The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.
Our identity is a story we tell ourselves everyday. It is a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we are different. Each of us, as social beings in a time and place, evolves a personal and social identity that shapes our sense of self, loyalties, and obligations. Our identity includes aspects that are freely chosen, accidental, or thrust upon us by others.
Take an example. A woman may simultaneously identify as Indian, middle-class, feminist, doctor, Dalit, Telugu, lesbian, liberal, badminton player, music lover, traveler, humanist, and Muslim. Her self-identifications may also include being short-tempered, celibate, dark-skinned, ethical vegetarian, and diabetic. No doubt some of these will be more significant to her but all of them (and more) make her who she is. Like all of our identities, hers too is fluid, relational, and contextual. So while she never saw herself as a ‘Brown’ or ‘person of color’ in India, she had to reckon with that identity in America.
Identity politics, on the other hand, is politics that an individual—an identitarian—wages on behalf of a group that usually shares an aspect of one’s identity, say, gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, religion, type of work, or national origin. Any group—majority or minority, strong or weak, light or dark-skinned—can pursue identity politics. It can be a dominant group led by cultural insecurities and chauvinism, or a marginalized group led by a shared experience of bigotry and injustice (the focus of this essay). Both German Nazism and the American Civil Rights movement exemplify identity politics based on the racial identity of their constituent groups, as do the white nationalism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Both Hindutvadis and Dalits are identitarians of religion and caste, respectively. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in his essay Identity Politics and the Left, labor unions, too, have long pursued identity politics based on social class and the identity of being an industrial worker.
Life, and identity politics, can amplify certain aspects of our identity while suppressing others. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers elevated Tamil national identity over that of caste. Gender identity turns secondary in some contexts: Indian women often close ranks with Indian men when White Westerners lecture them on sexual violence in India. Likewise, Dalit women often close ranks with Dalit men when upper-caste women expound on gender violence among them. Especially after September 11, 2001, many European citizens and residents with complex ethno-linguistic roots faced a world hell-bent on seeing them as, above all, ‘Muslims’.
The Value of Identity Politics
Like all politics, identity politics too can be regressive or progressive, depending on its aims and methods. All social groups, whether dominant or marginalized, practice identity politics, but the term is now largely associated with groups that have been marginalized for an aspect of their identity (more on this sleight of hand later but in this essay too, for the sake of readability, I’ll use the unqualified term ‘identity politics’ to refer to the marginalized).
That identity politics emphasizes one aspect of a person’s identity above all others—and explains much about her life in terms of that identity—is a source of both strength and weakness. Especially for those marginalized by a single aspect of one’s identity—whether race, caste, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, or another basis of discrimination—identity politics can empower both the individual and her group. It can challenge deeply ingrained habits of mind and weaken structural hegemonies. Its focused advocacy can help transform both popular opinion and bring about legislative reform, as with the granting of equal inheritance rights to women in India (2005) and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. (2015). It can enrich democratic debate, help equalize opportunities, and awaken us to the value of diversity in public life. Identitarians have produced compelling new readings of our past and our literature and culture. They have given us new moral visions and greater self-knowledge.
For example, during the U.S. Civil Rights era, the assertion of Black identity and pride helped a historically oppressed people to organize and reclaim self-respect, raise their own and the public’s consciousness, push for equal rights, and combat various social barriers and exclusions. In doing so, many Black identitarians, notably Martin Luther King Jr., also civilized White Americans, emancipating them from their own prison of inhumanity—a point rarely acknowledged. Much the same is true in India with many caste identitarians, notably BR Ambedkar. What still strikes us about them is the moral force and persuasiveness of their politics of identity, rooted in demands for equal human dignity and civil rights. Likewise, it was the politics of gender, raised by feminists, that brought about so many gains for women. In the former colonies of the West, the rise of nationalism—and a national identity—mobilized diverse groups behind the cause of ending colonization, though this same once-empowering politics of identity sadly later turned into a toxic majoritarianism in so many countries.
Indeed, if men or Whites or Brahmins or heterosexuals have long used whatever power and knowledge was tied to their identity in order to define, judge, and subjugate others (is this not identity politics?), can the latter fight back without politicizing those definitions, judgments, and subjugations? As long as socially constructed race remains a vector of discrimination, would it not also remain a source of social identity, around which people organize to reclaim their dignity and rights? If racism did not exist, would we still have our modern idea of race—or the identitarians’ preoccupation with it?
