Identity politics: the possibilities and limits

This is an opinion piece written by a NCAFC activist who wishes to be named as Sleepy Commie. If you want to write an opinion piece for the NCAFC website, get in touch with us via [email protected]!

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I am a queer, disabled woman of colour, and I want the left to talk about identity politics.

I have always experienced life in terms of failure: failure to be beautiful (the criteria are set by whiteness), failure to be socially graceful (the criteria are set by neurotypicality), and so on. As a result of this constant negative branding of my existence, my mental health completely disintegrated by the time I turned 17.

To then discover vast online communities of people fighting to promote alternative criteria, people who confidently defined identities like mine as not only acceptable but desirable, was a complete revelation. I immersed myself in these communities, made friends and grew in confidence. I no longer had to think of myself as faulty – instead, I explored the various facets of my identity without inhibition and managed to construct an understanding of who I am, rather than admonishing myself for who I am not.

I discovered language to articulate every aspect of discrimination that I faced. I was finally able to explain why everyday racialised interactions were hurting me so much, and to understand that although these microaggressions were indeed relatively minor, they had a name. I wasn’t just imagining them, and I certainly wasn’t imagining the impact they were having on me. For the first time, I could name and begin to unpack my trauma, instead of berating myself even more for having it.

This was my first experience of left-wing politics, and it is certainly not a unique one – many have entered activism via this route. I had always had some vague ideas about wanting to create a world where everyone could genuinely thrive, but had never been able to relate these to any political wing or movement. The rhetoric of the left – equality, community, justice – is increasingly co-opted by the right, and before I discovered identity politics it was hard to distinguish between the two. By first defining my experiences in terms of identity, I began to see how they were politicised. I began to see that I identified more closely with left-wing values.

Remembering the racialised bullying I had endured throughout school, I considered the ways I had been silenced in a new, political light. Memories of being told by teachers that I was ‘making it about race’ had clear parallels with the disingenuous right-wing narrative that any protest against racism is creating problems, rather than highlighting the fact that they exist. I am certainly not the only person for whom consciousness of identity has led to consciousness of the need for serious change to our society – not only for me, but for others too.

It follows, then, that I was highly invested in the politics of representation. I studied popular feminist websites, spoke in favour of quotas and looked out for tv shows with queer characters. I achieved a level of personal fulfilment I had never enjoyed before.

But an effective movement must move beyond questions of ‘I’ – we must work together in collective, grassroots struggle, with the ultimate goal of rendering identity categories irrelevant.

This will not take place overnight, so there is still significant value in identity politics. We live under the conditions of capitalism – we cannot expect our views of and interactions with others to somehow take place outside this context of power, and so sometimes we need to actively intervene. Choosing to ignore the fact that categories of identity are used to oppress will not make this oppression disappear. We need quotas, we need to acknowledge and discuss why the left has a sexism problem, and we need to practice identity politics.

The issue at stake here, then, is not whether identity politics have merit, but how.

There is immense value in the lived experience. Rather than emulating the very capitalist conditions we are trying to resist, in our spaces we must give people who are otherwise silenced the opportunity to express the nuances of their oppression, and we must listen, resisting the instinctive urge to invalidate what is being said simply because it threatens some particular benefit we enjoy from upholding the status quo.

However, identity should never be honoured to the point that any individual becomes unassailable. Here, the impossibility of building a strong, collective movement based solely on a politics of identity becomes visible, for no one person could never hope to effectively represent the views of everyone they share a given identity trait with. We should never switch off our ability to critically analyse, and we should recognise the genuinely incredible contributions made by oppressed people instead of adopting a condescending, dishonest, uncritical stance.

Frequently, I have been called upon to weigh in on disputes simply because I am deemed to fit into a relevant box. Aside from not always wanting to give my emotional labour, I have often found that I am not actually as knowledgeable as my identity apparently suggests I am, which can be awkward to admit – it makes me feel as though I am letting people down. At times, my identity speaks louder than I could ever hope to, and I have to question whether people are actually interested in engaging with what I have to say or if I am merely there as a token to give them social capital in leftist spaces.

The phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’ (and its variants, such as whitesplaining) definitely exists – but I do not believe that it is best counteracted by us constantly and disingenuously deferring to the person with the most (and most visible) axes of oppression, no matter the situation. This is not only exhausting to those it ostensibly benefits, but also limits political growth. It would be better for so-called ‘allies’ to a cause – those who do not experience a particular form of oppression but are committed to fighting it – to feel confident in exercising their own judgement. We can (and should) unite across lines of identity, but we can also, productively, unite on the basis that we share common goals. The former should not have to preclude the latter.

The binary between oppressed identity and privileged identity is also rather simplistic. Although it would not be desirable to do away with any analysis of power dynamics completely, we should certainly reconsider the binary terms we tend to frame it in. Non-binary people frequently find that they are totally absent from discourse about ‘men oppressing women’; often, when they are acknowledged, it is through awkward attempts to fit them into this binary, which tend to involve misgendering them as ‘more man’ or ‘more woman.’

This suggests that we need to take a more nuanced approach. We need to critically examine how our static view of identity is limiting our activism – we often discuss how we will not assume gender from someone’s clothes or mannerisms, then do it anyway, treating everyone as cis until we are corrected. The way in which we so hastily assign everyone a place in the privilege/oppression binary also fixes people in these boxes permanently, making it difficult for people to explore their gender once they have been initially assigned their role as oppressor or oppressed.

The limits of identity politics are perhaps best illustrated with reference to purportedly ‘feminist’ advertising. When representation is the only goal, it is easy to fall into the neoliberal marketing strategies which use our own language of liberation against us to profit. Many are quick to praise the supposedly progressive brand and rush to buy the featured product, for an analysis which views class as merely another category of identity is inadequate to help us understand what is really going on.

Racism upholds capitalism – casting people of colour as lazy (and therefore responsible for their own poverty) deflects blame away from the vast inequalities created by the system. The fundamental role of police is to act as the state apparatus; to defend capital. This, amongst other reasons, is why the police are fundamentally racist. Therefore, merely increasing the number of people of colour in the police force will not solve the problem.

Grounding the politics of identity, then, there must always be an anti-capitalist critique. We cannot identify the true material impact of changes to representation – that is, we cannot work out if reform is viable – if we do not first analyse the function of what we are trying to reform. At a time when our language of resistance is increasingly being appropriated, bled dry and sold back to us, we urgently need this framework to help us to make sense of what we are facing and to tackle it head-on.

There is still an undeniable need for identity politics in our movement – I do not seek to diminish this in any way. However, we must ensure that we make it work productively in our favour. In order to attain the liberation we desire, we must ensure that our analysis of identity is always underpinned by a critique of capitalism.

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