Identity Politics

14 July 2016

Identity politics is when people of a particular race, ethnicity, gender, or religion form alliances and organize politically to defend their group’s interests. The feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay liberation movement are all examples of this kind of political organizing.

Identity politics seems to be experiencing a surge in recent times, which has led some people to decry this approach to politics, calling it divisive. Critics of identity politics claim that it only deepens the divides that exist between different groups in society—black versus white, straight versus gay, Jew versus Arab, Sunni versus Shia, Protestant versus Catholic, and so on.

Instead of focusing on our differences, the critics say, we should recognize our common humanity. We should strive to do what Rodney King had in mind when he asked, “Can we all get along?” That was King’s response after being beaten up by four cops, an incident that was caught on videotape by a citizen witness, and which led to the 1992 LA Riots.

Sadly, over two decades later, we keep seeing more stories like that, which highlight the depths of institutionalized racism in this country, especially when black people have encounters with law enforcement, which is why we now have movements like Black Lives Matter. So long as some people are marginalized, victimized, or oppressed because of their identities, we will need identity politics. 

The mere wish that we could all just get along can do nothing to combat sexism, homophobia, or white supremacy. In an unjust world, where certain segments of society are oppressed by others, simply trying to transcend our identities is not the answer. As Hannah Arendt said, “One can resist [oppression] only in terms of the identity that is under attack.” The idea that the oppressed can resist or escape their oppression by denying their own identities is a fiction.

Yet there is a worry that the obsession with identity politics could turn out to be a recipe for endless struggle and division. Take somewhere like Palestine and Israel, where intense identity politics rule the day. Can there ever be peace in that troubled region if the people there can’t transcend their narrow identities and embrace their common humanity? When both sides become so deeply entrenched in their respective religious identities and enduring sense of victimhood, it’s hard to be optimistic that there will be a solution.

But we might still hold out some home for the Israel Palestine confict. Consider a parallel situation in Europe—Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics seemed stuck in an intractable conflict with one another over a small part of a small island. As someone who grew up during “The Troubles,” though in Dublin, far removed from the conflict, it seemed like there would never be peace in Northern Ireland. Each side was too entrenched in their respective religious and political identities to find any kind of common ground. Despite this, there is now peace there, though post-Brexit, that peace is looking quite fragile.

Brexit itself could be thought of as an example of identity politics gone mad. Those who voted for Brexit, want England to be for the English, which in their minds often means only the white, non-immigrant population of the country. Being “English” is an identity they wish to exclude certain segments of the population from, so they can deny them rights that are reserved only for the “true” English. 

Indeed right wing nationalism seems to be taking over Europe. And, of course, we have our own ugly white supremacist, xenophobic, nationalist movements here in the US.

Nationalist movements, like Brexit, are not what people normally think about when they hear “identity politics,” but the fact is that nationalism is also based on an idea of a shared ethnic identity. Nationalists organize politically to serve the exclusive interests of their group. If we include this kind of political movement under the umbrella of identity politics, then we can see that identity politics is a bit of a mixed bag. In some contexts, it seems necessary to fight oppression. In others, it seems like it can be used as a license for oppression or discrimination.

There is also the philosophical worry that identity politics relies on a suspect idea, namely, that there is something called a “shared identity” amongst people in a particular group. It appeals to a kind of essentialism, and ignores heterogeneity within the group.

As a white, well-educated, middle class woman, working a salaried job and living a relatively privileged life, I cannot assume that, simply in virtue of my gender identity, there’s something essential I share with, say, a black single mom who lives in a dangerous neighborhood and struggles to make ends meet working three low-paying jobs. I can only imagine the challenges she faces in her daily life.

Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance" might be a useful way to escape troubling appeals to essentialism in this context. He explained that concept with the example of games, which can have one player—or several—can be competitive—or cooperative—and so on.

The point is that there’s no essential feature all games have in common. However, they do share a “family resemblance” with one another. Individual games have some things in common with some other games, but there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for gamehood. A similar argument could be made for both race and gender, especially given our current understanding of those notions not being reducible to biology or biological facts.

But even loosening the notion of “identity” to avoid appealing to essentialism, we might still wonder whether the single mom I imagined would not be better served by a strong labor movement that fought for higher wages and better working conditions, thus improving her material conditions and her lot in life. What does she gain from being in solidarity with a privileged white woman like me?

