In Defense of Identity Politics

by Eric C. Peterson

There’s a phrase being tossed around more and more as the nation prepares for another campaign season, and it’s one that catches my ear every time I hear it: “identity politics.” It doesn’t mean what they say it means.

While the term has been floating around academic circles since the 1970s and possibly before, it seems to have now entered the mainstream (if by “mainstream” I mean the vapid cesspool that is 24-hour cable news — which, sadly, is exactly what I mean). It’s almost always used as an insult, which means that every time the phrase is uttered, someone who is adamantly opposed to “identity politics” speaks it. As there are hardly any voices speaking in favor of it, no one really knows what it means.

The candidates fighting for the 2020 Democratic nomination represent the most diverse slate of candidates in American political history, and include (from L to R) Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

My favorite explanation of this troubling and troublesome phrase comes from “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 manifesto of Black Feminism. It’s a long document, with occasional flourishes of activist prose, but one sentence stands out for its simplicity and clarity: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.”

Critics of “identity politics,” who abound among the punditry these days, would have you believe that the only reason people dislike Donald Trump is because he’s a straight, white man, suggesting that those who adhere to “identity politics” can see no difference between Trump and politicians like Beto O’Rourke or Joe Biden.

They would have you believe that fans of “identity politics” can only see group identities, and are therefore blind to the individual differences that exist within those groups. They would have you believe that the “correct” way to evaluate people is to completely ignore whatever groups they align to, and appraise them solely on their individual merits — as if such a thing were possible.

I, for instance, am a gay white man. I am also able-bodied, an atheist, an American citizen, the youngest in my family, and a fan of Broadway musicals and old movies. These are all ways to categorize me, to put me in some group or other, and by so doing, exclude me from other groups. I am an individual, but am not and can never be separated from my gayness, my whiteness, or my maleness — or any of my other categories — without losing extremely important pieces of me, the individual.

So yes — Donald Trump and Beto O’Rourke are both straight, white men currently involved in politics. As such, they do have many things in common. To suggest otherwise seems a little silly. And, simultaneously, they are wildly different from one another. To suggest otherwise seems almost insane.

But the critics of “identity politics” don’t always stop there. If you let them keep talking, they’ll eventually accuse anyone who supports anyone who isn’t a straight white male of practicing “identity politics.” They posit that the only reason that someone might remember the Obama administration with fond nostalgia, or want to see Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg or Kirsten Gillibrand become president in 2020, is a blind hatred of straight white men everywhere.

In this way, those who stand in adamant opposition to “identity politics” eventually show their hand. Their belief that straight white men are somehow the obvious choice, regardless of what other talented and passionate candidates might exist, reveals their true aim: to ensure that only straight white men stay in power. Deep down, they know that what was written long ago in “The Combahee River Collective Statement” is true: that if those who benefit the most from privilege can continue to hold on to their control, the injustice of the status quo can continue.

If race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity truly didn’t matter, and if voters everywhere simply chose the best of all available options, regardless of identity markers — both probability and statistics would insist that our leaders and legislators would be just as diverse as the society they represent.

But neither the premise nor the outcome of that fantasy world squares with the reality we live in. To some of us, that kind of representation would be a dream come true. To others, it would be a dystopian nightmare. Which group do you belong to? In either case, I’m sure I can guess which of these will sneer at “identity politics” on your favorite cable news program this evening.

This essay was first published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth. Eric Peterson is a diversity & inclusion educator living in Washington, DC, and the host of a weekly podcast about old movies.

(he/him) I’m a funny, serious, outgoing, introspective, #diversity & #inclusion practitioner. Finished my first novel.

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