Perhaps the most prominent movement for rights, equality, and other progressive change in the modern era has emerged from the political Left, from those who identify with various strands of Marxism and socialism. Yet a great many of these leftists now complain about the rise of seemingly progressive identity politics of race, caste, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and others. In large part this may be because leftists see these movements as divisive and threatening the solidarities of class, especially among workers as workers.
Ironically, among the factors that explain the rise of these movements is the Left itself. Marxism, like the monotheistic faith of its cultural ancestors, aspires to a universalism representing everyone. But theory is one thing, reality another. In reality, most leftists, being humans, did not care about every group equally. Consider the Left in America and India. The American Left was led by White men who were neither too ruffled by racism, nor accorded it the centrality it deserved in their social analysis, and conveniently remained blind to their own privilege. The Indian Left was similarly blind to the reality of caste; was it a coincidence that its leadership was entirely upper-caste (and is still largely so)? Marxist-socialists in both countries, for all their economic radicalism, didn’t even pursue voluntary affirmative action to include marginalized groups in their leadership ranks. ‘There hasn’t been a single Dalit in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo since its formation in 1964.’ Despite Dalits constituting 22 percent of the population of West Bengal (2011 census), its Chief Minister from 1977-2000, Jyoti Basu of CPI(M), told the Mandal Commission that he knew of only two castes in West Bengal: rich and poor. Older Indian Marxists meanwhile recall that Brahmins and Dalits in their organizations maintained separate pitchers of water.
Clearly, the Left failed to recognize that the very real divisions among workers, such as of race and caste, were a major obstacle to working-class solidarity; the identity of being ‘a worker’ may have been the most common but it wasn’t necessarily the most important and could easily be trumped by other identities that also shaped one’s material realities. When leftists chide identity politics, they reveal their poor grasp of the human material—especially of the fact that humans are not rational beings, that even card-carrying comrades cannot easily transcend many aspects of their social identity and ties of blood, kinship, and culture. Even the big stars of the Left, including Hobsbawm, failed to see this reality and maintained a stodgy opposition to identity politics in the name of an idealized, universal politics of the Left. This ‘universal’ focus of the Left helped drive various groups, whose particular concerns they had glossed over, to organize for themselves.
In other words, identity politics is an expression of a human need for justice, a need largely unaddressed, and perhaps unaddressable, by traditional Marxist-socialists. The Left in India and the U.S. will likely remain small, unless it learns and becomes more inclusive in its leadership and concerns (parts of the Indian Left could also increase their relevance by abandoning their doctrinaire aversion to capitalism and promoting a ‘welfare capitalism’ that harnesses the power of markets to raise living standards with strong regulatory oversight and redistribution to reduce economic inequality). The Left needs to accept that economic class is not the only arena of injustice, that declining wages aren’t necessarily more worrisome than rising racial discrimination, sexual violence, or religious persecution. As Ambedkar wrote about the ‘untouchables’, ‘The want and poverty which has been their lot is nothing to them as compared to the insult and indignity which they have to bear as a result of the vicious social order.’
Indeed, the origins of identity politics lie in oppressive social beliefs and practices that may overlap with but are not subsumed under a class conflict conceived in economic terms. Any politics that doesn’t target such social beliefs and practices, focusing instead on ‘the common good’, may end up perpetuating them. Identity politics, above all, enables a persecuted people or group to champion their own cause, which no one else will do. Rather than disdain particularist struggles as a burden, the Marxist-socialist Left would do well to recognize in them our collective emancipation. As citizens, we ought to embrace identity politics when it is both progressive and pragmatic. Rejecting everything about identity politics makes no more sense than rejecting everything about politics.
Even the charge of essentialism, invoked by critics to malign identity politics, is vastly overblown and a straw man. Essentialism is the idea that certain people have a primary social identity that derives from an innate and immutable essence within them. But how many identitarians actually believe this? Do many feminists accept gender essentialism as explanation for why women pursue science less often than men or earn less than men? Do many Black rights activists see their primary identity or their community’s socioeconomic outcomes as rooted in biological difference? Isn’t identity politics largely driven by shared and contingent social experiences? Isn’t that why their narratives have much explanatory power and emancipatory potential in a given time and place? Caste is entirely a social construct, Ambedkar held, yet he cited its reality to persuasively explain a host of social phenomenon, including people’s outcomes in life. Rejecting the charge of essentialism, bell hooks called us to recognize that ‘black identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile and struggle.’