This is a kind of worry critics have of Sheryl Sandberg style lean-in feminism—it assumes that the problems women face are the problems faced by mostly white, privileged, middle class women who are trying to break the glass ceiling by becoming the CEO of a big corporation, or something like that. That particular kind of feminism, it strikes me, does nothing to address the problems of poor women, especially poor women of color.

That’s not to say that there aren’t feminist movements concerned with the plight of women who are not middle class white women. The whole intersectionality movement within identity politics is an attempt to address these kinds of concerns. And it’s not that we have to choose between being part of a labor movement and being part of feminist movement or a Black Lives Matter movement, though if you’re working three jobs, you may not have the time or the energy to be part of any political movement.

Comments (7)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, July 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Differentiation in a context

Differentiation in a context of replication. If we are so native to that replication that we cannot anticipate any differentiation in it, and yet differentiation does indeed occur, we may recognize that differentiation as the final term of that replication, and so, if only intuitively, grasp it as the genesis even of the language of that replication. The world only changes in this way. That is why we usually see this as nostalgia for a lost time. But only natives to that ethos, current or lost in time, can recognize that genesis, because only natives are sufficiently party to it to know the differentiation as the final term of the rigor of replication. That is why the stranger is not capable of being part of our knowing who we are. But this exoterica can either be an opportunity for inclusion or a means of exclusion by which we are prevented from recognizing our own part in the differentiation and therefore in the genesis of the terms of replication. This is why racism is so potently conservative, it seals us from knowing who we are in any active sense, and only as the replication of preexisting forms. This is how some gain power over others. And this is why I keep saying that the role of government is, first and foremost, to assure social forms do not become the means of this enthrenchment of power of some over others, and that ethos must be only inclusive. And, the more I think this through the more convincing it becomes as the founding principle, not only of all social forms, but of matter and temporality itself. A little study of the behavior of photons supports this. And the principle of rigorous difference also explains why the all too human is just a truncated form of the most virtuous mode of humanness. And it also argues for a more serious review of that more virtuous form of humanity as strongly informative evidence of the nature of time and matter, and of logical form and semantic content.
With all the frenzy of the past weeks, perhaps the Republicans will let down their guard a bit and reveal themselves as the racists they have been becoming ever since Nixon. The Democrats, on the other hand, are so ensnared in the fabric of the ethos of exclusion that they can only be counteractive and so can seem even more reactionary, only reactive, than those who set the weave.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, July 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Identity politics. Seems like

Identity politics. Seems like another way of saying: I need a group, to which I may comfortably and confidently belong, and which supports and encourages the interests of people like myself. Because if one feels alone and alienated from the mainstream, one must seek affirmation outside of that sphere. ID politics is another way of recognizing the cultural intractability between groups, whether that be because of racial stereotypes/prejudices; socio-economic inequities; religious animosities or any other combination of factors that may drive a divisive wedge between people who might have gotten along had they been able to overcome their fears. ID politics, with all of its attendant good intentions and inherent weaknesses, can never be anything but divisive. When we reduce the field of endeavors and understanding to US vs THEM, we are tacitly admitting that fear has won the day. And, sadly, there are those among us who wouldn't have it any other way. I noted that fear is a common denominator in the equation. But there are so many other drivers, that to say fear is the prime motivation is an over simplification of a much bigger problem. You knew that.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, July 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The only thing we have to

The only thing we have to fear is..., conventional wisdom?
The greatest mistakes of any polity in history is to support a candidate on the assumption he does not mean what he says. There is a scene in the Star Trek Movie, The Journey Home, in which Spock and Kirk are riding a bus across 1970's San Francisco. Across from them on the bus is a "skinhead" playing a "boom-box" so loudly they cannot carry on a discussion. The song, "And I hate you, and I berate you, and I hate you too!" When asked to turn down the noise the "skinhead " (actually, he's wearing a Mohawk) turns it up instead, at which Spock reaches over and applies the Vulcan nerve pinch. Silence ensued, and the other riders applauded. But I rather think the Trump phenomenon divides America between those who are with that punk and the rest of us with those other riders who applauded the respite from him. We'll see in November.
 Actually, ethnic groups get along just fine unless pitted against each other in some way. But this is true at all levels of society. The most absurd form is the Libertarian. What this group refuses to see, and in fact dogmatically denies, is that every individual action creates a polity. And if that polity creation sets up social divisions pitted against each other no amount of identity politics, whether claims of inalienable individual rights or of "traditional values" can resolve the logical incoherence of social definition by exclusion. Remember, it was the Confederacy that insisted that it was defending its "way of life". And what we do forget is that that "way of life" entailed a demand that even the free states engage in the promotion of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act required even Northern Abolitionists to submit to be conscripted in the hunt for "runaway slaves". And it was that demand that tilted the country into Civil War, not the fact of slavery itself. When "identity politics" reaches across ethnic and social divisions in demanding subordination of one to the other, claiming that the liberty and rights of one group entail the subordination of the other's, then it's time to dial down the volume.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

