26 “Identity Politics”
“Identity politics” is not the real divisive force in the US, unless you understand that our national identity is synonymous with patriarchal, white-supremacist power structures–which can indeed be extremely divisive. The original idea responsible for the rise of so-called “identity politics” is our culture’s default belief in whiteness as the norm.
The “identity politics” of marginalized groups is a logical response to a country in which the enfranchised desperately need to divest themselves from some of their power and privilege, and begin to grasp for real the ways in which the US was built on and sustained by black and brown bodies.
One aim of “identity politics” is to raise awareness in the dominant culture about the lived experiences of marginalized, oppressed people who don’t typically have a voice. White racial identity politics shaped the United States from its birth; marginalized “identity politics” is the obvious response.
“When people criticize ‘identity politics,’ their first mistake is usually failing to acknowledge up front that ‘politics’ in the US have always been ‘identity politics.’ Politics are about power, freedom, ownership and money, which have historically been for those who were white and male (in spite of things like Black History Month, the First Woman Pilot and so on). Early on, those in power in our country didn’t bother to specify the identity being fought for; that was just taken for granted. Later when non-white, non-males started demanding equal rights, then laws, amendments and regulations were added in order to clarify that politics are for those with a white male identity. [See sections on white supremacy, white affirmative action, etc.]
So now people argue about ‘identity politics’ as if they are a recent invention, and as if marginalized people who want to be heard are causing divisiveness. But the fact is that if so many hadn’t been denied their rights based on their identity for the past 400 years, they wouldn’t feel the need– in spite of their non-white-male identity – to fight for their rights now.
A second mistake is to set up straw-man opinions and then proceed to refute arguments that weren’t made in the first place. In Katherine Timpf’s article for example, https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/07/barack-obama-rebukes-identity-politics/ the straw men she posed (and argued against) included:
‘Only people from marginalized groups can comment on marginalized groups’ issues’
‘You insist that those who aren’t like you because they are white or they are male, somehow there is no way they can understand what I’m feeling’
‘A white man may not have experienced racism or sexism himself, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to talk about it.’
‘It’s definitely the wrong move to shame people for simply trying to discuss something.’
It’s not that people shouldn’t be ‘allowed to comment’ on racism, or that it is ‘impossible to understand’ another’s feelings if you’re white, or that people asking for safety are ‘shaming’ those around whom they feel unsafe. These are conclusions entitled people tend to jump to, because centering and believing the experiences of marginalized people can be uncomfortable or confusing.
If we truly want to understand what a historically-silenced population is trying to say, we can’t fill the airspace arguing with what we think they might have meant, or what we think they should mean, or by pushing for our accustomed views. By definition, the experiences of marginalized people will be marginal – which means, if we jump to a conclusion about what they are saying, instead of taking the time to step back and listen, we’ll probably get it wrong. And if we jump in and start arguing with what we’ve misunderstood them to say, or telling them how they should say it, we’ll get nowhere.
Another common mistake of those who criticize ‘identity politics’ is that, once they’ve ignored our national history, and ‘won’ several arguments against nobody, then they make declarations that are not only untrue, but are arguably the very cause of so much of the tension and division that ‘identity politics’ themselves are blamed for. In Timpf’s article she calls Sharma’s statement that there is no way for a transgender person of color to feel safe in a space where the majority of the group is white and cisgender a ‘radical’ example of a damaging aspect of identity politics.
However, the author offers no rational rebuttal to Sharma’s statement. Because Timpf has no idea what it is like to be a trans person of color, she has no idea what it would take for someone in that position to feel safe. She just leaves it as ‘obvious’ that a lack of feeling safe must mean that they are ‘shaming’ white cis people, and seems to hope that the reader is sufficiently convinced.
Elsewhere in the article Timpf says, ‘the more people we get talking, the better chance we have at coming up with solutions.’ Again, she makes a declaration she hopes the reader will find self-evident. But let’s look at this more closely using these analogies:
‘The more people we get talking about cancer, the better chance we have for coming up with solutions.’
Is that true? Is everyone in the world equally qualified to discuss the needs and experiences of cancer patients, and possible cures for cancer? Do all people have equal standing in this discussion? Or:
‘The more people we get talking about rape, the better chance we have at coming up with solutions.’