Moreover, unlike the identity politics of dominant groups, that of marginalized groups arguably dissipates with rising parity. As marginalized groups emerge into the mainstream as significant equals with other groups, the appeal of identity politics to their younger generations also changes. Of course, as with all public politics, identity politics is not without its problems, but I think these problems are not so much of essentialism. To recognize its limitations and excesses, we ought to at least hear some of the better criticisms of it.
The Limitations and Excesses of Identity Politics
It’s much easier for social liberals like me to criticize the partisan identity politics of dominant groups (Sinhalese, Hindutvadi, KKK, Zionist) than of marginalized groups (feminist, Black, Dalit, Palestinian). This is partly because the former are widely seen as natural targets in my circle, but perhaps also due to liberal guilt, which has its positive side even as it can, at times, cloud reason, clarity, and good judgment. But no public politics, however well-meaning, ought to be beyond criticism, so why should the identity politics of marginalized groups get a free pass? Most liberals will agree that even such identity politics can sometimes lose its marbles and begin to eat its own tail, though they may disagree on when and how often this happens.
Many critics argue that identity politics, by focusing on only one aspect of identity, ignores too many key differences and similarities among people. ‘To see a person primarily as a "white male" or a "black female"’, one critic writes, ‘is to diminish both their humanity and their individuality.’ Some consider this an aspect of essentialism and object to its disciplinary function in dictating how members of a group ought to see themselves. Feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has however called this ‘strategic essentialism’, where identitarians ‘act as if an identity were uniform only to achieve interim political goals, without implying any deeper authenticity.’ But it often doesn’t work out like that. Identitarians, with their own narrow lens of social analysis, often end up oversimplifying the categories of oppressor and oppressed, privileged and unprivileged, and avoid nuances and shades of grey. Ethnic identitarians forget what they have in common with their neighbors; gender identitarians downplay class and caste divisions among women; class identitarians fail to see race and caste divides among workers; caste identitarians overlook the oppressive hierarchy within Dalit Bahujans. And so even the revisionist histories written by identitarians, though valuable for many of their insights, may not be much better than the mainstream one, since they exaggerate the impact of a single aspect of social life, whether economics, gender, caste, race, or religion.
Indeed, critics claim that despite their advocacy and concern for social justice, identitarians too remain impervious to many kinds of pain and progress around them. What they see is largely along the lines of the identity and ideology they subscribe to. There’s often hypocrisy in their reluctance to look within for discriminatory habits of mind similar to those of their rivals. Male identitarians of race and caste, for instance, have a poor record of addressing patriarchy in their midst. Indeed, their equanimity towards injustices in other domains—of class, gender, sexuality, environment, animal welfare, and more—usually fails to distinguish them from their rivals.
Furthermore, progressive identitarians usually focus on parity between groups, which is not the same as an egalitarian society, as Adolph Reed Jr., professor of political science, has pointed out. They seek proportional representation for their group in existing power structures (say, via positive discrimination, or voting based on identity). This may help make social institutions more representative of a society’s demographics, but it often also means not agitating for a more egalitarian society for all. So in a highly unequal society where, say, 5 percent control 90 percent of the resources, having the right proportion of Blacks, Latinos, or women in the 5 percent becomes the primary goal and yardstick of fairness for many identitarians (usually those who’re new to, or aspiring to, this 5 percent). This, Reed suggests, comes at the expense of joining hands with others to reform the system itself, one that is now producing inequality on an ever-larger scale.
Identitarians of race, for instance, mostly employ a racialist frame to explain the plight of African-Americans, and insist on race-based affirmative action to address historical injuries and current racism. In doing so, Reed argues, they often sacrifice solidarities of class and strengthen neoliberalism, making it harder to secure even those class-based redistributive policies—higher minimum wage, more safety nets, and public spending on job creation, healthcare, environment, and higher education, etc.—that would help a wide cross-section of African-Americans (along with poor Whites and Latinos). An obvious response to Reed—a leftist to whom ‘class’ seems to be the only meaningful social category for analyzing inequality—is that these two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and identitarians, despite their adversarial rhetoric, do in fact make pragmatic compromises. Reed’s point, however, is still worthy of reflection since the two camps often pursue their agendas in ways that impede progress for the other.
