“Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the interest and perspectives of groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people’s politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on race, class, religion, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, ideology, nationality, sexual orientation, culture, language (i.e. regional language / minority language) information preference, history, musical or literary preference, medical conditions, professions, or hobbies. Not all members of any given group are necessarily involved in identity politics.
The term identity politics and movements linked to it came into being during the latter part of the 20th century. It can most notably be found in class movements; feminist movements; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements; disability movements; ethnic movements; and post-colonial movements. Minority influence, a central component of identity politics, is a form of social influence whereby a majority is influenced by the beliefs or behavior of a minority. Unlike other forms of influence this usually involves a personal shift in private opinion called conversion.” –Wikipedia [using Wikipedia to talk about our colloquial use of terms, not out of laziness or a belief that it has the most accurate or useful definition of terms]
We fight about identity politics constantly in today’s political culture. Everyone, on the left and the right, seem to be against identity politics. Paul Ryan is against identity politics and argues instead for us to recognize our “Americanness.” Some Black Nationalists, both cultural and revolutionary, say that it is meaningless, naïve or lacking in actual understanding of the how power works. Some Marxist tend to deride it for being “insufficiently Marxist” which can mean anything from being naïve, liberal, not anti-capitalist or misunderstanding the material construction of reality in favor of ideas. Yet all of these groups set up programs based on specific identities; be it our America first, Blackness or the working class. How are these identities different than LGBTQ or Latinx, or Muslim of other identities whose activist are often labeled identitarians?
Hint: they are not.
The right attacks identity politics because there are some identities they don’t like while the left attacks it for how it orients itself towards identity. Often, online and interpersonal critiques are a mix of both left and right view-points. Some of this backlash against identity politics is historic. Many identity movements were a direct response to marginalization of specific people in larger broad based movements. Women’s Liberation, in part, comes out of the sexism that women experienced in the anti-war and civil rights movements. Queer liberation/gay separatism comes, in part, out the homophobia experienced by LGBTQ folks in the women’s liberation movement. Black Queer Feminism comes, in part, out of a history of exclusion and marginalization in all of those spaces.
As is common in popular discourse, ideological tendencies get typified by their most extreme, obnoxious or vilified elements. There was notably extreme identity essentialism that ran through many of these identitatarian movements, especially in separatist tendencies. Radical feminists sometimes advocated for political lesbianism and even castration of men. But this is not that different from the radical fringes of Marxists who reduce everything to purely economic terms and bloody class warfare or nationalist who feel that some mythical connection to Africa will free Black people or killing white people is equivalent to freedom. Every tendency has it extremists, its liberal apologist, its nut jobs. Every movement has its tenets taken out of context.
The problem is that many of us on the left, myself included, sometimes let these highly visible elements detract from the very valid points these off-shoot social movements raised about other movements. We forget that radicalization is a long, messy process with many detours and pitfalls. No one comes to movement work with our analysis fully formed, it is shaped in action and resistance. Instead of letting steel sharpen steel and internal critique sharpen our critique of the system many organizations and tendencies went their separate ways.
Even I admit that I let the worse tendencies of cultural nationalism blind me to the important insights that revolutionary nationalist have made to Black liberation work.
“The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend differences, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” Kimberle Crenshaw [the inventor of intersectionality].
It would not be fair to lump all the backlash against identity politics into personal hurt feelings and extremism on the wings historically. There is still a vibrant, loud and destructive wing of identity politics that is, to use word from the tendency itself, problematic.
When people criticize identity politics they seem to generally mean the politics of identity innocence and victimization. What they are often really criticizing is either this belief that the oppressed are innocent and the oppressors are evil or that one identity should be the primary focus over all others in every situation. This tendency oftens turns calling out privilege into the politics of victimization or muddles systemic critics with indentitatarian boogy men of racist, gender or sexual orientation bias. It shuts down debate or transforms critiques of the system into personal ideologies that come from our [insert identity here].
However, not all identity politics assume some innocence. Not all identitatarians place one identity at the center of their analysis. In fact real intersectional identity politics is based on the mutual complicity of all people in different facets of oppressive systems, systems that can’t be fully understood outside of their mutual and material context.
“Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, nationality and other sectarian axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels. The theory proposes that we should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity. This framework can be used to understand how systemic injustice and social inequality occur on a multidimensional basis. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.” Wikipedia
Identity politics is useful when it allows us to better understand social positions and power relationships between individuals, groups and systems. Complicit-intersectional-identity politics with a strong understanding of the material construction of identity allows us to understand how dominance and “power over” effects different people in systems in a way that can inform strategy and tactics for opposition to those systems. This way of viewing power is most useful in coalitions across differences. Whether you are a revolutionary nationalist trying to build a united Black front that includes Black immigrants, women and elders or a communist party trying to form a anti-capitalist movements that includes all workers you need to know how the system you intend to destroy effects the members of your coalition.