 I understand the meaning of

I understand the meaning of identity politics, within the context of the present blog posting. However, with the current current of things in this 2016 presidential season, one might ask whether the disarray over Mr. Trump is another facet of ID politics altogether. Mainstream Republicans are clearly befuddled by his resilience. Democrats, likewise. It seems as though the only people who are gleefully supportive of the Trump phenomenon are those who were "as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore"...everyone else is looking for some way to de-rail the train, even if that means a Republicans for Clinton movement (which appears to be gaining traction). Everyone is saying he is unfit to be president. And, Clinton has been called more qualified than Obama, or Bill, or anyone else (BHO said so himself). If it weren't so important, it would be funny. As it is, it is mostly ironic. I do not know if this can get any uglier. Friends in Canada, Latin America and Europe are laughing. A lot.
One of the last things the venerable Ted Cruz said was: vote your conscience. We might now ask him: well, Ted, just how do we do that? How, indeed.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, August 4, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Whose world is this? The

Whose world is this? The world changes, but if our part in this change is to recognize it we suspect we are not part of it and if our part in it is to bring it about we suspect those who recognize it. It is a classic antinomy. Trump just uses this. It's Bleeding Kansas all over again. Some Americans appreciate other Americans being offended. Some Americans suppose that when other Americans demand the same promise of rights they are really demanding "special treatment". When change in the world occurs there is always a suspicion that some do and some only suffer it. As I said, a classic antinomy.  

apek's picture


Tuesday, September 27, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Most government agencies are

Most government agencies are more efficient than their private sector versions. Government is mired in politics, not bureaucracy. There's more paperwork in buying a car or home than in doing taxes, just as an example. It's a bit impertinent to foreclose the subject of capitalism. Capitalism is the whole point. It is simply feudalism by another name, on the basis of capital 'title' instead of land 'title'. But there certainly is no good reason to take charity on face value. People who "do good" generally get a pass. But if you remember that, even where a tax deduction is not parlayed into a sneaky profit source, much of the "donation" comes from the public, and the public should therefore have a right to revue and regulate how and on what that "charity" is spent. It is all too easy to forget the fundamental question, whose money is it, really? Just because the law turns a blind eye on how obscene profits are generated doesn't mean they are well earned. Very useful post and i really like your work! thanks a lot or sharing! Android APK Download apkdom Love fun advises ideas lovematchfun join now. Pokemon Go Gym Battle Simulator, Evolution Calculator, IV calculator CP, Pokemon Go Map Locations pokevolver The Best Prank Apps, jokes and shocking Games for Android. prankyapps electric screen. Free Android APK download softlot. Top Best advices, howto, movies, games, top10, reviews topbestis. Gift Ideas and advices giftspilot gifts for her and kids. Cheers! Android app games APK downloader Download Fake GPS Pro Apk. best safe APK downloader free download server Get Pokemon GO APK apk file. ;

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 4, 2019 -- 12:03 PM

The identity thing is sliding

The identity thing is sliding into The Twilight Zone, or maybe just another kind of black hole. Let me illustrate:

Virginia's governor is up to his eyeballs in hot water and shoe polish. He did a bad, bad thing in 1984. Seems he was photographed, in blackface, and the photo was published in his med school yearbook or some such official tome. Legislators, of all stripes and colorations are demanding he resign. But, wait a minute here. Something doesn't quite add up. If the photo was so offensive, why was it allowed in the school's book? In 1984? Surely, at that place in time, such an offensive photo would have been rejected? A friend of mine was in a minstrel show, in or about 1960. He sang one song. In blackface. No white circles. There was never an uproar about that. So, let's look at the whole picture and cut the knee-jerk moralizing. The governor of Virginia says he will not resign. If I were in his shoes, I would not either.