Identity Politics Explained

In a nutshell, identity politics is the art of taking something quite simple and getting it all wrong.

The backdrop question – what role does demographics play in human identity – is actually simple. So simple, that only very powerful institutional politics (departmental interests within academia and monied interests outside of it) can steer people wrong. Before the brainwashing begins, everyone knows that there are multiple layers of identity – gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc. – and everyone knows that the bottom layer is the layer of shared humanness. Everyone instinctively knows that in our social interactions, sometimes our shared humanness is the dominant feature of the interaction, and sometimes one of the other layers of identity is relevant or even the dominant feature of a given interaction. But in any wholesome vision of a more ideal multicultural society, it is the shared humanness that lays the foundation. We need to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness. This is not rocket science.

“Identity politics,” in its current usage, removes shared humanness and defines human identity in every transaction as demographic identity. A black woman sees everything from the point of view of a black woman, a white man’s reality is always white and always male. Every thought or speech act is a priori politically situated. There is no escape from demographics. Indeed, in an Orwellian turn of the dial, the concept of “shared humanness” is itself rejected as racist. Saying that you “don’t see color” when meeting people is officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities, oddly enjoining students to view each other first and foremost not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race. And the point is not to create sympathy between the races but to highlight impenetrable walls between their experiences. For example, when activists recently called on the Whitney Museum to “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket on the grounds that “the shameful nature of white violence” cannot be “correctly represented” by a white artist (quoting Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney), the message is clear: Creatively identifying with people of other races, genders, etc., is to be forbidden, presumably because it asserts the false notion of shared humanness. This is identity politics in its current form.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, it is false on the face of it, as anyone with even a modicum of multicultural social life outside of the ivory tower of academic theory knows that cross-group social bonding takes place often in a spirit of shared humanness and less often with attention to group differences. Secondly, it is impractical. It is de facto a divisive theory and not a unifying theory and thus intrinsically antithetical to any future vision of a society living in racial harmony. Thirdly, in its historical aspect, it reverses the positive trends of the Civil Rights and hippie movements of the 1960s, movements that were both radically integrationist and unifying, movements that looked to a time when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We could appreciate our different backstories, race, ethnicity, etc., but the anchor was shared humanness with universal rights and principles. Everyone acknowledged historical inequities that still need to be addressed, but the idea was to work them out together as human beings with a common interest in a more perfect union. Identity politics, on the other hand, fosters the idea that common interest is a myth, that each demographic group needs to get its share of the pie and then go home and block the entrances. It is a short-term vision with no hope of reaching the ideal of a multicultural society that is harmonious, uninhibited, and free to join hands across demographic lines without shame or judgment.

Thus, the final problem with the “identity politics” branch of liberalism is that it has done more than any conservative formation to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights era. Surely, conservatives have been most unhelpful in the policy arena, but in terms of the evolution of consciousness toward a society of peace and harmony across races, genders, nationalities, etc., identity politics has been the most destructive force of the past 30 years. It is demoralizing to consider, but it is not conservatives today but identity politics liberals who are rapidly burning all bridges back to Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mandela, all of whom explicitly appealed to our shared humanness as the lighted path toward racial and gender harmony.

So here we stand at an urgent pass. The identity politics Left gets worse, with “cultural appropriation” fences and do-not-cross lines (despite the head fake of “intersectionality” but that’s for another discussion), the demographic double standards for what you can say, think, or do, the branding of all whites as racist and all men as sexist, the erasure of all past and present Western culture as white supremacist and thus without value. Conservatives too have taken a turn for the worse in Trump era, reasserting their own kind of racist, sexist, and xenophobic, demographics-driven identity politics. Despite a policy platform that perpetuated disparities between races and genders, most of my conservative friends had over the years, on the level of consciousness, jettisoned the Bull Connor racism of the Civil Rights era and accepted the equality of all humans as a universal principle and an endgame of racial harmony as a valid goal. Despite liberal cries to the contrary, the Left-Right dance had actually brought moderate conservatives closer than identity politics liberals to Martin Luther King’s principle of equal treatment and unbiased judgment for all regardless of demographics (again, this is on level of consciousness and not policy). But now both Left and Right are in a demographic divisiveness death spiral.

I might sound quite pessimistic here, but all is not lost. Little children growing up in our multicultural spaces understand perfectly well that some kids are black, some kids are male, some kids speak different languages, but that we are all on some level kids with a shared interest in playing together. They get the “shared humanness” part. And therein lies our hope. Just forget about everything you learned in academic theory classes and become like little children. You were there once. You can go there again. And in today’s political and environmental conditions, now is the time to make the pivot. Turn off that academic theory. Turn on the heart and imagination. Greet everyone you meet on the street in a spirit of shared humanness, without regard to race, gender, or political affiliation.  We’re all in this together and we might not have much time.

Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:3)

16 thoughts on “Identity Politics Explained

  1. Excellent post. This would make a good editorial piece for newspapers still being published. You make many good points, especially the key point of us all being of the same human race with the shared characteristics. As we are made from the image of God, we have that spiritual bond and it’s unfortunate that just because externally we look different, we easily forget how we are all the same internally. If we truly exercise “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we would easily see ourselves in the image of God.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderfully written. The last paragraph is perfect. Seeing our shared humanness through our children’s eyes gives us hope. I strive to preserve and protect that innocence for my daughter every day. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, glfields. Your comment makes me feel more than ever like we’re all helping each other along the path and we’re all going to get through it together. With daughters like yours (who have moms like you), the naysayers don’t have a chance 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed reading your article. I have been on both sides. I went from being young, pretty, upper class, dorky white chick to a wheelchair user with a special needs child and with a husband who is trapped in a lower paying job for the benefits. I’m suddenly in a special interest group, but I don’t really see myself that way. It could happen to anyone and I think anybody would want what I’m asking for — affordable and adaqute healthcare, equal access to society, an appropriate education for my son, etc. It creates an us against them mentality that makes some people feel like they don’t matter to society. In the end we are all just people who want a chance at happiness.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, we should all pull together to get good health care, access, education, etc., for everyone. I think traditional liberals (like myself) are right there with you on that. Unfortunately, however well-intentioned, identity politics is counterproductive because it undermines our motivation to work together. (I suspect the problem of people being made to feel like they don’t matter has always been with us; the question is whether to approach the problem by drawing on our shared humanness or by emphasizing their difference — I say let’s go with the former strategy!) — Thanks for sharing an inside story, askagimp. Gary

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Buckling and curling in the US political spectrum | shakemyheadhollow

  5. Interesting post. I wish we had the time to sit and chat, as I’d find myself agreeing with a few points and disagreeing with others, which always makes for a lively debate. I’ll leave you with this for now: No-one notices identify politics when it’s White identity at play. We take it so much for granted, we forget that this is what wrote the rule book on identity politics. Now I have to take our pet dog to the vet, and if you have ever had a pet, that’s one intersection at which we meet. I’m sure there are others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Cynthia. I think of, e.g., how I (white) have had black roommates in two different states over the years. Sure, we talked about race from time to time, including ways to close the equality gap between races, but mostly we talked about and did other things. When I look back I see good friendship, not some insidious ongoing racial dynamic, as some younger activists would have me see it. I’ve lost touch with my old roommates, but after living with them for quite some time, I would be shocked if they were viewing me all the while as a white person engaged in some power dynamic rather than as a friend and roommate. This is where I run into problems with the new “identity” approach. It seems to require that shared humanness take the back seat with racial identity in the forefront at ALL times. I really don’t believe my old roommates and I could have had such good friendship on those terms, and that would be a shame.

      Liked by 1 person

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