This Monday, former Daily Show correspondent and current Full Frontal host and firebrand Samantha Bee addressed the recent backlash among both Democrats and Republicans against what has come to be known as “identity politics.” For those unfamiliar with the term, “identity politics” is a dismissive and euphemistic way to address a political agenda that emphasizes and values the identities of non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cisgender voters. As Bee explains, it’s little more than a term that allows white males to denounce political agendas that focus heavily on civil rights advances without appearing to be bigots.
It’s a dangerously effective and bipartisan as well, intellectualizing and pragmatizing one’s own aversion to being pushed to the outskirts of the political conversation, claiming that this aversion has little to do with one’s own sensitivity to being denied the privilege one is used to and everything to do with the preservation of a formidable political coalition. More or less, it’s the smarmy pseudo-intellectual sibling of complaining about black Americans making everything about race, employing transparently condescending rhetoric about fighting division and coming together as one body, where that one body is organized around the agenda and the voice with which its white wranglers are most comfortable.
The “dangers” of “identity politics” are not a new focus of white male liberalism, even if they are currently attaining some intense popularity. As Matt Yglesias at Vox explains:
For as long as I can remember, white male left-of-center intellectuals have made opposition to ‘identity politics’ a core part of their identity. When the Democratic Party wins some elections, this opposition usually takes the form of dark warnings that ‘identity politics’ constitutes a form of creeping totalitarianism, whereas when the Democratic Party loses an election, it takes the form of a dark warning that identity-based appeals are the cause of the loss.
This is exactly what is currently happening, with everyone from Bernie Sanders to Steve Doocy imploring Americans to please look at the concerns of cishet white men for once, and to stop it with all this diversity mumbo-jumbo that makes white male voters feel as though they are no longer the number one priority in our governmental programs.
There is perhaps no more prominent or egregious an example of this than Mark Lilla’s―a history professor at Columbia University―essay published in The New York Times ten days after the election, entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” For nearly 2000 words, Lilla drones on about how the urge to “‘celebrate’ our differences” is “a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.”
Lest he come off as totally unempathetic, Lilla makes sure to toss out some patronizing concessions to the work of minority groups in America, like how “Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience” (he is not so kind to explain as to how he reconciles this with the nation’s refusal to institute any of the police reform the BLM movement has called for, though I’m sure the families of the black Americans murdered by law enforcement will be able to find some measure of peace in the generosity of Mark Lilla’s shoutout), or how “Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life” (no word on whether Mike Pence has seen any of Brokeback Mountain yet, but I’m quite certain that will be the end of all of that conversion therapy nonsense). Then, having solved bigotry once and for all, Lilla is able to get to the more important business of telling its victims to be quiet so he can hear himself think (what are, no doubt, great white thoughts).
If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you are welcome to slog through the whole piece. I do not recommend it. It’s a case study in the sort of medium rare intolerance apologism that constitutes most opposition to “identity politics:” the tired and grotesquely self-congratulatory notion that we’ve put an end to all the social strife we can, so let’s move along, already. This sort of excuse-making is rooted in the delusion that equal respect and legal protection is the majority’s to dole out as it suits them; that quality of life is a white male resource that may be distributed when there isn’t anything more pressing to deal with, because the white male agenda is that which should be prized most highly. Rather than come out and say this, however, those who make opposition to “identity politics” their bread and butter would rather cower behind intellectual battlements, explaining that they’re just concerned about being practical and strategic, even as history has shown a stark refusal to make or keep any real transformative promises when it comes to protection and empowerment of minorities.
Back at Vox, Matt Yglesias concedes the point that in a majority white nation, white votes are indeed necessary to elect a candidate or to further a political agenda. The idea, however, that these votes can only be gained through explicit focus on white-centric concerns (often reframed as universal concerns) is appalling to me―a self-fulfilling prophecy that rewards the inability of what Americans to express genuine active compassion for people of color. Certainly, few would vote for a platform that transparently rebuts their interests (even though our increasingly aggressive condemnation of “identity politics” amounts to demanding that minority groups do just this), but the notion that we should keep having to reframe equality so that it appeals to the sensibilities and desires of the majority is absurd. Furthermore, by embedding this assumption in our political rhetoric it makes it less likely for white males to accept a platform that does not make a pitch specifically for them, since they have been consistently told that 1. They are entitled to that pitch; and 2. They would be unwise to not expect it.