Intersectionality comes out practice in movement spaces where “dual oppressions” and unitary movements like anti-racism and [middle-class white] feminism was unable to devise strategies for addressing rape and domestic violence against black women. They both posed the most privileged people’s experience of a particular form of oppression as “universal.”All Black people face racism like Black men and women experience patriarchy like white women.
Historically dualistic and unitary lenses have pit the interest of Black men and white women against each other [or Latino immigrants vs “native born” Black communities and other false dichotomies]. Even dual oppression typically is unable to understand the specific ways in which capitalist and the state exploit black women, Black immigrants, queer Latinx, Black Muslims etc. It also does not allow for black men or white women [or other groups with both oppressive and oppressor identities] to understand their complicity in the oppression of black women [or other multiply marginalized groups].
Ironically, by not using an intersectional lens young or overly dogmatic revolutionary nationalist and Marxist alike sometimes fall into the same innocence based identity politics that they criticize “idenitarians” for. The enemy becomes the “capitalist” or the “bourgiose state” or ” the white man” or “neo-colonialism.” It makes their identity as working class or black revolutionaries the hero of their own histories in a way that does not require critical self-reflection, personal transformation or the nuance that comes with political maturity.
The Black radical doesn’t have to ask himself if he must treat his white sister and Black sister differently [morally or strategically]; the Marxist does not have to ask if he must treat the Black worker and middle class Black professional differently. Sometimes this means that the critique from white women is overlooked as them “not being down with Black liberation” or the needs of Black women being overlooked because your feminist analysis is based on the needs of white women. Likewise, the white middle class communist organizer might simply overlook the calls of discrimination in the workplace from middle class Black professionals [even fellow organizers]. The problem here, is a lack of nuance and narrowness in thinking about identity, not in thinking critically about identity itself.
In this lack of nuance the ability to have large, robust, transformative coalitions is limited. The micro-aggressions, hostility and interpersonal violence of the long 60’s movements are as good a proof of this as the oppression olympics and myopic view of identity in today’s social movements are. Focusing on identity is only a problem if you view that identity simplistically and outside of larger systemic, historical and material contexts. Contrary to what many seem to think, identity politics don’t spell the end of massive broad based politics, it merely complicated our thinking.
Every good organizer knows that you can only organize people about what they already care about. If you can’t figure out how to find common ground with someone then you can’t organize them. At the same time if you can’t identify your differences and how your social locations change your interests you will be unable to achieve victories that work for everyone. Likely, those with the least amount of power will not get their needs met and will not stay in coalitions for long. Or, the the opposition will uses those unacknowledged different interests to divide you. Without an appreciation of these differences we will all return to our silos wondering what happened.
As long as our identities are based in material inequities and structural oppression they will remain critical pieces and launching points for opposition and solidarity. To ignore our differences or to limit them is to pretend that the world we live in is not as it really is. In order to change the world we must first learn to accept it in all of its complexity.
Intersectionality and identity politics are not the end all be all of political analysis. They are not stand ins for systemic critique of capitalism or state power, regardless of how often they are used as such. Just like a calculator is the not the end all be all of computation. It’s a tool. Like any tool it’s only as good as the worker who wields it. It is only as useful as our understanding of dialectical materialism, historical materialism, decolonialism, anti-imperialism, social reproduction theory, personal emotional emancipation and healing etc help us in using it.
We also shouldn’t pretend that the spaces we gravitate to and the tendencies we most easily accept don’t have anything to do with our identities. We should not pretend that there are hard truths about ourselves and our position in society that we sometimes use our analysis to over look. Marxist universalism is easier to accept if your community has a history of being depicted as universal. This is no different than marxist claims that the middle class or “petit bourgeoisie” is often not likely to be down with a proletariat revolution. Social position informs which political actions we are likely to take and which we are likely to stick to when faced with state repression.
To throw out intersectionality because someone used privilege to obscure a larger systemic critique is like stopping using wrenches because a bad plumber once tried to use it as a hammer. You’d be better off finding a better plumber, or better yet teaching the plumber how to use a hammer. Similarly the fact that pyramids were built without electricity doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use it for building the new world we want to live in. Dual oppression was useful in its day [and often was a proto-intersectional lens] but doesn’t have the benefit of the last 50 years of movement experience.
More to the point, since our opponents are apt at using our identities against us, like how transphobia was used to justify a massive attack on worker’s rights in HB2, it seems like we should be better at using our identities and their interests to mobilize opposition. Intersectionality is one tool that helps us to do that. Intersectionality also insures that our “Marxist universalism” is not centering whiteness or masculinity or leaving out critical elements of domination outside of economics. Intersectionality helps us to build the kind of mass based movements that we tried to build in the long 60’s; ones that are not easily divided by state repression, ones in which we can bring our whole selves, ones that are large enough to hold our interests when we have to raise families and pay the rent.
Intersectionality and identity politics will not save us. Not by themselves. No single tool can. But it will help us to build sustainable movements that hold critique and have steel sharpen steel until we have weapons sharp enough to destroy whatever obstacles trans-national, postmodern white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchal capitalism throws in our way and coalitions solid enough to continue fighting together.