Although criticizing “identity politics” has become a hobby for some (on both the right and left), appreciating how racial, gender, sexual, and other identities help shape our experiences and perspectives can be critical to productive political discourse.
These identities are not without consequence, after all, nor are their consequences of secondary importance to other, more universal, concerns. They are often central to people’s lives.
Contrary to the claims of libertarians and conservatives, we are not merely “individuals.” Humans have never lived in isolation. None of us were raised on an island by a porpoise. We exist as members of groups, where those groups’ respective statuses have influenced the relationship to opportunity that individuals have enjoyed.
What’s more, it is only because those identities have been given particular meaning by systems of inequality — in short, because of oppression on the basis of those things — that individuals now seek to organize around said identities.
Which is to say that if one doesn’t like identity politics, there is a rather obvious way to stop them: put an end to the subordination of people on the basis of identity.
Identity for Me, but Not Thee: Ignoring Dominant Group Identity Politics
Even more, though, the critique of identity politics rests on a fundamental conceit, apparently invisible to those who offer the criticism: namely, the notion that identity politics is what those “other” people do, rather than something engaged in just as readily by those who criticize the concept.
So, for instance, it’s focusing on the experiences or needs of black and brown folks, rather than centering the white working class (as if the latter is not also about identity).
It’s prioritizing the needs of women, rather than centering men, who are presumed to be identity-less avatars of universal normalcy.
It’s what you’re guilty of when you talk too much about LGBTQ folks, but not what you do when you pander to conservative Christians who seek to prevent the former from enjoying legal protections on equal terms with their straight and cisgendered counterparts.
If politics focuses on dominant groups, that’s not about identity; it’s only identity politics, apparently, when you start talking about the historically marginalized.
So it wasn’t identity politics when southern lawmakers forced FDR to limit access by blacks to many New Deal programs, but it is identity politics to suggest that the nation should now invest similar resources in black communities since it already did so for white ones.
If the FHA program helped underwrite $120 billion in housing equity for whites from 1934–1962 (which it did), while blacks were routinely barred from accessing the same benefits, that wasn’t identity politics. But to suggest we might do something similar for black folks now — since they were the ones specifically left out before — is seen as precisely that, and worse, as preferential treatment, or perhaps even “reverse discrimination.” Because irony is dead and language has no meaning.
To push for a restoration of heavy manufacturing and industrial jobs to the Rust Belt, or coal jobs to Appalachia — both of which are disproportionately filled by men, and are vaunted as the kind of “manly” jobs the nation needs — is not seen as identity politics. But to say we should push to open up job opportunities for women in STEM fields is.
To advocate for marriage equality or the right of LGBTQ folks to be protected from discrimination is considered identity politics. But pushing for carve-outs to such laws — which would allow business owners to flout anti-discrimination efforts in the name of their religious beliefs — is not. And this, even as the folks demanding exceptions proclaim their identity as conservative Christians as the entire motivation for their stance.
Worst of all are those, typically on the left, who insist identity politics should give way to a class-based approach as if class were not itself an identity.
Following Marxist scholars like Barbara Fields, these voices insist that class has organic meaning, rooted in material conditions, while race is socially constructed, and to even speak of it is to give the concept a power it doesn’t deserve.
But in truth, just as race has only been given meaning in a racialized system — specifically, in a system of white supremacy — so too does class only have meaning in a class system. Were the class system abolished, class would no longer be organic or “real” any more so than race would be in a society absent white supremacy. Both are socially-constructed, and both end up having material meaning precisely because of the way advantages and disadvantages are doled out on the basis of where one sits on the class or race axis.
Identity and Solidarity: Why we All Need Identity Politics
Like it or not, identity matters: and for each of us, it matters in multiple ways. Very few of us are merely members of socially dominant groups, and even fewer, if any, are entirely marginalized. We are usually an uneasy mix of dominant and subordinate, privileged and disadvantaged, and in each case, those identities matter.
Where we are less advantaged or even subordinated, we often experience mistreatment, abuse and a disregard for our perspectives; where we are dominant, we receive privileges in ways that often remain invisible to us, precisely because they are entirely normalized.
And just as we would all wish for others to empathize with us in cases where our identities place us on the downside of some social power dynamic — especially when that burdens us with substantial disadvantages or obstacles we must hurdle — so too must we be prepared to act empathically towards others when we are the ones on top.
So for instance, growing up Jewish in the American south ensured that I would be regaled with a steady stream of spiritual terrorism from evangelical Christians who saw it as their duty to remind me of my pending eternity in a lake of fire lest I accept Jesus as my personal savior. But as painful as that was, and as much as I deserved the allyship of non-Jews (and especially liberal-minded Christians) in addressing that abuse, such solidarity was no more deserved than that which I needed to practice as a white person towards folks of color, who faced far more mistreatment in the schools we shared, to say nothing of the larger society.
Shorter version: solidarity requires reciprocity.
Presently, this means that if people of color are expected to feel empathy for small-town rural white folks, suffering the loss of manufacturing jobs and an opioid crisis, they are well within their rights to wonder why such compassion was never forthcoming — nor demanded — from those same whites when similar jobs began vanishing 20–30 years earlier from the places where black and brown folks lived.
Because when that was happening, there was no gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in small-town white America about the plight of black workers, families, and communities. No indeed, these were the folks who routinely castigated black people in the cities for not getting up and moving to where the jobs were and saw their presumed unwillingness to do so as evidence of their laziness or entitlement mentality. But they expect everyone to support efforts to save their one-stop-light towns by bringing back obsolete jobs to where they reside.
Likewise, far from being empathic to previous drug epidemics that ravaged black and brown communities — heroin in the 1970s and crack in the 1980s — most of these white folks fell in line behind a “lock ’em up” mentality, having decided the urban poor of color were a tangle of social pathology, entirely to blame for addiction and the crime that came with it.
Having lived with the consequences of white folks’ silence around those things — and even their open hostility towards the people affected — these peoples of color are more than justified in demanding acknowledgment of white complicity now, and the repair of the damage done, before showering rural white America with their tears.
Conclusion: All Politics are About Identity, and all Identities are Political
Ultimately, all politics is about identity, not just that which centers on race, gender, sexuality or class. When politicians pander to voters by promising tax cuts, they are appealing to an identity as taxpayers (and usually upper-income ones). When they propose policies intended to help children, they are appealing directly to voters as parents.
All politics is about interest groups, and more often than not, they are about those interest groups competing for various desired resources. Indeed, this is among the paradigmatic concepts in modern political science.
The problem is, many would prefer that we only talk about some of these identities while steadfastly ignoring others. And their reasons are nothing if not transparent.
White folks want, by and large, to ignore the injuries of racism to people of color because those call us to account for an identity from which we have unjustly benefitted. Men wish to ignore the harms of patriarchy for the same reason. We want to remain centered (even while our group identity remains largely invisible and uninterrogated), ignoring all the while that our centering was hardly the result of some normal or neutral process; rather, it was the result of power and privilege possessed precisely because of our identities.
Until and unless we commit to a politics of equity and justice — and until we see a fundamental erasure of the persistent structural inequities that currently plague our society — a politics of identity will remain a necessary force. To confuse the symptom for the disease is to ensure the perpetuation of the very disparities that the marginalized, of all identities, are seeking to eradicate.
The movements against racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the problems: racism, sexism, and heterosexism are. Eradicate the latter, and the former will take care of themselves.