- Amy Houghton
The Political is Personal: A Brief Introduction to Identity Politics
Identity politics is a blurry and highly contested subject. Though there are compelling arguments for retiring the term altogether, there is little escaping these two words in current discussions across the political and digital landscape. This article by Amy Houghton aims to provide a little clarity on a dizzyingly loaded phrase.
Image Description: This year my work has become increasingly political, and I hope to use my practice to project some of my continuing frustrations surrounding our current political climate. I hope to start a public conversation around these issues and to get more young people openly discussing politics, arising questions surrounding our existing systems and institutions.
Since its first use, the original meaning has become diluted by both right and left-wing discussion. The term is pretty broad, conventionally used to refer to any case of minority activism whereby people protest against their exclusion in mainstream policy based on their race, sexuality, disability, class or gender. Where all of these groups agree, is that politics are inextricably personal.
The Combahee River Collective
The label ‘identity politics’ is most often credited to the 1970s Black feminist lesbian organisation, Combahee River Collective. In 1977 the group (which consisted of figures like Audre Lorde) published the Combahee River Statement, now revered as seminal in the development of identity politics discourse. In it they wrote:
“We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”
Essentially, the group utilised the term ‘identity politics’ to assert the right for marginalised citizens to form their political agendas. Their experiences had historically been omitted from US legislation based on how they identified. Thus, it only made sense that their overlapping identities, as Black, as female, and as gay, would be central to their fight for rights and recognition.
Left and right
In recent years, identity politics have been received with increasing contempt across the political spectrum, from claims that they are destroying democracy; to cries that they ignore intersectionality; to theories that they contributed to Donald Trump’s rise to power. It has been grouped with the likes of ‘wokeness’ and ‘political correctness’ to induce eye-rolls at its mere utterance.
Many have perceived modern identity politics as an essential factor in the re-emergence of populism. Indeed former advisor to Donald Trump, Robert Kuttner boasted “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats." The left’s concern with issues of identity- from trans rights to institutional racism- was seen as a distraction from other topics that parts of the American population deemed more important. It meant Trump’s campaign could lay claim to a vested interest in Americans’ economic and financial anxieties, or more specifically, the anxieties of the white working-class.
However, while certainly not a minority, is white working-class not itself an identity? Whether they like the term or not, white expressions of patriotism and nationalism are efforts to protect a certain identity, albeit one that is in the least need of protection. As journalist, Gary Younge, points out “The trouble is, not all identities count as equal. The more power they carry, the less likely the carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all.”
On the left, there are fears of divisional consequences of identity politics, particularly in an already deeply fraught environment in the UK and abroad. There is also simply frustration at the way the words have gained a momentum of their own, validating critics’ separation of politics of identity from politics in general.
The fact is that our world view, and therefore our politics, are shaped by the circumstances we happened to be born in. It is also a fact that legislation passed often benefits certain populations over others as particular identities lack sufficient representation in fields of power.
Politics of identity were weaponised against marginalised peoples and informed centuries of gender and raced based discrimination, long before the CRC chose to coin ‘identity politics’ for their agenda. Whilst the term may indeed become redundant, it is likely to be replaced with a new one that may gradually build a very similar reaction of resentment. The personal is political and rather than threatening democracy, this realisation and adoption of empathy will only help to strengthen it.
The New Yorker:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Gary Younge on 'The politics of identity: from potential to pitfalls, and symbols to substance