We Can’t Separate Identity From Politics

“George W. Bush Presidential Library” by Shannon McGee / CC BY-SA 2.0

Countless moderate liberals have called upon the Democratic party to ditch “identity politics” in the wake of Trump. “We need a post-identity liberalism,” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla wrote back in 2016. “Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.” According to Lilla, Audre Lorde’s message of recognizing and celebrating our differences is detrimental to American politics, so instead of focusing on issues that uniquely affect different groups of people, liberals need to unite on issues that affect all Americans.

Unfortunately, to quote Lorde again, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” In other words, there is no way to separate identity from politics. Every political issue affects different groups in different ways, so in a way all politics are identity politics.

This isn’t an entirely new concept. Adrienne Rich spoke about how our identities shape our politics in her 1984 speech “Notes Towards a Politics of Location.” She says:

I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated black and white women in labor and black and white babies in the nursery, just as it separated black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. . . . I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex-though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe. To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go.

While Rich faced marginalization as a lesbian, a woman, and a Jewish person, she also had the privilege of being white. That doesn’t mean her white privilege negated the sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism she faced throughout her life; Rich was just acknowledging how her different identities shaped her worldview and politics. The essay concludes with a challenge to white feminists to explore Black feminist and social theorists in order to see beyond their limited peripheral visions. “To shrink from or dismiss that challenge,” she writes, “can only isolate white feminism from the other great movements for self-determination and justice within and against which women define ourselves.”

Like Rich, my politics and worldview have also been shaped by my various identities. I’m bisexual and non-binary, and experienced anti-LGBTQ bullying from first grade to high school graduation. Shortly after I finally came out as bisexual at age 29, I started dating a man who made me the happiest I had ever been in my life, but we were too afraid to hold hands out in public. I came out as non-binary a few years later and started presenting more femininely, and while trans people can use whatever public restroom matches their gender, very few businesses where I live have gender-neutral options. This leaves me with either one of three choices: go the women’s room and possibly be accused of being a pervert, go into the men’s room and possibly have men harass me, or hold it in until I get home. I usually pick the third option.

However, I’m also white and will never know what it’s like to fear for my life when a cop pulls my car over. I grew up in Prince George’s County, MD, which has a predominantly black population, so I knew that racism was bad, but still my whiteness prevented me from seeing systematic racism happening right in front of me. I didn’t even know police brutality existed in my backyard until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Also, while I worry that my name will one day end up on the annual Transgender Day of Remember list, my chances of that happening would double if I was either black or brown.

I’m taking all this into consideration with the current list of Democratic Party presidential candidates. Many of them have problematic pasts. Kamala Harris, for example, helped maintain the prison industrial complex during her time as California Justice Department attorney general. Tulsi Gabbard used to work for the anti-LGBTQ organization the Alliance for Traditional Marriage. Many indigenous activists saw Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test as an insult to indigenous people. While it’s true that no candidate is perfect, people should be allowed to learn from their mistakes, and both Gabbard and Warren have since apologized, I wonder how many of these past mistakes will carry over to future policies if any of these candidates are elected president.

There are also political issues that seem to have nothing to do with identity, but actually do. For example, most people assume that climate change affects all humankind equally, but through an intersectional lens we see that’s not entirely true. According to Mercy Corps, the majority of people who live in poverty around the world rely on agriculture and natural resources for their survival, which makes those living in poverty the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Likewise, according to the Advancement Project, climate change disproportionately affects people of color here in the United States more than anyone else, with examples ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the fact that pollution-producing industries are largely located near communities of color. Once again, no one lives single-issue lives.

While there are many examples of toxic identity politics — nationalism, supremacy, separatism, etc. — it’s impossible to completely divorce identity from politics. Different political issues affect different people in different ways, so instead of having a post-identity liberalism, intersectional liberalism is the future. It’s going to be complex and messy, but politics themselves are complex and messy, with various issues and angles intersecting with each other in a tangled up spider’s web. I don’t know how to untangle this web, but I’m voting for the person who will do the best job doing this.