Identity politics, also called identitarian politics, refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on race, gender identity, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, religion, culture, language and dialect. Not all members of any given group are involved in identity politics.
The term identity politics came into being during the latter part of the 20th century, during the Civil Rights Era. During this time period, identity politics was used by a minority group to form a coalition with members of the majority.
The term identity politics has been used in political discourse since at least the 1970s. One aim of identity politics has been for those feeling oppressed to articulate their felt oppression in terms of their own experience by a process of consciousness-raising. For example, in their germinal statement of black feminist identity politics, the Combahee River Collective said that "as children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression."
Identity politics as a mode of organizing is closely connected to the concept that some social groups are oppressed (such as women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, etc.); that is, individuals belonging to those groups are by virtue of their identity more vulnerable to forms of oppression such as cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation, marginalization, or powerlessness. Identity politics starts from analyses of oppression to recommend a restructuring of the existing society.
Identity politics is a phenomenon that arose first at the radical margins of liberal democratic societies in which human rights are recognized, and the term is not usually used to refer to dissident movements within single-party or authoritarian states. The elements of identity politics can be seen to be present in many of the earliest statements of feminists, ethnic movements, and gay and lesbian liberation. Formally, it may even be found in Karl Marx's earliest statements about a class becoming conscious of itself and developing a class identity. Class Identity politics were first described briefly in an article by L. A. Kauffman, who traced its origins to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization of the civil rights movements in the USA in the early and mid-1960s. Although SNCC invented many of the fundamental practices which currently make up identity politics, and although various black power groups extended them, they apparently found no need to apply a term. Rather, the term emerged when others outside the black freedom movements—particularly, the race- and ethnic-specific women's liberation movements, such as Black feminism—began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s. Traces of identity politics can also be found in the early writings of the modern gay liberation movements, such as Dennis Altman's Homosexual: Liberation/Oppression, Jeffrey Week's Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, and Ken Plummer's ed The Making of the Modern Homosexual. One of the older written examples of it can be found in the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977, subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies, and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term; which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women. Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness—the most notable example being the Black Panther Party—but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is MOVE, who mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating the return to a hunter gatherer society) and the related idea of neo-luddism.
Regarding the Donald Trump presidential campaign, Conor Friedersdorf speculated in the August 2016 issue of The Atlantic that the Republicans might become the party of white identity politics. The identification of some voters to the protection of a white majority and traditional white values sometimes masked as nationalism has increased the prospect of white identity politics. White identity politics can be driven by demographic change and diversity. Increase diversity and the prospect of whites becoming a minority in America can drive many to affiliate with conservative causes including those not related to diversity.
Debates and criticism
Nature of the movement
The term identity politics has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function.
In his view, basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than...perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference".
Brendan O'Neill has contrasted the politics of gay liberation and identity politics by saying "... [Peter] Tatchell also had, back in the day, was a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview—which has nothing to do with the world—from any questioning." Left-wing author Owen Jones claims that identity politics often marginalises the working class, saying that:
In the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing intellectuals who were both inspired and informed by a powerful labour movement wrote hundreds of books and articles on working-class issues. Such work would help shape the views of politicians at the very top of the Labour Party. Today, progressive intellectuals are far more interested in issues of identity. ... Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays, and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has co-opted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women's rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.— Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
The earlier stages of the development of the modern LGBT movement were closely linked with identity politics. In order for gay and lesbian issues to be placed on the political agenda, gays and lesbians had to identify publicly with their homosexuality and 'come out'. By the 1980s, the politics of identity had become central to the gay movement's struggles.
This opened the path for change but also critique. Some activists drawing on the work of Judith Butler, stress the importance of not assuming an already existing identity, but of remaking and unmaking identities through performance. There are also conscientious supporters of identity politics who have developed their stances on the basis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work and have described some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism, a form which has sought to work with hegemonic discourses to reform the understanding of "universal" goals.
Liberal-reformist gay and lesbian activists continue to work for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the institutions and culture of mainstream society, but queer activists instead make a point of declaring themselves outside of the mainstream and having no desire to be accepted by or join it. The former criticize the latter's approach as counterproductive and as perpetuating discrimination and societal attitudes against LGBT people, while the latter counter that the former seek to subsume LGBT identities in order to capitalize upon other forms of (racial, economic, geographical) privilege.
Still other critics have argued that groups based on shared identity, other than class (e.g., religious identity or neurological wiring), can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, such as class conflict in capitalist societies. Even those who support LGBTQ rights, freedom of religion or ending racism, for instance, may consider these side issues.
