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.


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