Identity Politics

In the words of others:

The focus on identity has been effective and empowering when identity politics has been construed as the active affirmation of the experiences, dignity, and rights of historically marginalized or excluded people, most notably people of color, gays and lesbians, and disabled people. To borrow the words of Michelle Cliff, this kind of of politics involves not only “claiming an identity they taught me to despise,” through education and affirmation within communities; it also necessitates a direct engagement with the groups and institutions that have organized, supported or tolerated these forms of discrimination, hatred, and exclusion.

But when the emphasis on identity has been given a more introspective cast, the search for an identity politics true to the complexities of identity has led not only to a tendency to view self-exploration as a political process in itself, but also to a balkanization and fragmentation of the Left. The ethos it has inspired – that the truest and most radical form of political work consists in “organizing around your own oppression” – has all too frequently worked to reinforce barriers to communication and coalition among diverse groups. Groups have invested their energies in building and sustaining institutions that promote alternative views of history, culture, and identity, sometimes with very positive results; but in the midst of this intense pursuit and perfection of visions and expressions of identity, the notion of solidarity, so central to any progressive politics, has frequently been lost. Identity politics has done much to pluralize conceptions of radical agency; but the only basis for a radically pluralist politics, as opposed to a fragmented mosaic of political groups, is the principle of solidarity, which exhorts progressives to organize against oppression, exploitation, domination, and exclusion – irrespective of whom they affect.


A political life, as viewed through the lens of identity politics, seems to be defined much more by conformity to certain implicit codes of self-fashioning (what one eats, wears, listens to, reads, purchases, etc.) than it is by what one does to change existing structures of domination, exploitation, exclusion.

Perhaps the wide appeal of this strain of identity politics lies in the convincing solution it appears to give to the problem of leading a political existence in a profoundly depoliticized society. For it holds out the promise of politicizing *oneself*, one’s choices about self-presentation, self-conception, and lifestyle, project a sense of “being” political at a time when the options for *doing* politics may seem limited. After a decade of apathy and reaction, it is perhaps not surprising that so many have been drawn by this existentialist core, this conscious pursuit and politicization of what Sartre called the process of “choosing ourselves”.

–  L. A. Kauffman, The Anti-Politics of Identity


Affirming the virtues of the margins, identity politics has left the centers of power uncontested. No wonder the threatened partisans of “normality” have seized the offensive.


But if the Right magnifies the multiculturalist menace, identity partisans inflate the claims they make for multiculturalism. All suffer from a severe lack of proportion. Most of all, while critics of identity politics are looting society, the politics of identity is silent on the deepest sources of social misery: the devastation of cities, the draining of resources away from the public and into the private hands of the few. It does not organize to reduce the sickening inquality between rich and poor. Instead, in effect, it struggles to change the color of inequality.

– Todd Gitlin, The Fate of the Commons


So what does identity politics have to do with the Left? Let me state firmly what should not need restating. The political project of the Left is universalist: it is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for old Etonians or gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only. This is perfectly evident in the case of ethnic or nationalist movements. Zionist Jewish nationalism, whether we sympathize with it or not, is exclusively about Jews, and hang — or rather bomb — the rest. All nationalisms are. The nationalist claim that they are for everyone’s right to self-determination is bogus.

– Eric Hobsbawm, Identity Politics and the Left


An enduring political and ethical approach to a sexist society cannot be based upon these same divisive gender lines, but rather must figure out which behaviours help society and which do not, and work to give all human beings the experiences which will promote these characteristics, not restricting people according to their biology.

– Kristin Severson and Victoria Stanhope, Identity Politics and Progress: Don’t Fence Me In (or Out)


Of course, we are not supposed to use revolutionary theories of history, the “master narratives,” because they are the master’s tools. It is my contention that the master appropriated those tools along with the labor of those he exploited and that it is high time that they be reclaimed.

– Hazel V. Carby, The Politics of Difference


Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. (I am human, nothing human is alien to me.)

– Publius Terentius Afer, Heauton Timorumenos