Is that true? Is a rapist’s experience of rape just as useful to hear about as a victim’s? And is more talking necessarily better?
This statement has a ring of the old ‘let’s form a committee’ solution that elicits eye rolling, because most of us know at some level that talk is cheap, and more talk is cheaper. Dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism requires deep commitment to radical action. ‘More dialogue’ is one of the best ways to ensure the status quo doesn’t budge too much or too soon.
It’s true that dialogue with different people is a part of the process of healing from the tragedies of racism and sexism, but it is false and ignorant to say that ‘the more people who talk about it the better.’ And not only is it wrong, it’s inflammatory and distracting from the dialogue that does actually need to happen – one in which people with power and privilege humbly listen to those who have been denied a place in politics since the birth of our nation. People accustomed to power and privilege generally have the greatest need to listen to the uncomfortable truths of the chronically oppressed.
Blame of ‘identity politics’ for our country’s problems results from so many people’s inability to clearly see and understand the divisions that have existed in the United States for as long as the country itself has existed. When marginalized people point this out, it upsets privileged people who also share a deep sense of sorrow about the state of things, but have never had to face painful truths in the ways underprivileged people have. This misunderstanding about ‘identity politics’ is simply a sad case of blaming the messenger.
Our country was based on lofty and visionary ideals, but in order to survive economically, the systems set in place at its inception were those based in genocide, slavery and patriarchy. What that kind of an economy looks like 400 years later is a country where the richest 1% own more wealth than the bottom 90%. This system will be continually kept in place if the 90% are looking at the problem incorrectly–and inequality and oppression will continue.
As in most cases of the intense kind of fear that ‘identity politics’ currently engenders, a skewed sense of reptilian survival is aroused, and we don’t see things as they are. Ignoring history; misunderstanding what others are saying; and making ignorant, untrue statements feed the flames, and rather than healing and growing as a nation, we empower capitalism and the 1% to continue to extract everything from the rest of us.
Don’t use the term ‘identity politics.’ Instead, explore your feelings to find out what’s going on inside you—especially what you fear. Really think about what it is you want or need to say, and express it using accurate, self-responsible, authentic words. ‘Identity’ in front of ‘politics’ is redundant and inflammatory. American politics have always been based on identity. We can say what’s true and real for us without using that term, and in so doing we all might learn more about something.
Develop a sense of curiosity, humility and a desire to learn, even if what you learn doesn’t feel good.
Learn to listen. We don’t know what we don’t know, and if we are too busy offering our own opinions we miss the chance to see the world with more clarity and insight. Nobody ever died from sitting back and listening more carefully than might feel comfortable. And at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s really hard to listen when we’re busy talking. People with power and privilege do not need more opportunities to talk. We need more opportunities to listen.
Continue to notice how you feel. It is natural to experience a sense of fight or flight when habitual ideas, wants and assumptions are threatened, but take a moment to check and see if your identity–or a marginalized person’s view–is actually putting your physical life in danger. Is your sense of fear or desperation rationally, objectively warranted?
Remember that you might not need to say anything. If aspects of your identity are well represented in Hollywood; in magazines and books; in government; in other positions of power; in advertising – then a lot of what you have to say is probably already pretty well known by most people.
Ask yourself why you feel you need to comment. Is your opinion something new that hasn’t been said before? If you feel entitled or urgent about expressing your opinion, have you spent time looking at your own urgency and asked yourself why someone else being centered, rather than you, is of so much concern to you?
What is it that you strongly feel the need to say about social justice? What have you been doing to dismantle systemic oppression that is now stymied by the fact that marginalized people may not want to hear your opinions? Why are you spending time, breath and credibility in support of your right to be listened to? In what ways does the removal of you from the center of the conversation/action imperil actual anti-racism work?
Are you spending your time taking important actions, such as writing and calling your legislators on behalf of issues that affect marginalized people; marching against racism; giving money to organizations that are fighting racism in schools, housing, courts, etc; listening to and paying money to Black activists who are wearing themselves out–if not actually endangering themselves–to work toward systemic change; continually reading and learning more about what everyday life is like for the poorest, least-educated Blacks in this country; realizing at every turn the magnitude of your privilege?