Such arguments have been expressed by a number of writers, such as Eric Hobsbawm, Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, Bart Landry, and Jim Sleeper. Hobsbawm, in particular, has criticized nationalisms, and the principle of national self-determination adopted internationally after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the 20th century. Hence Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster Loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism.
In her journal Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Kimberle Crenshaw treats identity politics as a process that brings people together based on a shared aspect of their identity. Crenshaw applauds identity politics for bringing African Americans (and other people of color), gays and lesbians, and other oppressed groups together in community and progress. However, Crenshaw also points out that frequently groups come together based on a shared political identity but then fail to examine differences among themselves within their own group: "The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend differences, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences." Crenshaw argues that when society thinks "black", they think black male, and when society thinks feminism, they think white woman. When considering black women, at least two aspects of their identity are the subject of oppression: their race and their gender. Crenshaw proposes instead that identity politics are useful but that we must be aware of intersectionality and the role it plays in identity politics. Nira Yuval-Davis supports Crenshaw's critiques in, Intersectionality and Feminist Politics and explains that "Identities are individual and collective narratives that answer the question 'who am/are I/we?"
In her journal Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Crenshaw provides the example of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy to expand on her point. Anita Hill came forward and accused Supreme Court Justice Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; Clarence Thomas would be the second African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Crenshaw argues that when Anita Hill came forward she was deemed anti-black in the movement against racism, and though she came forward on the feminist issue of sexual harassment, she was excluded because when considering feminism, it is the narrative of white middle-class women that prevails. Crenshaw concludes that acknowledging intersecting categories when groups unite on the basis of identity politics is better than ignoring categories altogether. In other words, Crenshaw argues that people should continue to unite on the basis of shared political identities, particularly in efforts to create narratives that might help oppressed groups, but should also consider intersecting categories within these groups.
One example of a group that united on the basis of identity politics and succeeded at considering the intersectional nature of their movement, is the Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective published their 'Black Feminist Statement' in 1977. In it, the black feminist group takes into account the group's identity as being made up of multiple interlocking oppressions and formed their politics around their sexual and racial identity as black women..."to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression". In his journal "Identity Politics Then and Now" Elin Diamond cites the Combahee River Collective as "one of the foundational documents of identity politics in the US" and as a protest against homophobia and sexism in the black liberation movement and racism in the feminist movement.
Art and culture
Many artistic and cultural movements have articulated identity politics, such as the hip hop, skinhead and punk subcultures. Identity politics have been expressed in music genres (e.g. hip hop music, punk rock, reggae, soul music), film and fanzines. Punk rock genres that have been centred on identity politics include anarcho-punk, queercore and riot grrrl. Aside from gender and sexual orientation, class identity has been expressed in Oi!, originating in the East End of London, which has been typically associated with working class individuals.
Skinhead culture originated in British working class identity, with many skinhead reggae, 2 Tone, Oi! and hardcore punk songs expressing working class pride and racial unity. When soul and reggae lyrics became expressions of black nationalism and/or the Rastafari movement, many white skinheads were alienated at the shift in lyrical themes. However, White power skinheads are focused on white pride, and their music and zines reflect this. White power rock music, also known as Rock Against Communism, often has lyrics about white pride and white separatism.
Hip Hop music has expressed identity politics in the form of black and Chicano nationalism, while Homo hop has expressed Queer identity politics, much like queercore has in the punk and indie scene. Hip-Hop activism draws on black liberation movements but also encompasses issues like environmentalism.
Lowrider culture was made into an artistic expression of identity politics by the Royal Chicano Air Force, an organisation established to support equality for Mexican Americans. Some lowriders have made murals celebrating Chicano culture and history.
Disco, though considered vapid by some (especially the punks, mods, etc.), was heavily tied to the gay rights movement , along with the black, feminist and Latino ones. It has been noted that British punk rock critics of disco were very supportive of the pro-black/anti-racist reggae genre. Robert Christgau and Jim Testa have said that there were legitimate artistic reasons for being critical of disco.
A Le Monde/IFOP poll in January 2011 conducted in France and Germany found that a majority felt Muslims are "not integrated properly"; an analyst for IFOP said the results indicated something "beyond linking immigration with security or immigration with unemployment, to linking Islam with a threat to identity".
- Adversarial process
- Client politics
- Conflict theory
- Conviction politics
- Cultural war
- Ethnic interest group
- Group rights
- Group polarization
- Identity (social science)
- Interest group liberalism
- Minority influence
- Political consciousness
- Political correctness
- Queer theory
- Social conflict theory
- Standpoint theory
- Voting bloc
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