Indeed, some critics, including Reed and Marxist scholar and sociologist Vivek Chibber, see this conflict rooted in the very sociology of today’s social justice movements, many of which, they posit, have been captured by upwardly mobile, urban middle-class identitarians. These identitarians disdain Left politics not only for its failures in fighting, but for also practicing biases of race, caste, or gender. However, they unwittingly elevate the interests of their own class within their identity groups, and see prejudices of race, caste, or gender animating nearly every problem faced by the members of their identity groups. In other words, the accusation goes, these middle-class identitarians do not necessarily represent the interests of the less privileged members of their identity groups—wage laborers, small peasants, rural migrants to urban slums, and so on—whose interests often have more in common with the traditional concerns of the Left, such as minimum wage, labor unions, workplace safety, land reform, food security, minimum support price for crops, equal pay for equal work, minority rights, access to micro finance, clean water, primary healthcare and education, clean cooking fuel, and social security. Nor does this class of identitarians agitate much about issues of environmental degradation and injustice, whose victims especially abound in their identity groups. This has parallels in the feminist movement, which does not ably speak for all women. White feminists in the U.S., the most vocal subgroup among feminists, submerge or sell out the concerns of women of color. Much the same is true with upper-caste feminists, who are unable or unwilling to represent the concerns of marginalized Dalit women.
It is one thing to criticize various leftist organizations for their blind spots and failures. Leftist critics however allege that rather than building a better Left or forging alliances, middle-class identitarians are unable or unwilling to see the baby in the leftist bathwater; in effect, their politics is frequently anti-Left and pro-neoliberal. They prefer politicians and intellectuals of their own identity groups who push for socioeconomic justice through affirmative action, mainly in public-sector jobs and college admissions, which disproportionately benefit their own class. In India, for instance, middle-class identitarians are most concerned with caste-based reservations in jobs that currently reach less than 1 percent of Indians when nearly 70 percent are theoretically eligible, and in college admissions that’s currently reaching less than 4 of this 70 percent. Even counting second-order beneficiaries (e.g., their families), the percentage benefited is small—and it is not the worst-off segment. The oppressive social order, in effect, perpetuates itself by throwing sops to a small but vocal middle-class among the marginalized. One could call this a trickle-down model of social justice. Chibber has argued that ‘the Dalit movement, like identity movements across the world, has really narrowed its focus to forms of oppressions that are very real, but which still constitute only a small subset of the oppressions that the Dalits face.’
Critics also lament identitarian solidarity based solely on group membership, especially when solidarity trumps even evidence of public corruption, incompetence or ethical and legal wrongdoing by that group’s privileged members. Take the case of Devyani Khobragade, a Dalit and Deputy Consul General of India in the New York consulate. Her arrest and strip-search for visa fraud and violation of U.S. labor laws in Manhattan in early 2014 caused a major diplomatic row. Curiously, identitarians of both caste and nation rallied behind her in India—and not behind the Indian maid she had allegedly abused.
Meanwhile the same caste identitarians often inflate the ‘sins’ of even sympathetic allies in the rival group. Many jumped on an ill-worded, out-of-context remark by Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, which I attended. It was a provocative remark but one that I thought was closer to intellectually ‘provocative speech that forces you to think’ rather than ‘provocative speech that is intended to hurt, denigrate’ or incite violence. But it did offend some people, who, in a lapse of judiciousness, demanded Nandy’s arrest under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, never pausing to think that such objectionable speech is best tackled by more speech, not a ban or jail by the State. The right to free expression, including the right to offend, is not just good for the elites. It is at the heart of what makes a liberal democratic order. This right, with as few exceptions as possible (for speech that incites direct violence, for instance), needs defending even by identitarians, for it is also a precondition for their own social justice activism. P. Sivakami, Dalit author and activist, made precisely this point in defending free speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2016.
