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What is identity politics really?



The horseshoe theory of politics may be largely discredited, but when it comes to identity politics, the left and right may have far more in common than they admit.

Foil maskThe confusion around this term, and its frequent misuse across the political spectrum, sees it regarded with suspicion and contempt, as both conservatives and the traditional left use it as a slur to dismiss any discussions of racism and sexism.

Speaking at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra recently, former Prime Minister John Howard took identity politics — or rather what he mischaracterised as identity politics — to task. Identity politics, he said, is 'poison to democracy', because it encourages 'the pursuit of individual groups', who may be reluctant to join a political party if 'they think it is dominated by one particular group'.

Similarly, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla blamed the Democrats' US election loss on identity politics, writing 'the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end', because 'the fixation on diversity' discourages the concept of a shared destiny and duty towards all fellow citizens.

It's true that many identity politics enthusiasts appear to focus on the 'identity' aspect at the expense of the 'politics'. This can be seen in the proliferation of online 'call out culture' where feminist and anti-racist movements expend more energy taking down the 'problematic' figures in their midst than they do challenging the powerful institutions and politicians that oppress us all.

But neither this nor what Howard and Lilla describe is, as Mychal Denzel Smith explained in The New Republic, what identity politics actually is.

Denzel Smith traced its roots to the radical black politics of the 1970s and the black feminist group, The Combahee River Collective, and their manifesto, A Black Feminist Statement. In its original incarnation, identity politics was neither a distraction from economic issues nor a divisive tool to prevent social cohesion.


"It should come as no surprise that older white men such as Howard and Lilla are among the most hostile to the concept since, whatever side of the 'horseshoe' they reside, it is they who remain the closest to power."


Regarding black feminism as 'the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions' of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on, the Collective argued that since no one else was working to liberate black women, leaving them to suffer the worst marginalisation on multiple levels (we now call this 'intersectionality'), then it follows that 'the most ... radical politics come directly out of our own identity'.

In other words, their embrace of 'the politics of identity' was not a call for every group to focus only on themselves but a declaration that the liberation of black women necessitates the liberation of everyone else.

Identity politics then was not created, as some argue, to create division or distract from 'real issues', but as a reminder that discrimination and oppression is based on proximity to power. The closer to power a person is, the less their 'identity' is held against them.

It should come as no surprise that older white men such as Howard and Lilla are among the most hostile to the concept since, whatever side of the 'horseshoe' they reside, it is they who remain the closest to power.

Nonetheless, there is much to be concerned about when it comes to how we see and invoke identity today. Despite being referred to by others as an 'identitarian', it is not something I have ever used to describe myself, mostly because I fear neither those who embrace it nor those who loathe it use the 'politics of identity' in the radical spirit which the Combahee Collective intended it.

Although I write frequently on issues of race and gender, I know these to be structural, not individual issues. Furthermore, while I believe we need to hear directly from those most affected by specific issues, I have never argued that only people from certain groups are permitted to talk about certain issues nor that they are always and automatically right. This attitude leaves me cold both because it lacks intellectual rigour and because it only serves to keep us locked in these boxes marking us as 'different'.

Nonetheless, I am called upon to 'defend' identity politics by some while being dismissed by others as 'identity politics at its most feral'. I can only conclude that this is because we have reached a point where any discussion of any 'ism' is now considered identity politics and identity politics is considered a performance of shallow individualism.


"It seems that white socialist men are determined to live the revolutionary dream by proxy, and do not appreciate any complexity that Syrian voices who disagree with them bring to the discussion."


When I pointed out, for instance, that western leftist factions ignore Syrian voices as they fight the Syrian conflict by proxy from the safety of the west, my objections were shouted down as 'stupid identity politics'. It seems that white socialist men are determined to live the revolutionary dream by proxy, and do not appreciate any complexity that Syrian voices who disagree with them bring to the discussion. Never mind that is not they, but Syrians like my family who actually live in the danger zones, who will live or die with the consequences.

