The Problem of Identity Politics

The Problem of Identity Politics

There’s been a lot of discussion since the election about “identity politics.” Political pundits both Democrat and Republican as well as ordinary folk are discussing the “failure” of identity politics.

I have come to see this differently.

The problem with “identity politics” is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

Those of us who are white have experienced our race as a neutral, and we have trouble connecting to the reality that the experiences of people of other races in this country is very different. Our race doesn’t matter to us (most of us, at least); why does it need to matter so much to others? It can look like they’re creating an issue unnecessarily.

But that’s actually the blindness of our position. Society hasn’t forced us to be constantly aware of our race, to shape our lives around it. We haven’t had to be be hyper vigilant about the impressions others have of our race.

Identity politics fails when it oversimplifies the experiences of an identity – when it fails to acknowledge that every person has the experiences of multiple identities intersecting in different ways.

The benefits I have because I am white and straight intersect with my experience of being treated a certain way because I’m a woman. And there are differences in the spaces I occupy as a woman – my female identity meant something different in the fundamentalist church culture I grew up in than it did in the Republican congressional campaign I worked in during college.

Other friends experience much more complicated intersections – a bisexual, black, Christian woman; a Hispanic, gay man. There are countless intersections and experiences, and it’s important to keep space for those different experiences, while understanding strategically where there are cultural and systemic issues at play with particular identities.

One problem with identity politics is that we (whites) think they are about other people. We don’t want to acknowledge our privilege (which we didn’t ask for) or accept the responsibilities that go with it, responsibilities to use a privilege we can’t simply divest ourselves of to benefit those who don’t share it (something that take humility and continual learning).

Identity politics fails when we allow it to stereotype others. It succeeds when we let it show us that others’ experiences are not only different from our own, but also different than we understand them to be.

At its best, identity politics doesn’t depend on stereotyping and setting different groups of people in antagonist positions. Whites often hear the complaints of others as turning them into the enemy. Naming what is wrong is uncomfortable for those who didn’t intend wrong yet somehow allowed it. We should instead hear a plea (or demand) for empathy, compassion, repentance, and justice.

At its best, identity politics calls us to celebrate the differences that make us strong together. It calls us to make room for the other and really listen. It calls us to give priority to minority voices – those who society has left vulnerable.

Encountering identity politics is inherently uncomfortable, even painful. Acknowledging divisions that have been there all along can feel like creating division to those of us who have been unaware.

The answer isn’t to say, “But what about all we have in common?!” Erasing uniqueness erases individuals. American doesn’t treat us all the same, and we won’t get there by insisting what makes us different doesn’t matter. We will get there by valuing our diversity for the gifts each brings.

The answer isn’t to reject identity politics. The answer is to press in deeper


No Story Without Leaving Home

No Story Without Leaving Home

It’s there in the beginning – Adam and Eve left the Garden. Noah left. Abraham left. Jacob. Joseph. David. Daniel. Jonah. Joseph and Mary. Jesus. They all left.

There is no story without leaving home.

It means grieving. Even good change includes loss that needs to be grieved. Things will never be quite the same again, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

Love isn’t strong because it doesn’t change. Love is strong because it bears change, even embraces it.

Grief is a funny thing. It means both letting go and holding close. Pausing to sit, or getting a move on. Anger and peace. Hope and release.

Whatever it looks like, grief is part of stepping over the threshold to leave. Or realizing that’s what we already did without knowing it.

Leaving home also means a journey. An adventure. The unknown.

It’s risk and opportunity interwoven – you can’t get one without the other. Which is why sometimes people choose not to go, to live with the smaller story. They are afraid of the risks, and the opportunities don’t feel worth it.

But we’ll never have a capacity for love and joy greater than our capacity to risk pain and loss.

You can’t get one without the other.

The one that would save – protect – their life? They will lose it.

But in accepting the risk and the loss, we can also find life we never imagined. That’s the opportunity – to grow beyond home. To meet people, encounter ideas, face challenges we never would have known at home. And in discovering the world beyond, we will also discover ourselves, finding healing and strength and ability in ourselves we never recognized or needed at home.

There’s no story without leaving home.

It can look like so many things, from moving out to changing paradigms. The thing is, it’s never really done. We know what it looks like for teenagers and young adults to begin to find their own way and discover who they are apart from their family. But so many of us carry home with us without even realizing, like a turtle shell we just assume is part of our very being.

Assumptions we learned from family and community when we were young just look like reality to us, and that shell of home feels like safety and security. But there are places it keeps us from going, life it keeps us from living.

There is no story without leaving home.

And it’s the journey of a lifetime.

Looking for Advent

Looking for Advent

There’s nothing like getting the flu for Thanksgiving to get Advent off to a slow start. Until this weekend, I felt like the beginning of the holiday season had pretty much missed me.

But I’m getting caught up.

I spent Saturday evening at a holiday potluck party with old friends and their families at a church I used to attend, and it felt like a Thanksgiving do-over. There’s a big, red wreath on my door, and travel plans to see family at Christmas have been solidified.

And today it snowed all day, in pretty, big, wet flakes that covered every branch and limb. It’s beautiful – our first snow of the year.

Advent is about waiting, preparing. In the middle of the holiday bustle, it asks for quiet.

The quiet of falling snow. Of a cat curled up for a nap. Of a warm cup of tea. Of noticing. Of wondering.

How can joy come to fill us to overflowing if we haven’t first cleared space for it?

The flu didn’t leave me much choice about clearing space this year. Being sick will do that to me. Body and mind won’t let me do much more than rest. The normal stuff of life goes on pause and fades into the background as the simple rhythms of sleep and wake, food and water, come to the forefront.

Nothing makes me present like being sick. After forty-plus years, I’m still trying to absorb the lessons in that. How being mindful of my breathing becomes natural, when the rest of the time it’s nearly impossible. How anticipation no longer rules my thoughts, and frustration with all I may be missing out on doesn’t arise.

In the midst of those gifts, it’s also hard. As an extrovert, the isolation of illness can be depressing, especially when I’m feeling well enough not to be sleeping most of the time. And as a single, it can be scary to wonder who can help take care of you. I’m so grateful for the friends who checked on me and brought medicine and groceries. But there were times I would’ve given a lot to have someone to bring me a glass of water instead of having to find the wobbly energy to get it myself. And in the night, when my temperature was spiking, I couldn’t help but wonder when anyone would know if I lost consciousness. If a dangerous fever came while I was asleep, who would know? (I’m grateful for phone alarms and for apps like kitestring that will send a text to a contact if you don’t check in within a prearranged time.)

There’s something in Advent that’s about aloneness to me. The aloneness of John in the desert. The aloneness of the pregnant Mary with an unbelievable story. Aloneness did not last forever for either of them, but it was there for a time.

And so I’ve entered into Advent, forced to be quiet and alone and present, and looking for the lessons.