Until the majority of the country talks openly, honestly and sincerely about how to make reparations for the crimes of slavery, most Americans will grasp neither the history and current prevalence of white privilege, nor what the oppression of Black people is and always has been. Without this growing awareness of the necessity of grappling with our central evil, arguments about who has the right to speak will continue to be impotent.
Question capitalism. Consider that capitalism is far more to blame for our problems than is ‘identity politics,’ and that our desperation and fear result from living in a system designed to benefit only the very top of the pyramid, and that this is best accomplished by dividing the 99%. If we’re going to use the term ‘identity politics’ then we should see that capitalism itself is the ultimate expression of identity politics – an entire system designed mostly to advocate for those whose identity is the 1%.”
–Amy Childs, Kara Tennis
Data on power and influence, 2016:
“Ten richest Americans: 100 percent white (seven of whom are among the ten richest in the world)
US Congress: 90 percent white
US governors: 96 percent white
Top military advisors: 100 percent white
President and vice president: 100 percent white
US House Freedom Caucus: 99 percent white
Current US Presidential Cabinet: 91 percent white
People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white
People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white
People who decide which new is covered: 85 percent white
People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white
People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95 percent white
Teachers: 82 percent white
Full-time college professors: 84 percent white
Owners of men’s professional football teams: 97 percent white”
–Haeyoun Park, Josh Keller, and Josh Williams, “The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees,” New York Times, February 26, 2016
“But many of the writers and thinkers now attacking identity politics are after more than the end of trigger warnings and safe spaces and incredulous condescension toward the unwoke. They’re objecting not to the absurd excesses of political correctness, but to race and gender politics themselves.” –Michelle Goldberg
“The so-called identity politics of people of color has always been reactive, recognizing whiteness as an illicit set of entitlements to political and economic advantages.” –Charles M. Wills
“Ask yourself: what significant social change where oppression was overturned, occurred after only sitting down to have a civil dialogue with ‘the other side?’ And then ask yourself: Am I willing to change my perspective based on the truth or am I going to hold onto what makes me feel good even though I know deep down it won’t create actual change? And who do I influence, what do I stall by clinging to the idea of how kindness alone will bring us all together and topple oppression?” –Ashley Ray
“If you’re a fascist and anti-fascists come for you, you have a choice. You can give it up. You can renounce what you said. You could go on with the rest of your life and stop turning up to fascist rallies. Anti-fascists probably aren’t going to be your best friends, but they’ll move on.
But if you’re a person of color, if you’re Jewish, or trans, or a person with a disability, or gay and fascists come for you, there is nothing you can do to make them happy except stop existing.
That’s the key difference between the far-left and the far-right. Anti-fascists organize themselves against those that are building fascism. If you are doing that, that is something you can nonviolently stop doing. If you’re a political enemy of antifa, you can become a friend. If you’re a political enemy of fascism though, either they lose or you die.” –unknown
“One argument for disregarding identity politics seems to be that it would free the left to focus solely on reducing economic inequality. But in the United States, where so many issues are entangled with race, such a turn to the material would still have a powerful racial element. (That explains at least in part why confronting inequality has been so much harder to do here than in the mostly white states of Western Europe.) The future of identity politics, and thus the moral and political mission of the left, is predicated on its capacity to organize people who are not white men.
The right question, then, is not whether to keep faith with identity politics, but how. Despite the white-male naysayers, multiracial organizing can be done. It just takes old-fashioned face-to-face, labor-intensive organizing. Here are three rules to follow: One, take the moral high ground. Two, keep your eye on the interest you represent. Three, have weekly meetings.”
“I really think it’s an incredibly foreign sensation for white men when there’s a whole bunch of people having conversations without their input.” –Erynn Brook
“I try to always keep in mind that there are things I don’t know. More importantly, there are things I think I know now, that I’m just flat wrong about. Hopefully in the future I’ll figure out what those things are, and continue on my path of self-determination.”
“Society has a hierarchy of experiential priorities. Those priorities align with the social pecking order, starting with straight white able-bodied cisgender men, and proceeding down the line accordingly. When I do anything, I try to start by flipping that hierarchy upside down before I proceed.”
