Identity Politics: Discussing the Misunderstood Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hide
In the past few years, the concept of Identity Politics has made an enduring presence in the American political scene. Despite its commonality in our every day lives, it’s difficult to pin a single definition - and therefore - a solid critique to its influence. This is due largely to the evolution this terminology has gone through since its inception in the feminist movement, and the resulting conflation of this concept with another: the Lived Experience. Both have value in promoting an effective and cohesive movement toward change, but can also damage the movement of marginalized peoples when used in unwise contexts.
Recognizing the Doctor: Identity Politics Before
When you hear the term ‘identity politics,’ its quite likely a schema of images & headlines come to mind. Black Lives Matter posters, echoes of the Transgender bathroom struggle, a rash of MeToo hashtags, the growing line of followers in marches and protests trailing behind countless racist, sexist tweets from our President. This concept is seen in a spectrum of lights; from a means of empowerment, and even a solution, for various siphoned off identity groups- - to a narcissistic monster scorning anything or anyone that does not give all available attention to its needs.
Many notable articles or discussions will generally welcome a definition supporting what has been confined to Leftist efforts to place social welfare ambitions in the forefront of American policy. In reality, Identity Politics is all of these things. Since the term’s inception, reductionist thought has distorted its intention from supporting the whole to addressing just one or a few groups at a time, rendering it a simulacrum of what it used to be.
The Combahee River Collective coined the term “identity politics” in 1977 with the publication of “A Black Feminist Statement”. “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. ... This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” (A Black Feminist Statement - The Combahee River Collective)
These women saw “the basic systems of oppression as interlocking” (1977, Combahee River Collective), and therefore understood that the success of the black feminist movement would not only liberate black women, but also all people of color regardless of race, sexual orientation, class or gender. To completely free the black woman would be to completely tear down these systems of oppression that oppress other marginalized communities. Identity Politics, therefore, in its rawest form meant the collective action of oppressed people (whether in one cohesive group or in separate identity coalitions such as the Black Feminists) to break down systems of oppression through their own political activism; and all-for-one, one-for-all approach. Today, the phrase can be used to front anything from a political party to a self-affirming social network post.
Understanding the Monster: Identity Politics' Relationship with Lived Experiences
Modern interpretations tend towards an expansion of the original intent of the Combahee River Collective into the dialectic realm. Michael Brull, a political writer, explains “Identity politics is marked by a primacy of identity: belonging to this or that group, and the presumed lived experience that comes with that identity. This lived experience is presumed to be conclusive in arguments, such that belonging to the relevant group is thought to be a kind of authoritative argument. Those who do not belong to the group … are regarded as unequipped to have the same insight as those who do have the correct identity.” (https://newmatilda.com/2015/07/16/debate-we-have-have-identity-politics-and-left/)
Identity Politics are oftentimes attacked in place of their strong associations with attacking privilege and this exultation of the lived experience. If you are a member of a majority class/group, you have “the privilege to ignore people less powerful than you,” whereas minorities have to band together to even be recognized as being done injustice. Recognition of this privilege has one immediate implication: the Majorities must stop ignoring the experiences of those less powerful than them. Additionally, in order to understand privilege, Majorities must re-evaluate (if they are to be considered an ally to the cause) their own lived experiences. Enter, the marriage of Lived Experiences & Identity Politics.
The general concession of those in support of lived experiences is that the Oppressive group needs to take greater strides towards being receptive to the concerns & experiences of the oppressed group(s). Validating these subjective experiences as a type of authority also urges marginalized peoples to share more widely. Circulation allows validation, awareness and accumulated support to make progress in forcing marginalized lives into the greater picture that they have been cut out of so often.
This is certainly an important part of the process towards more egalitarian conditions for the collective whole, yet is often executed in a way that strips the purity from the cause. The strongest critique of lived experiences, often mislabelled as identity politics, is the tendency for it to be used as a tool to shut down conversations (rather than progress towards understandings, compromise & compassion).
The Problem of the Ally
Those with privilege who decide they want to help must follow certain [often unspoken] rules and are almost implicitly expected to go against their better judgement, should it find a conflict in any statement of the group they are trying to help. Supporting those with less power is a noble act, and necessary for an effective, cohesive movement to result, but the moment such action becomes tied up in the unsubjective black and white of ideological norms (such as the unspoken rule that a privileged person can never protest or challenge the authority of a lived experience), progress cannot be maintained.
Michelle I. Gao of the Harvard Crimson comments that marginalized peoples using lived experiences as a crutch “make as many sweeping generalizations about race—who can speak, who can ask questions, who can understand, who must try to understand but will never understand anyway—as they accuse others of making. So, they shouldn’t be surprised when, instead of effecting change, they are now mired in cultural wars” (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/1/24/gao-identity-politics/). This clear contradiction serves to hinder the movement by making it look inconsistent.
Identity politics has been misrepresented for sometime. What used to be a collective goal to dismantle widespread systems of oppression through collective action have been reduced to the exultation of lived experiences, often criticized for their use in debate. Lived experiences are not any less valuable, despite this criticism: their publication serves to empower others of the same movement that might be more prone to silence or inaction, they strengthen bonds, spread awareness, and reinforce an understanding that widespread injustice is being enacted on all marginalized groups. The sharing of a lived experience shouldn’t be a means of discrediting other valid identities and perspectives, or shutting down a conversation that could be more wisely redirected toward understanding and support. Therefore, Identity Politics should be kept out of the sphere of argumentation, but still utilized through art & cultural sharing as a means to strengthen the movement from within.