Ironically, decades (if not centuries) of political rhetoric opposing “identity politics” is a far more potent cause for the rise of Donald Trump then sixty years of rhetoric occasionally endorsing it. The sort of dog-whistling that Lilla makes a point to show off in his article is part of a rhetorical legacy that minimizes the evils of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and ableism; and that rewards looking the other way in their presence. By framing a political platform predicated on the uncompromising fight for equality as foolhardy or divisive, white men tacitly demean that fight itself, and provide bigots with further ammunition to dismiss the real concerns of their victims. Such a cultural approach reinforces narratives about minority citizens demanding their basic rights as obnoxious, ungrateful, selfish, and manipulative. By making the fight for equality seem petty and divisive, one empowers those Americans who, not only don’t make it the focal point of their ideology, but actively oppose it.
That equality and justice should be dividing goals is inextricably linked to the notion of privilege: that the American social, cultural, and political experience has always worked hardest to appease cishet white men, and that, when that shifts even slightly, those white men feel as though they are being robbed of something they are entitled to. It’s a notion that is also deeply rooted in the way white men have historically oppressed minority groups in America: divide and conquer. By attempting to pit minorities against one another, white men helped sow their own institutional hatreds even deeper by suggesting that one oppressed group might gain favor by falling in line with the majority bias against another. The concept of diversity that many Americans have been left with, as a result of this gleeful division, is of many identities that are ultimately disparate, self-contained, individual, and irreconcilable. That is to say, you are defined by one identity―be it gender, sexuality, race, gender identity, physical or mental ability, economic status, religion―and that is the identity around which all your interests orbit. It’s a ridiculous conception of personal and social definition, and one we rarely ever apply to an individual who occupies several majority identities. The falseness of this view has continued to persist, however: filling American political and social rhetoric with erroneous and dishonest notions about how we identify ourselves and others. Luckily, there’s an antidote to this enforced misconception and (I believe) to the ugly manipulations of how many try to discredit the theory of “identity politics.” It’s called intersectionality. Perhaps, you’ve heard of it.
Now, many might assume that the notion of intersectionality is new, a result of the increased focus on theories of social justice in the past five years. That would actually be incorrect.
The term was coined by civil rights activist and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. As a theory, intersectionality contends with the idea of intersecting social and cultural identities, and the ways that modes of discrimination against these different identities intersect and, often, feed off and support one another.
Most recently, the theory has become popular through the notion of “intersectional feminism,” which seeks to address the racist, transphobic, homophobic, classist, and ableist forces that have long gone unquestioned in mainstream feminism. Intersectional feminists concern themselves with the ways anti-blackness can deepen misogyny, and how whiteness or economic privilege can often convince someone they are insulated from institutional sexism.
The theory is not just restricted to feminism, however. Ideas of toxic whiteness and toxic masculinity have long been an issue within queer communities. With the rise of groups like Gays for Trump, and the Right’s shameless manipulation of the June shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando as a way to mobilize white gay men around an Islamophobic agenda, the mission of questioning dangerous markers of white supremacy (such as the fetishization or devaluation of bodies of color) in queer spaces is more urgent than ever.
What does this have to do with “identity politics?” Everything. If the primary (stated) opposition to “identity politics” is that it’s inherently divisional, and that making space for minority voices only serves to deepen gulfs between various groups in America, intersectionality argues that opposite. By positing a society of overlapping identities, intersectionality reminds us that discussing the needs of various groups in our nation is not about reducing people to demographics and then trying to measure their inherent political power. Rather, it argues that the conversations often written off as “identity politics,” “pandering,” “tokenism,” or (God forbid) “reverse racism” and “misandry” are about honoring and making space for experiences that American politics have long seen as, at best, unimportant and, at worst, short term social fads. It undercuts the notion that by talking about a black experience, or a latino experience, or a trans experience, or a queer experience, or a disabled experience, we are somehow being anti-democratic. It pokes necessary holes in the ridiculous idea that a nation truly by and for the People can be comprised of anything but “identity politics.” It is no surprise that white Americans from both parties have begun discussing the pragmatism or leaving minorities (especially people of color) out to dry, after an election that, if won, would have been done so by them. It’s unfortunate, too, that so many “liberals” have begun creating these false dichotomies between the wise and the benevolent.
Make no mistake, the rhetoric on display is neither. The only uniting feature of the anti-”identity politics” hubbub is its preternatural ability to bring together as one both the selfish and the stupid.