The term “identity politics” was first coined by Black feminist Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective in 1974. Identity politics originated from the need to reshape movements that had until then prioritized the monotony of sameness over the strategic value of difference.
The “second wave” feminist movement fought for body autonomy, pushed for women’s equality and demanded that women be treated as human beings. However, much like the first wave of feminism, which was largely centered around women’s suffrage and gaining the right to vote, white women became the default standard for all women.
While segregation was no longer formally the law of the land in 1974, racism and discrimination based on class was still deeply embedded in efforts to achieve change, again, because the change desired was progress for white women and not all women. Women who identified as feminists were encouraged to join together on the basis of a common experience of discrimination based on sex, with no attention paid to the fact that not all women’s experiences were the same, and further, that sex was not a category that could adequately describe gender.
This is the context for the emergence of identity politics. Stated simply, identity politics is the assertion 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.”1 The Combahee River Collective detailed how their experiences as Black women were different than those of white women, and this mattered because understanding the ways in which racial, economic, gender, and other oppressions were linked and shaped their lives helped to make sure that no one could be left behind.
The purpose of this paper is to explore “identity politics” and whether or not it is a useful tool for civic engagement and movements today. In this paper, I argue that identity politics is not only widely misunderstood, but intentionally distorted in order to avoid acknowledging the ways in which “identity” shapes the economy, our democracy, and our society. I explore the Black feminist origins of identity politics, and explore how and why identity politics is being weaponized among progressives and conservatives—and with what consequences for increased participation by marginalized groups in mainstream politics.
Ultimately, I argue that identity politics is indeed a critical tool for organizing and civic engagement. Recognizing oneself and one’s experiences in politics is a motivating factor for participation in that which is political. At a moment when America is facing some of the sharpest political polarization that it has seen in decades, anyone looking to secure the participation of marginalized groups had better start acknowledging that they’re marginalized in the first place, and second, working to design policy solutions that leave no one behind.
What We Get Wrong about Identity Politics
Leaving no one behind is ideal, and, despite the best intentions, people are always getting left behind in social movements—particularly when the differences that emerge as a result of various forms of oppression are erased or intentionally ignored.
Social change work is a series of scientific experiments. In experiments, to determine whether or not change has occurred, you have to have a control. The control in a scientific experiment is, by definition, a sample that remains the same through an experiment. The control helps you to determine whether or not change has happened. The control must remain the same or equal at all times to ensure accurate measurement of results.
In social change movements in America, the control is often based on the progress that white people are making in their lives against a white standard. In the women’s movement, for example, the measure of progress is taken as whether or not change and progress is happening in the lives of white women.
It’s well known that there is a lack of parity in wages between cisgender (people for whom their gender assigned at birth matches their gender identity) men and women. On average, cisgender women make 85 cents to every dollar a cisgender man makes.2 Women of all racial and ethnic groups make less than their male counterparts, and also make less than white men. Black women make 65.3 cents to every dollar that a white man makes, and 89 cents to every dollar a Black man makes. Latinx women make 61.6 cents to every dollar that a white man makes, and 85.7 percent of what a Latinx man makes. Among Latinx transgender and gender non-conforming people, 28 percent reported making less than $10,000 a year, and 34 percent of Black transgender and gender non-conforming people report the same.3
It is significant that discussions of the gender wage gap often start off with the assumption that all women make 85 cents to every dollar men make, since that is only true for white women. Without this qualification, one might think that all women make 80 cents to each dollar a man makes. Time and time again, the experiences of white communities are used as the framework from which to understand inequality, and yet the communities experiencing inequality from a range of factors, all at the same time, are communities of color. From abortion rights to pay equity, comparing the conditions of white women to white men has been the way to assess whether or not change is actually happening and progress is being made.
Identity politics holds us accountable to ask more questions about for whom progress is being made. The significant gaps in wages for Black and Latinx women indicate that while some are making progress, others continue to lag behind.
Identity politics says that no longer should we be expected to fight against someone else’s oppression without fighting against our own, too. The Combahee River Collective was concerned with how our lived experiences shape our lives, and identity politics offered social movements, like the women’s movement, the gift of uncovering what had been ignored or devalued. Black women who were poor and working class wanted feminism as much as white middle-class women did. Identity politics not only showed Black women that we were worthy of feminism—worthy of being treated as human beings—but it also gave white middle class women the gift of understanding that for feminism to succeed, feminism could not pretend that the world revolves around the struggle for parity between white women and white men.
