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