“In order for our liberation to become a reality, we have to incorporate diversity from the top. And it can’t be symbolic diversity or tokenism. Are you centering the voices of the unheard? Are you following their direction and listening to their needs? I promise you that your own liberation depends on everyone else’s. When you fight for the lives of the most marginalized you simultaneously liberate yourself. A rising tide lifts all boats, y’all. Don’t end up with a yacht in the desert.” –Didi Delgado
“Listening to talking heads on both the left and the right, you’d think that America is facing a freedom of speech crisis. But the crisis isn’t what it’s made out to be. The Jonathan Chaits and Frank Brunis and Sean Hannitys of the world are not lacking in a freedom to speak, nor are the white conservatives on college campuses they seem so worried about. It’s women and people of color who struggle the most finding a platform – but there is a conspicuous lack of concern about that by free speech crusaders.
When Bill O’Reilly and the late Roger Ailes were paid tens of millions of dollars for stepping down from their jobs – far more than the settlements that the women they were accused of sexually harassing received – they weren’t being silenced. And Bill Maher getting deserved blowback for saying “house nigga” doesn’t make him struggle to speak freely.
Those of us who are called ‘bitch,’ ‘faggot’ or ‘nigger’ on the regular –and who are threatened with violence and death – have a much harder time accessing the right of free speech. Just look at what happened to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, last week….”
“Not long after a ‘Fox story and video were published,’ Taylor wrote, ‘my work email was inundated with vile and violent statements. I have been repeatedly called ‘nigger,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘she-male,’ and ‘coon’ – a clear reminder that racial violence is closely aligned with gender and sexual violence. I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.’ She had to cancel talks in Seattle and San Diego….”
“’The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence,’ Taylor wrote. I’d add that the intent of ignoring such threats is also to intimidate and silence (ie, I never saw Ann Coulter, Hannity or Chait wring their hands over Taylor’s ‘free speech,’ and Bruni actually published a column arguing against calling out campus racism the same week Taylor was kept from visiting a campus because of violent racist threats.)”
–Steven W. Thrasher
“Colorblind logic doesn’t work. Has anyone ever suggested you can end sexism if you just wished sex or gender differences away? Has anyone ever thought that, if they were sex-blind — ignored sex/gender — that would end sexism? Has anyone ever seen a firefighter who was successful because he ignored heat? Firefighters don’t stop fires by pretending fires don’t exist. Pretending sex/gender doesn’t exist never prevented sexism. Just know that. Colorblind logic doesn’t work.” –Johnny Silvercloud
“Last year the Guardian commissioned a report which analyzed the comments left on thousands of writers’ stories (the majority written by white men) over a 10-year period. It found that none of the 10 writers targeted with most abuse were white men: they were all either women and/or people of color.” –Steven Thresher
“This 9-minute video should really be watched in its entirety, as Hart makes some excellent points in response to people who believe the Black Lives Matter movement excludes other ‘lives.’ She dismissed the tendency of the media and politicians to speak about the need to be united without offering up actual solutions, adding that while being united is all very well and good, ‘being united is an ideal, not a plan.
Without a plan all it translates to is ‘Be united by joining me in doing nothing! Don’t speak out or protest because that’s divisive to my non-plan!’ she says.” –Zeba Blay
“Everything short of racial justice is white supremacy. Everything.
If this sounds harsh or unreasonable to you, I really need you to understand why it is not. If this last election and the torrent of narratives against ‘identity politics’ has you thinking that maybe, just maybe, some middle ground between white supremacists and anti-racists must be found, I need you to understand the danger this belief puts us in. Because the desire to make racial equality a topic which is up for debate, or racial justice a goal that we can ease ourselves into, is what has sustained the system of violent white supremacy for hundreds of years. I need you to understand, because I need you to understand what those who say that we are “pushing too hard” or ‘asking for too much’ or ‘moving too fast’ are really saying.
The average American will easily agree that they believe that freedom, justice, and equality are basic rights, rights we are born with. These ideas are woven throughout the entire narrative of our democracy. But in practice, very few people actually believe that freedom, justice, and equality are rights that every American deserves. When you enjoy your freedoms, and you tell those who want their freedoms that they have to wait, that they have to go slowly, that they have to give you time to make uncomfortable adjustments to the amount of privilege that their inequality has afforded you, what you are saying is, ‘You were not born with these rights. You were not born as deserving as me. I have the power and privilege to determine when it is time for you to receive freedom and equality, and my approval is conditioned on how comfortable and safe you make me feel about how that freedom and equality will impact the privileges I enjoy.’”
