A Brief History of “Identity Politics”
That phrase, it does not mean what you think it means
We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.
from A Black Feminist Statement, often referred to as The Combahee River Collective Statement appearing in But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. The Feminist Press at CUNY. Also available online.
Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster suggests that identity politics means:
“politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”
This is fundamentally different from the definition that the term was first articulated in writing with, but close enough to it that it reflects what I would call a co-opting of the term, alongside a complete erasure of why the term exists in the first place. This outcome isn’t particularly surprising given how often Black women’s labor is both stolen and then deployed by white supremacist patriarchy for its own purposes. What do I mean that it is fundamentally different? This part dangerously twists the original intent behind the Combahee statement’s articulation of identity politics: “without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”
A Black Feminist Statement never proposed that the interests or concerns of other groups were not meaningful. In fact, the statement articulates the meaningful importance of establishing nodes of solidarity. Understanding identity politics to mean the absence of solidarity is to contravene a foundational principle to the Combahee River Collective’s formulation of a meaningful politics.
Anyway, I’m guessing that a Black woman who knows her feminist history didn’t write that for M-W. And a linguist would certainly argue that words and phrases are allowed to evolve. But let’s ponder what happens when we refuse to acknowledge the origins of a term that was intended to teach us something very different from what folks seem to learn from popular discussions of “identity politics.” What we could learn from the original definition is that we have to look at what it means to be people who love ourselves enough to consistently work for our own liberation.
That means for those who are white and feeling underresourced can’t trust Donald Trump to care about them enough to consistently work for their liberation. Identity politics, like intersectionality (also a Black feminist concept), is an analytic framework that helps us make political decisions by helping us to assess how power operates and how we should respond to those operations. It asks us to ask ourselves who we are. In A Black Feminist Statement, the authors recognized themselves as not just Black, but also women, and also queer women, and also poor women. Identity politics is a call to use intersectionality to analyze one’s social position and to respond accordingly. In other words, poor white people should ask themselves if they actually do share much of an identity with Donald Trump, if he is really for them.
Why should anyone care about this apparently academic, technical point? Well, politicos keep claiming that working class white voters will never vote for a platform that includes things that they need like health care and a basic income and affordable housing and clean water.
Of course, it wasn’t poor white people who sent Trump to the White House so much as middle and upper class white voters, and this leads to a more complicated question: do they share an identity with Trump? Maybe. He’s far richer than most of them, and much as they might believe in the myth of the American dream, most of them are never going to be so rich that they can be as bad with money as he is.
But as Jackie Goldberg said on my mom’s radio show on Friday: there are more of us than there are of them. The real question ought to be whether we can figure out how to effectively organize with each other, which leads to the next identity question: who are the Democrats?
The Democrats are dominated by Baby Boomers who, besides Maxine Waters and John Lewis and Pramila Jayapal and Michael Capuano and other members of the Progressive Caucus, seem to be frightened of their own political shadow. And now millenials (who apparently can’t do anything?) are shaking the tree and saying, “What about the major disparity between the world you built during the Clinton and Obama years and the world you promised us?” They’re asking questions like why the government invested in ICE and not them.
The Democrats seem to be dominated by Baby Boomers who believe that their identity is “white moderate who can rely on Black voters.” The question is: does it have to stay that way? I guess we’re going to find out. My hope is that we all have the courage to reimagine identity and what winning looks like, and I see Zoé’s tweet as a call to do that. Maybe instead of being part of the dominant race, white people can stop going bankrupt because someone in the family got cancer. That trade seems more than fair to me, but I’m not white, so maybe I’m just not considering white people’s needs here. ;-)