Toxic Appropriation of Identity Politics


People usually discuss versions of politics in fairly binaristic terms. People describe themselves as ascribing to a particular politic as though it were a static state. Yet, a person acts with different politics at any given moment. As Professor Ibram X. Kendi explained in his talk at Bates entitled “How to Be an Antiracist,” antiracist actions happen from instant to instant. Though it may appear unlikely according to conventional wisdom, one person can take an antiracist action in one second and then only moments later commit a racist one. This phenomenon with antiracism, a particular ideology (although hopefully not a controversial one), represents the fluidity of ideologies in general. People hardly act with a singular ideology uniformly.

Broadly, politics describe the way in which people distribute, maintain, and gain power, an admittedly vague term. Different versions of politics explain varieties of theories of how to effectively access power and for what purpose. A rather common political distinction would be between leftist and conservative politics. Yet, this characterization often seems overly simplistic. Black nationalist and white feminist politics, though both “left,” have largely oppositional belief sets. Yet, the greater points of tension are often between groups of people with less visibly divergent politics. Though people regularly envision the LGBTQIA+ as a big family that all gets along, queer politics often serves as a corrective for the failings of gay politics. And still, even radical queer politics historically and to this day center on white queerness.

This framing may be a tad disingenuous. Differing politics often behaves in an imperceptibly small way completely distinct from broad categories. I only use these broad categories to demonstrate a point. Many of the politics I have described have a clear connection to identity politics.

Identity politics is an incredibly loaded term. The word does not have a common agreed meaning. When I use the word I refer to the unique knowledge of living with a particular salient identity and how linked and connected identities informs accessing, maintaining, and theorizing power. In my view, confusion surrounds identity politics because it describes a theory that comes to fruition within many other specific forms of politics.

Most political organizing relies upon forging coalitions based upon similar belief sets. People do this by developing sympathy or empathy along the lines of shared experience. Since many people of particular identity groups possess some level of shared experience, identity politics often readily bridges this gap.

Many critique this theory of value as inviting of essentialism. Essentialism is a term that means describing certain features as essential for belonging. “Gay people are promiscuous” is an example of essentialism. Similarly, this theory has been historically critiqued as not intersectional as it often gets applied to one or two salient identity groups at a time. Intersectionality, a term first explicitly invoked by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes multiple layers of identity as not additive but complicating. Historically, white women activists have described the experiences of Black women as the problem of women added with the problems of Black people. This conception paternalistically disregards how these identities interact with one another. Another criticism levied against identity politics is it reifies socially constructed identity groups. To this point, it tokenizes people as if they are exclusively defined by these identities.

But all of these criticisms disregard the fact political theories never happen in a vacuum. People make decisions not exclusively rooted in identity politics or any other specific form of politic. Right-wing news organizations will often deploy theories of identity politics by bringing a Black commentator to espouse ideas rooted in anti-Blackness.

More readily, at Bates College, many arguments about racial equity in institutional spaces hypocritically level identity politics. Many will not respect the knowledge associated when mass amounts of people of color coalesce to protest a policy that preserves white-centricity. Yet these same people will delegitmize the broad coalition on the basis of the opinions of a singular person of color who disagrees.

Though it is often hard to recognize when it is done, it remains incredibly important to not use political theories in a way of cyclic confirmation bias and of oppressive consequences.


  • eggpoacher

    The roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution
    continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

    The best summary of the evidence is found in the early chapters of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance.” We’re not talking about another 20 years before the purely environmental position is discredited, but probably less than a decade.
    What happens when a linchpin of political correctness becomes scientifically untenable?

    The PC problem facing us down the road is the increasing rate at which the technical literature reports new links between specific genes and specific traits. Soon there will be dozens, then hundreds, of such links being reported each year. The findings will be
    tentative and often disputed—a case in point is the so-called warrior gene that encodes monoamine oxidase A and may encourage aggression. But so far it has been the norm, not the exception, that variations in these genes show large differences across races. We don’t yet know what the genetically significant racial differences will turn out to be, but we have to expect that they will be
    many. It is unhelpful for social scientists and the media to continue to proclaim that “race is a social construct” in the face of this
    looming rendezvous with reality.

Copyright (C) 2016 The Bates Student