“Arguing with Charlottesville’s genteel liberals is exhausting. It’s pretty simple. Calls for ‘dialogue’ that treats both sides as moral equals without recognizing power inequities only reinforce those inequities and serve to maintain the status quo. And dialogue is not, in itself, an absolute moral good, or an ideal to be aspired to in every situation.
Dialogue didn’t end chattel slavery, but the dialogue paradigm certainly helped to roll back the advances of reconstruction in the post-war south.
Dialogue didn’t bring about the labor reforms of the 20th century, but it definitely contributed to the erosion of those reforms in the subsequent decades.
Dialogue wasn’t the foundation of the civil rights movement, but endless calls for dialogue from white folks certainly helped keep the movement’s progress stalled for years, while people of color were continuing to die in the streets.
Dialogue didn’t eject a horde of armed neofascists from our town on August 12th, but the ‘dialogue’ following has certainly contributed to the erasure of militant organizers who put their bodies on the line to make that happen.
Think about this the next time you hear someone calling for a dialogue or discussion without acknowledging the power imbalances that make a just, equitable dialogue impossible.” –a friend of a friend, who protected a lot of folks in Charlottesville
“I keep getting comments and emails from white people about my anger, about my bitterness, in regard to racial injustice. I’m urged to accept the reality that sometimes my children and I are going to experience racism, and to make peace with the life that we have. I’m told that it’s merely a matter of perception, that the world isn’t as threatening to me as I perceive it to be, that if I let go of my bitterness I’d find a better reality for my family and myself.
I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that those comments are made in my best interest, but more so out of a discomfort with their own feeling that they’re on the receiving end of my anger. I think if they reformed their desire to quell my anger into a desire to quell the system that caused it, we’d all be better off.
My anger is functional. My bitterness is rational. If I am not outraged at the injustices faced by myself, my community, my children, who will be? If no one is outraged at my suffering, who will demand change? Yes, the fire that injustice stirs in me burns me. I suffer a lot of anxiety, I often feel despair, it’s difficult for me to enjoy many things. But my suffering has roots in societal trauma — trauma I am working to heal, work fueled by the same fiery anger that sometimes eats me up.
Fire builds and it destroys, as does my anger. My anger sparks a fierce determination in me, an urgent commitment to creating change. My anger is a maternal instinct — a fury which charges me to protect my children and to protect myself from the experiences which threaten our emotional and physical wellbeing.
And even when my anger exists in situations of injustice where it doesn’t fuel anything but my own suffering — where there’s literally nothing I can do to change what’s making me mad — it’s still a perfectly natural reaction to what I’ve experienced. What does shaming me for feeling do? Your discomfort with witnessing my pain doesn’t give you any right to tell me to feel less.
My anger, my bitterness, and my despair are valid reactions to trauma. Hell no, I don’t want to live in them constantly. It feels like shit. I’ve learned to selectively turn my mind off for the sake of survival. I have to regularly in order to create time and space for joy in my life. But the only functional way to eradicate these reactions is to eradicate the root — all else is a numbing, a demand that I don’t experience the natural human reaction to being dehumanized.” –Dominique Matti
“I’m not interested in equal dialogue with police or white folks about racism. I’m just not.
I already know their side. Damn near every book, TV show, movie, news show, exposé, biopic, and documentary in my face since birth has focused on them. Damn near every officer, administrator, reporter, lawyer, landlord, and co-worker I encounter reflects their story. I know the ‘Rags To Riches’ white folks. I know the ‘Well-meaning Cop From A Rough Neighborhood’ white folks. I know the ‘I Served In The Military’ white folks. I know the ‘Pulled Myself Up By My Bootstraps’ white folks. I know the ‘I Have Black Kids’ white folks. I know the ‘But I’m Poor Too!’ white folks. I know the ‘All Lives Matter’ white folks.
We know it all! It’s like asking a lesbian if she knows what heterosexuality looks like. WE KNOW! How could we not?
A productive dialogue between white America and Black America starts with white folks being quiet and realizing we know A LOT of shit they don’t know, and have seen a lot of things they don’t see. Don’t waste time hearing things you’ve heard a million times before. When was the last time a white person said something truly surprising or original to a person of color?” –Didi Delgado