How convenient that 'identity politics' means they can feel good about refusing to listen.

Despite the best efforts of both conservatives and progressives to paint it as such, pointing out and demanding an end to racism, or sexism, or any form of discrimination, is not shallow identity posturing; it is material analysis. The more marginalised 'identities' a person has, the more likely they are to be economically alienated and disenfranchised.

I can't see us returning to the original spirit of identity politics from where we are now. But while there is much to legitimately critique about it, denying the additional barriers to freedom and opportunity some of us experience is not a rejection of our supposed self-absorption or a genuine call for unity; it is a rejection of us as people and a demand that we submit to the demands of the dominant population.



Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a freelance writer and columnist. She holds a masters in media practice from Sydney University where she wrote her thesis on objectivity and bias in the western media's coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. She currently runs workshops on this topic for Macquarie University's Global Leadership Program. She tweets @rubyhamad

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, identity politics, racism, sexism



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Existing comments

Agree with most of you have said and recognise that people on all sides people misuse identity politics to reinforce their personal political rectitude. It also reflects a time when the neoliberal focus on individualism and markets destroys much of the broader social and political structures that have pushed equity and change as well as broader belonging. The resultant desire for belonging feeds racism, sexism and other forms of in group out group politics.. so we need to look at what we have in common and reframe it so we can 'progress'. Let's work on how! coffee?

eva cox | 05 October 2017  

I read Ruby's article with great difficulty and I asked myself why? I can only think that deep down I still carry the biases and prejudices of my youth growing up Catholic in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1940s and 50s. Everything political was polarised. Orange v Green, Protestants v Papists. North v South. Monarchists v Republicans. Imperialists v Colonialists. Interestingly the class struggle was not dominant. Each side had its poor; its aspirational middle class; its property owners. The hardest thing for a Catholic to get in Northern Ireland was a job - except during world War 2 , when the Armed Services and the Defence Industries didn't regard Catholicism a security risk. Ruby exposes John Howard and his mischaracterisation of identity politics. The battleground of Conservatives v Progressives, Monarchists v Republicans, One Big Brother v Many Close Friends, suits his debating style. Absolutes give certainty. Nuance as put forward by academics and Jesuits only creates confusion. There is not much use in me going back to my old Political Sociology books.. Over 40 years later political analysis has moved on, as has indeed political rhetoric. Thank you Ruby for projecting me into the 21st century.

Uncle Pat | 05 October 2017  

Great essay, Ruby. Complex intersectionality sometimes obscures the shifting differentials of power abuse, which accounts for why both the Right as well as sections of the Left can be so mistaken in their policy analyses. That it IS women's time in identity politics there can be no doubt, and the most silenced and put upon amongst them to be found at the forefront of the struggle for justice in the developing world. Keep giving them a voice!

Michael Furtado | 05 October 2017  

"older white men". . . identity politics at its worst! Its those men who built the society that you are now enjoying because its one of the best societies ever created.

ron | 06 October 2017  

Thanks for your comments everyone. Including ron, even though you have just demonstrated what I was discussing in the piece - dismissing legitimate discussions of power and race as "identity politics." There is nothing inherent in the identity of "older white men" that makes them or act in certain ways or say certain things - it's simply that this is the demographic that has been closest to power, and this is the lens through which they see the world. I am always impressed by the comments section on Eureka Street articles. Eva - yes, please to the coffee.

Ruby Hamad | 06 October 2017  

Great clarity in this article Ruby, as so much conflation of the terms and concepts. Intersectionality- the term, spirit, concept, enactment- is about collective oppression through interlocking ideologies and structures. We need political identities to belong, contest homogenization and exclusion and claim rights, but also collective identity to organise struggle and as eva says, to belong. The "call out" culture is a symptom of a struggle between "other others" to belong to a broader collective. This is the challenge. And individualism is the problem, not identity or intersectionality. Great article.

nilmini fernando | 27 October 2017  

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