Don't Abandon Identity Politics—Instead, Reclaim Them
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Politics and Activism

Don't Abandon Identity Politics—Instead, Reclaim Them

We can no longer afford to let the establishment co-opt a critical tool of the Left and twist it to serve their own political ends.

Don't Abandon Identity Politics—Instead, Reclaim Them

"Can liberal democracies survive identity politics?"

So asks a recent (and somewhat ominously-titled) Economist article, just one among hundreds of think pieces churned out by a pundit class newly focused on perhaps the most popular political bogeyman there is today: identity politics. Like so many political buzzwords, no one seems to quite know what "identity politics" actually means—but of course, that doesn't stop anyone from having an opinion on it. To understand why identity politics has become such a potent target of attack from the right and the center-left alike, we must first understand the true meaning of the term, and how the definition we commonly understand today is the result of decades of cooption and bastardization that have twisted it into something almost beyond recognition.

The commonly-accepted and oft-reviled definition of identity politics today usually revolves around an understanding of the concept as a narrow and exclusive one, which groups people and issues into neat little boxes based on race, religion, gender, and so on. According to this definition, people are only entitled to speak on a given issue if said issue fits into one or more of the same boxes as them, and attempts to speak on issues by which one is not directly impacted on the basis of identity tend to be dismissed as nothing more than expressions of "[insert identity here] privilege". However, this fundamentally misrepresents the true nature of a political concept that is much more nuanced and inclusive than its critics care to admit.

If not the above definition, then, what is identity politics? Far from a 21st-century invention of spoiled millennial snowflakes, the notion of identity politics traces its roots back several decades to the Combahee River Collective—a group of queer, Black Marxist feminists named for an 1863 raid, led by Harriet Tubman, which freed some 750 slaves and was a turning point in the history of the Black liberation struggle. In 1977, the group issued the now-legendary Combahee River Collective Statement, in which they laid out their political program and established the groundwork for social-justice concepts taken for granted by many activists today. In the Collective's own words:

"Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's may because of our need as human persons for autonomy...This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. 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."

At first glance, this explanation may appear to support the exclusionary definition of identity politics we commonly understand today. A closer analysis, however, shows that the identity politics envisioned by the sisters of the Combahee River Collective is in fact radically inclusive, and cannot be separated in any meaningful way from the deeply nuanced principles of solidarity and intersectionality. Some 12 years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" to describe the ways in which oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender are all interconnected, the Collective wrote in their Statement of an understanding that "the major systems of oppression are interlocking", and recognized that their Black identities could not be divorced from their queer, working-class, and female identities.

Rather than trying to divide up their various identities and shun the intersections between them, as is common practice among the modern standard-bearers of identity politics, the Collective laid out a politics which wholeheartedly embraced these intersections, and understood the need for genuine solidarity across lines of identity to dismantle the intersecting structures of oppression which they faced.

Reading this, you may find yourself asking—what happened? Where along the way did we allow a concept defined by solidarity and intersectionality become a tool used to divide people up and stifle expressions of allyship across identity lines? The answer is class. Unlike the identity politics of today, which focuses almost solely on "social" issues such as race, religion, and gender and almost never brings up class issues, the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective were radically anti-capitalist in nature:

"We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy...We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation."

To the Collective, a sole emphasis on the class struggle would never lead to the socialism they believed necessary for a truly just society. Nevertheless, the anti-capitalist nature of the Collective's identity politics made such politics a threat to the neoliberal establishment that has dominated the Democratic Party for the better part of its modern history. This establishment, and its self-anointed gatekeepers of social justice remain faithful to the neoliberal mantra that the individual must be the base unit and sole catalyst of any social change, and that any agenda which relies on collective solidarity and action to bring down structures of oppression poses an insidious threat to the existing social order and must be quashed accordingly.

This is why the identity politics we see today is all but unrecognizable as the agenda of the Combahee River Collective—recognizing the threat posed by genuine identity politics to the status-quo, the neoliberal establishment has stripped the concept of any and all vestiges of anti-capitalism and collective solidarity, and left in its place a watered-down political tool that they may then wield to divide and atomize individuals even more than we have already been divided and atomized by the capitalist system in which we live. In so doing, they have succeeded in transforming identity politics from a critical tool in the fight for liberation into yet another means of upholding oppressive power structures.

What, then, should we do to reclaim an agenda that has been stolen from right under our noses? The Left is always in need of some healthy self-reflection, but the question we need to ask ourselves isn't whether it's time to abandon identity politics altogether—rather, we should be asking ourselves why we allowed identity politics to become something to be ashamed of in the first place. It's not too late to take back identity politics so that we may wield them once again as a tool for our collective liberation. In fact, such a reclamation of that which is rightfully ours may just be our best hope yet for winning the world we know we need.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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