Whiteness as the Standard
The worldview and experiences of white communities is also shaping the debate about identity politics. Racial identity is an invented series of social categories which have impacts on power and agency socially, economically, and politically. Though race is socially constructed, it has material and practical implications for the lives of those who have been assigned racial categories at the losing end of the spectrum of power. Racial categorizations that fall on the side of the spectrum that are non-white tend to lack power and agency vis-à-vis those that are on the white side of the spectrum.
Whiteness in America functions the same way that a “control” does in an experiment. In an experiment, to measure whether or not change has happened, you have to have a control—largely considered to be a standard against which change is compared. You know if change has occurred through your experiment when the entity being experimented on changes as a result of your intervention—because the control does not change.
In the social experiment called America, progress or change is determined by whether or not conditions have changed for white people and against a white standard.
Another way to look at this is not as an experiment, but instead, through the lens of what is considered “normal.” If I go to the store right now and look for Band-Aids, the color will be compatible with white skin, not mine. If I look for a pair of pantyhose, it’s not as likely I’ll find a shade that matches my skin. And up until a year ago, it was close to impossible for women of color to find shades of foundation. In America, “nude” or “flesh-toned” means white. Again, the standard in America is what is white—what appeals to white people, what makes sense to white people, what activates and motivates white people, and so on. It’s not just true at the beauty store—it’s true throughout the economy, our democracy, and the rest of our society.
If whiteness is the standard, it also is the criteria used to determine whether ideas, actions, or experiences have worth, merit, or value. Whiteness attempts to determine what is valid. Too often, whiteness dismisses the experiences and worldviews of people who are not white, because the opinions, values, needs, and beliefs of people who are not white are not considered to have merit, particularly when compared to whiteness.
When the Black Lives Matter movement exploded across the world, whiteness worked to define whether or not the anger of Black people was legitimate and justified, and at the same time, whiteness attempted to redefine the movement as dangerous, aimless, misguided, and violent. Whiteness attempted to de-fang the power of Black Lives Matter as a slogan and a rallying cry with “All Lives Matter” effectively erasing any mention of race. Changing “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter” turns what was a discourse on structural racism, police, and other forms of state violence into a two-dimensional conversation where race either does or doesn’t matter. Race-neutral language is a core tenet of whiteness—race, and racial oppression or racial exclusion, is made invisible on the surface while at the same time being allowed to organize the economy, democracy, and society.
Whiteness is the control and the standard because whiteness is fundamentally about power. Whiteness attempts to shape worldviews, ideas, and experiences because whiteness seeks to maintain the power it has been afforded, and subsequently affords to people who have been designated as white, for the purposes of implementing whiteness and, as such, implementing power.
The debate over identity politics is no exception to this rule.
Not everyone sees identity politics as a gift. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a plethora of articles appeared in news outlets, slamming “liberal identity politics.” Television pundits began to decry “identity politics” as the reason that Democrats lost the presidential election.
There are a number of arguments that are deployed against identity politics, and they are deployed for a number of reasons. One such argument declares that a fixation on diversity renders people incapable of seeing outside of their own experience, preventing them from being able to build relationships with those who do not share their experiences. And, in the political realm, they argue that a focus on differences, rather than what we share in common, is a strategic mistake in elections. It is worth noting that these arguments are primarily deployed towards those who are not white.
These arguments rest on the notion that identity politics, as they define them, leave people out—and yet they fail to acknowledge that the politics of identity are not responsible for the prevalence of those identities. Identity is only important when—through no fault of your own—you are assigned an identity that promises worse life outcomes than those who are not assigned an identity that is marginalized from power.
Following the logic of contrarians of identity politics, no one should pay attention to the fact that being assigned “Black” almost guarantees that your life chances will be worse than someone who is assigned a “white” identity, because it could alienate a white person and leave them out of the conversation. Instead of addressing the fact that Black people are more likely to die in childbirth than white people, that Black people with disabilities are eight times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts, that Black people on average are twice as likely to be poor or to be unemployed than white people, or that white households are 13 times as wealthy as Black households, critics of identity politics would prefer we not address these disparities, for fear of alienating people who are not experiencing them.
The real problem in America isn’t identity politics and making difference visible—it’s that those discrepancies exist in the first place.
Critics of identity politics, intentionally or unintentionally, uphold a logic of whiteness that functions in similar ways to that of the edict presented in the movie The Wizard of Oz—they want you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Does Identity Politics Bridge or Divide?
Another fallacy from critics of identity politics is that identifying and addressing differences somehow prevent people with different histories, backgrounds, ethnicities, identities, or experiences from finding commonality.