Then there is what Tim Lott recently called ‘assumption creep’, wherein identitarians assume ‘that if you believe one thing you probably believe another thing, which you are hiding’. So an upper-caste man who praises yoga or Advaita may be seen as endorsing all of Hinduism, including caste. Ethical objections to the non-essential raising of animals for meat may be seen as a covert defense of Brahminism. Finding anything admirable in Gandhi is to make suspect one’s commitment to social justice for Dalits. To say that caste and race prejudices have declined in recent decades (which also acknowledges the hard work of many before us) may be understood to mean that all is well now and no more work is needed. To praise any aspect of Narendra Modi’s regime may be seen as being soft on Hindutva. To wonder aloud if biology (the capacity and experience of childbirth, for instance) makes men and women somewhat different might signal to some that one also discounts the flexibility of gender roles.
Additionally, many identitarians are seen as extrapolating an objectionable part to the whole: the fact of caste damns all of Hinduism, including the entire diversity of beliefs and practices that people and historians associate with that label; Nandy’s clumsy remark in Jaipur means a rejection of his entire scholarship by people who have not read him; all of Heidegger is verboten due to his early intellectual flirtation with the Nazis. This is akin to certain Leftists who see corporations and globalization as almost entirely evil. Then there is the matter of erasing distinctions between lesser and greater evils, of ignoring nuance when convenient. Take an example. It is a truism that unearned (or inherited) privileges increase one’s blindness towards (a) the systemic obstacles others face in life and (b) the social institutions that perpetuate those privileges. But identitarians often collapse the distinction between prejudices born of such unthinking complacency and the more deliberate forms of racism, casteism, or sexism (conflating, say, those who swear by the ideal of being caste-blind in a caste-ridden society with those who plainly see members of their caste as superior to others by birth). Of course, to some extent such extrapolating and conflating tendencies exist in all of us, but the above are all examples of how they can cause identity politics to go haywire, or to at least lose some of its moral allure.
Critics also allege that many identitarians deploy strong labels too readily. Their knee-jerk reaction to a disagreeable article or book is to declare it racist, sexist, casteist, fascist, or imperialist—often without reading it and while discarding the entire progressive record of its author or publisher. This may produce smug satisfaction but it soon gets tiresome and loses its rhetorical power. Indeed, many identitarians pursue the least charitable reading of their rivals and their condemnation is often permanent and collective (made easier by social media). Sanctimony rules as they habitually indulge in online tirades, argumentative jousting, and competitive displays of armchair radicalism. Much of it is performative, where individuals primly signal their own ‘pure’ politics. They implicitly assume that their rivals are incapable of a deeply felt and introspective yearning for social justice. Hyperbole multiplies; words like ‘violence’, ‘brutality’, and ‘atrocity’ are used to describe an ever-widening range of narratives and verbal slights. Facile accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ proliferate on college campuses and online forums, in an age so defined by hyper-globalization and intense cultural promiscuity.
In time, the lofty goal of hating bad ideas, not their espousers, gets diluted or lost. Outsider opinions and scholarship—unless they bow to in-group codes, symbols, and orthodoxies—are dismissed on identity grounds. The chimerical perfect is made the enemy of the incremental good. Relatively small intellectual differences lead to harsh labels and a severing of ties. Somewhere a critic wonders: Can this be anyone’s road to emancipation?
Such closed political orthodoxy breeds anxiety, self-censorship, and unreflective political correctness among their rivals—the kind that also raises the cost of calling a spade a spade—while fostering groupthink, cynicism, and separatism among identitarians. Cross-identity conversations trail off. It gets harder to respectfully agree to disagree, since the interlocuters one disagrees with are not also seen as complex individuals but largely as embodiments of narrow identities of privilege, with black and white moralities. For a critique to be heard by identitarians in this milieu, it often has to be authored by brave insiders—brave because it can cost them the comfort and solidarity of their group. Such insiders often succeed in unsettling dogmas, building alliances across identities, and helping advance social justice more effectively. One critic, Douglas Williams, writes:
‘Look, I am Black. Also, sometimes, I can be wrong. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, and yet we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed "sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist" and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle. And listen, maybe that is cool with some folks. Maybe the revolution that so many of these types speak about will simply consist of everyone spontaneously coming to consciousness and there will be no need for coalitions, give-and-take, or contact with people who do not know every word or phrase that these groups use as some sort of litmus test for the unwashed.’
