In the often polarizing and intense debates on identity politics you often encounter three talking points from those who oppose those who criticise identity politics. First, that all politics is identity politics. Second, critics of so called “identity politics” ignore the specific oppression of marginalized groups and third, they perpetuate a white male chauvinist worldview.
This particular form of argumentation is flawed because it ignores the fact that there have been many different critiques of identity politics by non-whites, many of whom have been deeply involved in struggles against racism, injustice, and colonial oppression. I of course believe white people should also be able to criticise identity politics and not have their arguments delegitimized simply because of they are white or a man. What should ultimately matter is if the content of the argument is good or not, not the skin color or gender of the author.
However, it is interesting to note that critiques of identity politics by non-white leftists and progressives often get ignored in much of the popular debates on this topic. Some people who take the anti-anti identity politics stance will say, or imply, that non-whites who critique “identity politics” are either inadvertently perpetuating class reductionism or are being exploited by white men to denigrate and erase the specific struggles of people of color, or worse that they are basically Uncle Toms.
I wonder then how these sordid types would react to the likes of Paul Gilroy or A.Sivanandan? How about Anthony Appiah? Edward Said (the author of Orientalism for goodness sake!)? Or Kenan Malik? All of whom are non-whites, most of whom are extremely critical of racism in Western societies and Western imperialism too but who have also criticized identity politics. Are they just regurgitating a white male chauvinist view of the world? I don’t like to do the whole “speaking as a [insert identity of choice]” as if it adds more weight to my opinions, but as a bisexual “man of color” I criticize identity politics not because I oppose the rights of marginalized groups, but because it is an impediment to these struggles of liberation.
What makes criticism of identity politics difficult, especially now in the age of Trump, is its often used as a dogwhistle from reactionaries to blame the gains of the 1960s liberation movements such as civil rights, feminism, and the emancipation of LGBT people for the rise of Trump and the alt-right. Therefore any criticism of what is perceived to be identity politics is axiomatically interpreted as an insidious attack on women and minorities and an opposition to their struggles for rights and equality.
However, what most critics of “identity politics,” whether conservative or liberal often conflate are two things: a narrow & essentialist way of viewing human societies, defining and assessing them solely through the prism of identity, and social justice movements combating specific forms of oppression against particular groups - racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigrant xenophobia etc.
So Black people protesting police brutality and the systemic injustice and the economic hardships they face is not “identity politics.” Women using #MeToo to raise awareness about sexual harassment & the multiple forms of sexual oppression they face is not “identity politics.” LGBT people struggling for their emancipation is not “identity politics”. This is in fact a politics of liberation, of inclusion; of consistent democracy; of affirming the universal birthright of all human beings (not just white heterosexual males ) to equality and freedom than it is a politics of separatism or exclusivism.
The great British-Sri Lankan socialist and anti-racist activist and thinker Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote in an essay called “All That Melts is Solid”:
“Any struggles of the oppressed, be it blacks or women, which are only for themselves and then not for the least of them, the most deprived, the most exploited of them, are inevitably self-serving and narrow and unable to enlarge the human condition…The question for me is: what is it in the black and Third world experience, in the experience of the oppressed and the exploited, that gives one the imagination to see other oppression and the will to fight for a better society for all, a more equal, just free society, a socialist society?”
The lesson we ought to learn is that we should not fetishize our experiences of oppression, as if “we” are the world’s greatest victims and no other people can claim that title like us. To echo James Baldwin anyone who has read history knows this kind of narcissism is false. Instead we should use these experiences of oppression and injustice to develop humanist and universalist routes in the struggle for liberation, not essentialized and parochial ones. It is not a good idea to keep people trapped in provincial silos and intellectual ghettos, we must always be aware of the bigger picture and how all our struggles are intimately connected. We should get out of our lanes not stay in them. It is necessary, dare I say possible, to oppose racial & gender based oppression and class exploitation. The necessary conversations we need to have around race, gender & class should be both/and not either/or. Too often conversation is shut down on whatever part of this equation because people are uncomfortable in having their prejudice and bias challenged.
So no, not all politics is identity politics and not all politics has to be identity politics. Universalism doesn’t have to be a cover for white ethnocentrism and solidarity doesn’t have to be defined in ethnic & religious terms. Universalism can be just that, universal, inclusive of all peoples and solidarity should be across color lines, not along them.
The challenge before us is to articulate a universalist politics that is truly inclusive and multi-dimensional, that goes beyond black and white, yet takes the specific struggles of marginalized groups seriously. Because as Frantz Fanon argued: You get into the universal through the particular. Univeralism can only be actualized through concrete political and social struggles based on solidarity, not as a distant abstract idea that has a little relevance to the real issues people face every day.
The personal is meaningless without understanding the political and you only enrich ones understanding of the universal through the struggles of the particular. If we are serious about social transformation then struggles of racial, gender and economic justice must be attached to a holistic analysis of international political economy. Without this you get nowhere and we are proverbially stuck in our ghettos again.
In other words, we need a difficult politics, a very difficult politics. It is much easier said than done. But remember this, comrades, we can do both/and not either/or.
© Areo Magazine
This article was originally published by Areo Magazine.
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Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer who writes on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.