an extremely common philosophy. Plato advanced it, using it to claim that a just society must include slavery. Hegel said the essence of a social grouping is nationality; Marx said it was class; Hitler said it was race. They all agreed on the three pillars of group essence; they just disagreed on the basis for the groupings.

    Now we add two new philosophies of group essence, white supremism and identitarianism, and they agree with each other. They both agree that the White Male is the ultimate, bedrock group of society. They just disagree on what we should be doing to white males.

  4. To the author of the article, Ralph Leonard: Thank you—well said!

    The current trendy label of “identity politics” created by the news media and taken up by social justice warriors is an attempt to inform of mistreatment, yet consequently, has lead to witch hunting.

    That said and separate from the above author’s contribution, in reading the many articles contributed to Areo: Where is the science? Because science offers better and more informed answers for those trendy things like “identity politics”.

    For instance, Robert M. Sapolsky’s book, “Behave—The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” gives further insight and answers “identity politics” conception lacks. Sapolsky educates, gives evidence childhood—when the maturation of the frontal cortex is still incomplete—is the crucial time when cultural and environmental influences sculpt who we become and goes on to state, “…cultural differences manifest themselves in monumentally important, unexpected ways—say, whom it is okay to kill (an enemy soldier, a cheating spouse, a newborn of the “wrong” sex, an elderly parent too old to hunt, a teenage daughter who is absorbing the culture around her rather than the culture her parents departed).”

    He asks the reader, “…has it been hundreds of years of thousands of years of Hobbes or of Rousseau?” Sapolsky says, “…over the last millennium people have arguably gotten a lot less awful to one another.”

    Also, in same tome “Behave” by Sapolsky, he writes about how sexuality is influenced by the “hormone bath” the fetus undergoes while developing in the uterus which allows a further understanding, explanation as to why we are gay, bi-sexual, transgender.

    Arguments concerning identity politics become moot if more folks seek out, read, study science and humanitarian oriented works and allowed themselves to look beyond their culture and the environment in which they were initially conditionedat a tender age.

    When first hearing of the term, identity politics, and its subsequent definitions, it reminds of a quote by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The world is not what I think, but what I live through.”

  5. “So Black people protesting police brutality and the systemic injustice and the economic hardships they face is not “identity politics.”
    It is, as black don’t have a harder time because they are black but because they are poor. Confusing discrimination based on color with the general economic hardship is identity politcs way of claiming a broader suffering for a group.
    Moreoever, the police brutality is not here because they are black, and the “systemic injustice” is just too vague. “Systemic” is a world used by identity politics lover to give minorities problems more importance. Anything can be viewed as systemic, and it’s a usefull framework but they insist on keeping the systemic label minority only. And also they use it only to mean “IT’S IMPORTANT NOT LIKE THE OTHER’S PROBLEMS”.

    ‘Women using #MeToo to raise awareness about sexual harassment & the multiple forms of sexual oppression they face is not “identity politics.”
    Women don’t face sexual oppression. The world oppression as used by sociologist is clearly a trick to enable identity politics. Their definition of oppression is literally “anythng done to a minority or a group perceived as one”. It’s just naming oppression eveything thing that the group they prefer (including women who are a majority ) face.
    Raising awareness is good only when there is in the first place a need for it At this point, it’s a joke to raise awareness on something that a society focus on so much. And it do more for identity politics and the women claim over violence than to victims.
    Women problems are the problems that society focus on first. It’s men problems that are denied in our society, not the other way around. A men #MeToo campain would “challenge mentality”. A women one is just “more of the same” victimist status.

    LGBT people struggling for their emancipation is not “identity politics”.
    LGBT people don’t struggle for their emancipation, the whole group thing is stupid. Eveyrone would laugh if we were speaking about heterosexual male struggling for their emancipation because some of them struggle for it.

    You can fight against discrimination. But te whole struggle/oppression/systemic thing is a narrative of identity politics.
    In fact, your country is completly based on identity politics and communautarism. Therefore, to fight identity politics you will have to drop the narrative fashioned nonsense.
    The right winger asshole have good points, even if some of them too like nonesense when is it come to their prefered groups.

  6. Can we please stop using the word “marginalized” to refer to anyone who isn’t a white man? It is patently absurd that affluent white women in Western societies are marginalized, while men who have lost their jobs and are having trouble putting food on the table are expected to roll over and check their privilege.

    1. Having privileges isn’t the same as having a get out of jail free card for any of all life’s problems. Being white doesn’t mean that you can’t also be poor and marginalised as well, but it does mean you are statistically less likely to (among other things) get shot by American police for no valid reason, and also on average statistically less likely to be impoverished and marginalised in the first place. It isn’t a comfort to have these privileges, especially if you are below the poverty line, but it is a disadvantage to not have them. Similarly, you might not feel privileged at having to skip meals, but you still have a privilege of not being far less likely to suffer sexual violence as a woman would in the same circumstances.

    2. Women are no less likely to face that trouble-putting-food-on-the-table situation than men are. But they are more likely to be sexually assaulted, raped, and discriminated against. Nobody’s saying life is easy, just that some people have an extra layer of BS to deal with that White Men don’t.

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