For example, Black communities are not the only ones who suffer from the ways in which whiteness distributes power unevenly in favor of white communities. Communities who are not white are not a monolith—and communities who share an experience of marginalization or disenfranchisement can and often do come together, across their differences, to end that marginalization. But this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that they leave their identities at the door. Just like Black communities experience the negative effects of entrenched white power, so do Latinx communities, Arab communities, Muslim communities, Pacific Islander communities, Asian diasporic communities, and so on.
To be clear, these communities do not just come together because they are marginalized. They come together to achieve a common goal—freedom and equality for all of us.
Critics of identity politics are correct when they caution that a focus primarily on experience can detract from building alliances or developing a plan of action. That certainly is true when identity politics isn’t geared towards shifting the balance of power. However, critics of identity politics should be careful not to paint with such a broad brush. The Combahee River Collective wasn’t a knitting circle—they were a group of Black women, many of whom identified as lesbian and poor, who pushed the movements they should have been a part of to be more effective in acknowledging the impacts of race, class, gender, disability and more on the issues they were trying to impact, together, for the sake of the collective.
Demanding that anyone divorce their lived experience from their participation in political action is not only dangerous, but it serves to reinforce power dynamics that are bad for the collective.
What’s ironic about the controversy surrounding identity politics is that few seem to take issue with the white identity politics shaping our lives. The critiques of identity politics only arise when those who are marginalized and disconnected from power assert that their experiences matter, and demand action to ensure that they can, in fact, achieve parity socially, economically, and politically with whites.
In the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump ran on the slogan of “Make America Great Again.” Making America great again insinuated that America was great before, leaving one to ask: “What are we trying to restore America to, and what are we trying to change it from?” Throughout the campaign, the answer became clear—America, apparently, was great before its demographics changed, before women had rights, before Black people could stand up for their rights, and so on. The America invoked by Trump was an America run and dominated by white, Christian, heterosexual men. That America was powered by blue-collar manufacturing jobs, and in that America, people of color, women, and others did not have equal rights to white men. In that America, the one that Trump and before him President Ronald Reagan idealized, it was illegal for Black people to share public accommodations with white people.
The problem that those who decried identity politics had, then, was with what identity politics did when used to empower those who lacked power—in society, in the economy, and in American democracy.
Identity politics is a threat to those who hold and wield power, because it destabilizes the control against which all else is compared. Identity politics is a threat to white power because it asserts that whiteness has shaped all of our lives in ways that do not benefit us—even those who possess that privilege. Far from being an edict of political correctness, identity politics asks us to see the world as it actually is, and more than that, it demands that we equalize the playing field.
Those who claim that identity politics is counterproductive and divisive often seek to build movements on that which they claim we all have in common, and cite economic status as an equalizer that everyone can get behind. Yet in an economy that is racialized and gendered, such notions are wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst.
The Consequences of a False Debate
The fight over identity politics is a false one; it forces false choices and even worse, inauthentic ones. Conservative movements have identified race and gender in particular as arenas where neutrality is strategic to maintain white, heterosexual, male, cisgendered power, at the expense of everyone who does not occupy those social positions. They have identified that inequality resulting from race and gender, and other social indicators that have economic implications, is best left undiscussed, lest it be uncovered that there are people that benefit from the disenfranchisement and oppression of marginalized communities. Simultaneously, the same forces inside of liberal and progressive movements have adopted the same stance, using talking points from conservatives to justify their resistance to upending oppressions other than that resulting from economic inequality.
This, of course, has consequences for progressive movements and civic engagement efforts. A refusal to acknowledge inequities inside of a movement almost guarantees that those inequities will not be addressed in any substantive way, which guarantees that the lives of those who depend on transformative social movements the most will not change in any substantive way.
We should be concerned about this because it is, in fact, exactly the agenda that our opposition hopes to achieve—no real substantive changes in the relationships of power, or their outcomes.
- 1Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” reproduced in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Rutgers University Press, 1983.
- 2Nikki Graf, Anna Brown, and Eileen Patten, “The narrowing, but persistent, gender pay gap,” Pew Research Center, March 22, 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/22/gender-pay-gap-facts
- 3Jaime M. Grant, Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. See further Mara Santilli, “What the Wage Gap Looks Like for Transgender and Gender Non-Binary People,” Brit + Co, December 11, 2018, www.brit.co/what-the-wage-gap-looks-like-for-transgender-and-gender-non…; and Ishani Nath, “Yes, Men Get Paid More than Women...But What About Trans Women?,” Flare, February 8, 2018, www.flare.com/news/trans-women-pay-equity.