Looking at identity politics critically

Graphic by Alan Li

Identities are essential, as they are one’s sense of self. Identity politics, however, have a far murkier history. Identity politics are  political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.

Identity politics includes the ways in which people’s politics are shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations.  

Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class or caste, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, generation, occupation, profession, race, political party affiliation, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation and veteran status.

People who belong to multiple groups are often the ones who are most affected by their respective policies.

Identity politics began to be a political tour-de-force during the Civil Rights Movement, where they were used to mobilize people to fight for much-needed changes to legislation that were meant to end segregationist policies, ensuring that people of all races and ethnicities could have an opportunity to succeed. It is important to remember these proud beginnings, especially now, in an era where identity politics as a concept has become somewhat synonymous with both divisive policies and factionalism. 

These movements succeed because they understand how powerful identities can be. However, this power has not always been harnessed in positive ways – with positive aims. One needs to look no further than the recent events in American politics, including and following the election, to see this phenomenon firsthand.

For better or for worse, identity politics are unlikely to go away any time in the near future. Trump is fanning the flames of these issues in the United States, which ensures that it stays on everyone’s minds, at least subconsciously.

This divisive use of identity politics is far from uncommon; it existed as a reaction to the Civil Rights movement and it persists to this day. This dark side to identity politics does the opposite of what the concept intends – it separates groups of people from one another, as opposed to finding a common ground through  which people can come together.

Intentional or not, this divisive side to identity politics is something that cannot be ignored; either in discussions of the concept or in debates about it’s practice. It is crucial  to acknowledge the “othering” element; the fact that creating identity-based groups means that some people will be “in” and others will be “out” – for the same arbitrary reasons that the Civil Rights Movement fought to remove.  

For better or for worse, identity politics are unlikely to go away any time in the near future. Trump is fanning the flames of these issues in the United States, which ensures that it stays on everyone’s minds, at least subconsciously.

Another reason we likely won’t see a reduction is the increase in diagnoses, labels and other terminology – meant to describe certain situations or conditions that people experience – making their way into the mainstream lexicon.  

As these terms become more and more common they will begin to develop their own sets of identity politics to surround them, if they have not already.  

This could have positive effects: drawing attention to these issues, raising needed funds and resources, increasing societal acceptance, etc.  

But they could also have seriously alienating effects as people struggle to relate to those who aren’t “like them” in that they do not share the same intersections of identities.

How this increase in labels impacts our future is something that we have the power to determine. We can exercise our power by choosing to respond to these political maneuvers in a way that recognizes the original aim – bringing people together in solidarity. 

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