Critics complain that identitarians’ hostile, scorched earth dismissal of their rivals, often laced with rage and sarcasm, creates a hypersensitive public space that inhibits discussion and debate—as well as learning and mutual understanding. Vitriolic responses even to interlocutors who speak more from ignorance than malice, or who make genuine errors in judgement, are sometimes paralleled only by the identitarians’ inability to accept even modest criticism of their own gods and heroes, the quickness of their claim to hurt sentiments, and an immoderate fear of appropriation of their movement by dominant elites and academics. All this may be understandable in light of history and human nature, but how laudable or helpful is it in advancing the larger cause of social justice?
A Rejoinder to the Critics
In response to such criticisms, identitarians might argue that their rivals have long been hostile to them and caused enormous damage already. Why should they play by the oppressors’ debating rules and decorum, or stoically educate them to notice the systemic exclusions they face at every step? Protecting the delicate feelings of the privileged can’t be more important than asserting equal rights and opportunities for discriminated groups. The time for niceties is past, they might say. Nothing short of hostile sarcasm and loud agitation will expose the blindness and hypocrisy of dominant elites and force open new spaces for marginalized groups.
And if Reed, Chibber, and others on the Left allege that middle-class identitarians focus only on ‘a small subset of the oppressions that the Dalits face’, is that not evidence that the Left still doesn’t get it? First, in complaining that reservations in public sector jobs benefit too few people, the Indian Left fails to see that the primary goal of such reservations is not mass employment but to ensure that a wider cross-section of people have a say in the governance of their nation. Second, the Indian Left even resents the emerging scholarship and activism from middle-class identitarians that has exposed the long collusion between Brahminical knowledge and power, opening compelling new vistas on India’s history and culture. Why doesn’t the Indian Left—as might appear to their rivals—recognize that these two developments can make life better for even the least fortunate members of marginalized groups? Finally, caste identitarians might call the allegation by the Left an oversimplification, arguing that they do in fact target a wide range of caste oppressions, that what they’d really like is a caste-sensitive Left, which largely remains an illusion.
As for cross-identity conversations, they won’t get any easier until many more members of dominant groups not only recognize the equal humanity of others but also use their inherited privileges to undo the very systems that grant and perpetuate such privileges. That the members of dominant groups—whose dominance was built and is sustained no less through identity politics—see problems with their rivals’ tactics is predictably partisan. They feel threatened, so they pick on parts of identity politics and complain as if the whole of it were worse than what it tries to combat. Identitarians no doubt see their own tactics as raising consciousness and courage among their own—a prerequisite for their personal growth and emancipation. As Martin Duberman, historian and gay rights activist, has explained,
‘Yet we hold on to a group identity, despite its insufficiencies, because for most non-mainstream people it’s the closest we have ever gotten to having a political home—and voice. Yes, identity politics reduces and simplifies. Yes, it is a kind of prison. But it is also, paradoxically, a haven. It is at once confining and empowering. And in the absence of alternative havens, group identity will for many of us continue to be the appropriate site of resistance and the main source of comfort.’
As for the sleight of hand that sees identity politics only in the politics of minorities—and puts the burden on them to curtail it in order to reduce the nation’s divisiveness and promote ‘the common good’, as we see in calls arising even from liberals and leftists in the U.S. after Donald Trump’s election—Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi offers this sharp reminder:
‘Now is the time to recalibrate the default assumptions of American political discourse. Identity politics is not the sole preserve of minority voters. This election is a reminder that identity politics in America is a white invention: it was the basis of segregation. The denial of civil rights to black Americans had at its core the idea that a black American should not be allowed to vote because that black American was not white. The endless questioning, before the election of Obama, about America’s ‘readiness’ for a black President was a reaction to white identity politics. Yet ‘identity politics’ has come to be associated with minorities, and often with a patronizing undercurrent, as though to refer to nonwhite people motivated by an irrational herd instinct. White Americans have practiced identity politics since the inception of America, but it is now laid bare, impossible to evade.’
