In Defence of Identity Politics

[This article was originally published in DIVA’s May 2018 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]

As I write this piece, it has been precisely 1 year and 50 days since Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. 1 year and 50 days since it was confirmed that bigotry, racism and hate can smooth the path to the most powerful Office in the world. 1 year and 50 days since the world has watched in horror as many progressive policies have been eroded, and rights which we thought entrenched have been challenged and threatened. 1 year and 50 days since much of the world as we know it was declared turned upside down.

Many of us are still engulfed in a cycle of grief regarding the election result, perpetually scratching our heads and lamenting a rapidly failing sense of justice in the world today. Some, myself included, have turned that frustration inward, meticulously dissecting and analysing our own long-held beliefs and ideologies in an attempt to discern anything which we might recognise within ourselves as having contributed to the political landscape we see today.

The culprit? Well, it’s difficult to say, but a common suspect which is talked about across the board, from hushed conversations at your local LGBT group through to brazen and damming headlines in the local tabloids? Identity politics.

Of course, identity politics is nothing new, and certainly not a stranger to partisan politics. The far right nationalist marches which have occurred through the decades (and which continue to occur) perfectly encapsulate fascist ‘identitarianism’, wherein identity politics is focused on white identity vs ‘other’. On the left, the Reagan years heralded the development of identity politics as a way in which to address disenfranchised and minority sections of society; to pull them together in a sense of liberal community and progress, rather than encouraging the view of competing identities.    

But many are now asking whether we on the left have gone too far. Has leftist identity politics actually resulted in the hindrance of progressive ideals? As Mark Lilla posited in a 2017 New Statesman article, are we looking at an ideology that has “…given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition…the main result being to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others”?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I reckon not. Firstly, it’s naive to act as though all politics doesn’t appeal to some sense of identity; we’re just far too accustomed to that identity being white, middle class straight people. Anything that tends to divert from that norm is more obvious simply because it is out of the ordinary in its intended audience, not because its method is unusual.

Secondly, the (rather baffling) implication is that the left has spent too much of its time and energy pursuing the approval of minorities (be that women, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, disabled people – whoever) rather than focusing on ‘real’ politics. This implication is absurd for two reasons; to dismiss those identity groups as somehow numerically insignificant (“why are you focusing on just them?” is patently fatuous) and; despite what the rhetoric of certain corners of the internet might have you believe, the reality is that UK left-wing political parties have a decidedly patchy track record on issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that we should be ‘bigger than our personal identities’ is shockingly reductive. It is wholly unsurprising that those who are affected in their everyday lives by an element of their identity would seek to address this imbalance. If a black, working class lesbian woman finds it excessively difficult to enjoy social, economic and political opportunities thanks to facets of their identity, this absolutely does not make their concerns less worthy of discussion and attention.

If anything, the current tendency for those of all political persuasions to single out identity politics as the problem as though basically all other politics doesn’t rely on it somehow as well (and rather than, you know, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transhopbia etc) is telling of the need to address the intersectional oppressions experienced by minorities, rather than rug-sweeping.

In an ideal world, of course, we’d be part of a happy melting pot in which everyone received the same opportunities and freedoms no matter who they were. But until that day comes, it is simply willfully ignorant to ignore these issues, and positively detrimental to point fingers at small groups of underrepresented people. I’m here to cautiously defend nuanced identity politics, and I hope that you might be too.

Cerian Jenkins

All views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and not that of my employer, academic institution, family or pets.

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