Navigating Identity Politics
Some of the critiques above of identity politics of marginalized groups are more warranted than others, but no call for its dissolution is warranted. Rather, given the stakes, we should hope that it becomes more effective, that it moves away from its self-indulgent and illiberal manifestations—what we might call ‘instances of imperfect activism’. After all, some of the best impulses behind identity politics are animated by the quest for equal human dignity, opportunity, and civil rights, which deserves our unwavering support. A key challenge for left-liberal groups in both India and America is how to pursue a progressive politics of common cause while also addressing the genuine disadvantages of particular groups—without the latter, the unity required for the former will remain elusive too.
It’s worth noting here that I, too, inhabit a politics of identity that waxes and wanes based on context, such as to whom, about what, and where I’m speaking. Indeed, is it even possible for anyone to not partake in identity politics at all? Those inclined to say ‘yes’ likely practice the invisibilized or unmarked form of identity politics common among those of privilege and power (for instance, patriarchy may be so normalized that many men are unable to see their own politics of gender identity in their daily lives, and may pretend they are above it all). As American writer Matthew Yglesias has written, ‘The idea that gendered or ethnic claims are despoiling a liberalism of pure selves and neutral rationality is little more than an unselfconscious form of identity politics.’ It is the identity counterpart of that old Band-Aid commercial that long promoted its soft-pink colored product as ‘flesh-colored, almost invisible’.
I also realize that however much I want, I should not expect to be heard solely as a freethinker with an autonomous conscience and mind. Others will impose on me a social identity, whether I embrace it or not, and history will invade our interactions. Until the many past wrongs of groups against groups are redressed or forgotten, I will be seen as a member of a group with a certain history versus other groups—often of mutual suspicion, exploitation, or prejudice. It is part of the filter through which others will see me and try to interpret me. In different local and global contexts—say, between India and the United States—I will be placed on different rungs in the hierarchy of social beings.
Some members of dominant groups tend to quote people from marginalized groups as support for their own arguments. This in itself is not brave or noble, nor does it make their arguments more solid. That depends on the arguments themselves. The truth is that intellectuals in any group have a wide range of views, some of which we will find more judicious and pragmatic than others. Consider the views of women on women’s rights, Muslims on political Islam, Blacks on race in America (contrast WEB Du Bois with Booker T. Washington, MLK Jr. with Malcolm X, Adolph Reed Jr. with Ta-Nehisi Coates), and Dalits on caste (contrast Kanshi Ram with Jagjivan Ram on politics, Anand Teltumbe with Chandra Bhan Prasad on economics, Urmila Pawar with Ajay Navaria on the prudence of mass conversion to Buddhism, DR Nagaraj with many Ambedkarites on MK Gandhi and Indian modernity, and so on). Our lives are constrained by imperfect knowledge and subjective experience; no two humans are identically sensitized towards the many vectors of injustice in social life. Within every identitarian group too, individuals will differ on who, and to what degree, they see as the ‘enemy’ and what strategies and alliances make sense.
How then to navigate the turbulent waters of identity politics? The first step is to work on recognizing both its value and its excesses. This is best done by trying to see the world from the vantage point of others and listening carefully and humbly. But empathy is not enough; what is also needed is a critical sensibility informed by historical and statistical literacy—to help keep things in context, and to more judiciously assess the many injustices of the world and ways of addressing them. To see the lives of others more clearly, including of those more privileged than us, especially requires us to work on our blind spots, irrational fears, and prejudices, many of which are byproducts of group privileges, normative identities, and mental colonization. Prejudices are not just the overt kind that we—well-meaning progressive liberal folk—believe we no longer possess. They also lurk beneath our everyday awareness. It is in the nature of human socialization to imbue us with unconscious biases that hurt others and require conscious effort to undo. We may never be able to transcend all systemic biases within our social institutions—as new ones, so often, replace the old—but it is a mark of our humanity to not abandon this effort.
Alongside, it is also important to reflect on our own tendency to self-censor, to avoid challenging ‘our own side’. Poseurs and self-promoters surround us in every camp, each moved by his/her inner demons and drives. Who among any group, marginalized or not, deserves to speak for the whole is always an open question, to be best settled by each of us, not automatically by claims of identity. Social truths are subjective and contingent. As the Buddha advised, there is no better guide to making sense of our world than our own reason and compassion. We would also do well to realize that dismissing identity politics wholesale is part of the problem, not the solution.
This article has been updated since its first appearance on 3 Quarks Daily.
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